The other day we featured a piece titled The Passion And The Produce: New Covent Garden Market Strides Ahead In UK Wholesale — Markets Are The Unappreciated Underpinning Of Grower Prosperity and Urban Diversity which showcased the perspective of the merchants who toil each day on New Covent Garden Market. As is common in most of the world, the merchants don’t actually own the facility. In the UK that is a governmental authority. It is a landlord, but with special responsibilities under the law to promote the success of the market. With New Covent Garden celebrating the 40th Anniversary of its move to its present location and with it undertaking to sponsor the Opening Cocktail reception of The London Produce Show and Conference and thus greet the local and global trade as it gathers in London, we wanted to get the perspective of the Covent Garden Market Authority. We asked Pundit investigator and special projects editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Director of Business Development & Support
Covent Garden Market Authority
New Covent Garden Market, London
Q: What will attendees at the London Produce Show learn during the tour of the New Covent Garden Market? Why should they be inspired by the opportunity, and what do you hope they will take away from the experience?
A: Our starting point is very obviously that we’re very excited to be a part of the first London Produce Show, and we think it’s absolutely right that it should be in London. This is actually the 40th anniversary of our relocation from the original site of Covent Gardens to Nine Elms. I’ve been doing a troll of our archives. It would be true to say that 40 years ago, if you were thinking of food in a good way, you certainly wouldn’t be thinking about London.
Today, food, and the strength of the restaurant scene in London is such that it is a major driver for tourism. For the London economy, food and hospitality are absolutely critical. The New Covent Garden Market supplies 40 percent of the fresh produce going into that sector, covering restaurants, hotels, schools, hospitals, and work places, with the highest concentration of wholesale catering distributors in the country. That 40 percent relates to fresh produce eaten outside the home, so not through retail.
Q: Does New Covent Garden consider the food service sector the poignant focus for future growth? Do you see the Market’s status in servicing this sector as a defining differentiator from your competitors, and one to exploit, now that larger retail chains have left the Market and more companies look to bypass the middleman to go direct?
A: It’s that sector growth, which is one of the key differences. It’s long been said London follows the trends of New York in food. Eating out has become part of our culture. Certainly when you look back at the recession that hit and the economic problems in the late 70s early 80s, eating out then was something that people pulled back from.
Q: Yet more recent economic volatility hasn’t dampened this vibrant sector growth and eating out trend? Are you finding that the cultural and lifestyle shifts as well as the enriched dining choices are embedded enough to sustain that momentum? In economic downturns, isn’t there a tendency for consumers to trade down, or just stay home, and wouldn’t that impact your sales and profits?
A: But today, even though we’re experiencing economic turmoil, all we’ve seen is that the restaurants have had to get more competitive, get more offers out there, but people are still eating outside the home. They are still ordering take away, they’re still going to restaurants, to fast food outlets, etc. It’s true the standards have improved dramatically, but it’s also totally part of the culture in which people live and how they spend they’re money. That’s what has changed.
Q: In the UK, the retail market is undergoing a tumultuous realignment, as the Big Four retailers—Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, and Morrisons, feel the heat from deep discounters Aldi and Lidl, while Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and other niche, specialty retailers grab market share from the top. Competition is challenging new ways of doing business. Do you see an opening? What customers are you targeting and how is that changing?
A: I would say the Market’s core customer base is very much fine dining, so the top end, but also smaller independent restaurants, and we’ve seen following in the wake of what’s happening in the States, an explosion of street food and many of those startup companies looking to the Market as well. It covers a huge spectrum of businesses, but it’s very much those businesses that are focused on the quality and value of that produce.
Many of the larger chains driven to go direct are very much focused on price, but the offer at New Covent Garden Market is not just about price. It’s an important component and one that people have to be competitive about, but it’s not about just delivering a commodity. The Market’s reputation is not just about the quality of the produce, but the knowledge and expertise behind that.
Q: It sounds like buyers may be remiss in not taking advantage of these Market distinctions…Do you think the message of what the Market has to offer may be getting lost?
A: One of the parallels I always draw, is if you look at the fashion world, what you see on the catwalk is very high end and that gets mirrored in high street fashion very, very quickly. Equally, what’s on the cat walk can come from young individuals with street fashion and create it. I see the Market as a test bed for new varieties, for understanding what chefs want, and ultimately those trends are delivered all the way into mainstream retail.
So over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the growth of what we call gastro pubs. Pubs used to have a really poor reputation for food – so instead of being a place where you’d go for a pint of beer and game of darts, a package of something dubious and pickled eggs. Now you can go and get the pub atmosphere and also really good quality food. And that affects the mainstream to the extent you now get ready meals in the supermarket translating what is coming from the menu at the gastro pub.
Similarly, the very high end trends of Michelin star chefs start to filter down into mainstream. So, things like micro leaves. Building on what comes from the States, our television schedules are really heavy with cookery programs, competitions like master chef, etc., and you see many of these guys imitating techniques and product they see Michelin star chefs putting on their menus. It gets a huge exposure to people, who perhaps couldn’t afford a 160 pound tasting menu at the Fat Duck, but suddenly they’re seeing on their screens a chef who’s entering the competition using those techniques and products, and there’s a great demand for that.
Q: How would you compare New Covent Garden Market to Hunts Point Market in New York?
A: I had a really interesting conversation with Jim Prevor on Hunts Point Market and some of the differences and trends. We are different and London is different. Here we have two separate types of business. We still have that traditional wholesale business, what we call the buyer’s walk. So it’s basically the model of the wholesale market that you see across the world, where buyers come down to the market, you look at the produce, you can touch it, then you buy it and you take it away.
What’s also developed within that community is what we call wholesale distribution, where distributors buy from the market, consolidate loads add value to it, they will process it, and they deliver to the end users daily, and sometimes twice a day. So our offer here is what we call face to face customers where they come down to buy, and they can be from anywhere, Southeast London and sometimes from as far away as Ireland, but also the distributors who are based on the Market and buy from the traditional wholesale Market. And they’re the ones who actually take the product out and they get very involved with communicating with their customers with monthly reports and adding the value.
Q: What is the percentage of business breakdown between the traditional face to face customers and the distributor side?
A: Wholesale is still the core of the market, it’s still the biggest sector and the one that gets the most turnover. But the distributors have been growing steadily over the past 15 years and in terms of value, they are almost equal.
Q: At Hunts Point Market, one of its strengths is that it offers a market for everyone, all types and qualities of product, from narrowly defined specs and standards, to price driven options, an international melting pot, to meet a vast range of customer needs. How does New Covent Garden Market compare to other wholesale markets in London?
A: We actually have three fruit and vegetable wholesale markets in London. We are very central, and our location is key to our customer base. Like in New York, London traffic is horrendous. So the closer you are to your core customer, the better. There is one towards the west near the major airport Heathrow, called Western International, which is also located in an area that has a very high Indian subcontinent population. It tends to have a very Asian focus in terms of product offering and customer base.
The third is New Spitalfields based in the East of London in Leyton, on the edge of where New Olympic Park is. Its trading base and customer base is very diverse ethnically, with a lot of traders that are Kurdish, Turkish, Asian, African, Caribbean, as well as Caucasian. Western International and New Spitalfields have a much higher percentage of retail customers, and these can be small independent retail shops, and many of them are much more price sensitive and able to absorb product nearing the end of its shelf life. That customer is willing to accept a lower specification of quality to pay a lower price.
Q: Does New Covent Garden have a more concentrated quality/price offering geared to the higher end?
A: We’re the largest wholesale market, and position ourselves as high end quality but yes the price has to be competitive because as you mentioned there are alternatives, not only other wholesale markets, but other suppliers. There are big national distributors but their offer is very much at the commodity end, and our customer base will want not just high quality but that level of specialists in the markets for their offer.
It’s very much about links in the chain from the grower to the end customer. There is a huge interest in the providence of product, where it comes from, particularly people that want to buy UK grown products. For example, traditionally our asparagus season is very short. Where growers have managed to extend that season by starting earlier, they have to be sure the end customer knows that that product is going to come in early because the restaurants need to have notice to change their menus. Again, with asparagus where the grower has developed new techniques and is able to produce an autumn crop which was unheard of, it’s important that the message is passed on to the chef, or otherwise he may feel that product isn’t seasonal because he’s used to the asparagus not being around after June, July. In September, he may think someone is trying to pass off Peruvian asparagus as British. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the information that needs to flow up and down that supply chain.
Q: That’s a great example to illustrate your point. Do you have any others?
A: We took some growers around the Market, one who has been supplying the Market for years and a new grower, along with some chefs and the Market became the place where they could actually talk directly with each other. A particular product the growers were growing was cauliflower, and the new grower was mainly growing for supermarkets. When he saw the other grower’s product, his first reaction was that the cauliflower heads were too big. And the chef immediately went to his defense, and said that’s what the kitchen wants. A bigger head means less waste for us. It’s also more efficient so labor saving, and with the bigger head, more florets, or curds, to work with for the time. So it’s sometimes important to have that comment from the end customer, because the chef is not only driven by price, the underlying costs. That price is also about wastage and about the labor that’s involved in cutting that product.
Q: Tell us about the Sprouts Project, another way New Convent Garden is sharing its expertise…
A: Through our Sprouts Project, we’ve been working with schools close to the market. There was an initiative in the UK some years back to try and get children to understand where there food comes from. I’m sure you have the same thing in the States. Many children, if they think about it at all, think that food just arrives vacuumed sealed in a package and you buy it at the supermarket. Particularly in the cities they don’t have the opportunity to actually see it being grown. So what we do is we work with a small number of local schools. We actively encourage them to grow food in the school, take them to a working local farm that supplies the market to see product grown commercially on a big scale, and then bring them to the Market where they can actually understand how that product is in a box with Charlie’s name on it and how that box gets put on a van and delivered to their school kitchen. It’s also about how eating healthy food can be fun, so we do cooking competitions and teach kids how to make smoothies, and they get to taste a huge range of fruit and veg.
Q: What other projects are in the works. Could you talk about the Market’s ongoing redevelopment plans?
A: The organization that runs the market is the Covent Garden Market Authority. It was set up by the government in the 60’s to oversee the Market’s move from its old home in Covent Garden to a new site. We didn’t move until 1974; so it took that long to manage that.
Now, 40 years later, we’ve got plans to redevelop the Market on this site. So we’re a public body, and we report to DEFRA, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, basically the old Ministry of Agriculture. But we get no government money. We have to be self-sufficient, in terms of day to day running of the Market, so any extra money gets put back into the Market but we can’t make a loss.
In terms of plans for the new market, the government is perfectly happy for us to redevelop it but won’t give us money. We have to use the only asset we have, which is our land.
Q: That sounds challenging…
A: We are lucky because we have a very large site and a lot of land that is not being used efficiently. We’ve got a private development partner. In effect, it’s like a land swap; he gets land and we get a new market.
Q: Where are you in the development process? Hasn’t the planning been going on for years now?
A: We have finalized our plans and we expect our planning application to go in shortly and if all goes as scheduled we’d start work next year. But to build the new market, we don’t have the luxury of moving to a new site. The actual project will take seven years.
Q: What are the key things you’re trying to achieve?
A: The infrastructure is over 40 years old, and because of the way we were set up, we were never allowed to retain enough money to reinvest in the market, Our focus has moved now to our main customer being food service so the needs of the buildings are slighting different. What we’ll be providing are modern, flexible facilities that are designed for the 21st century.
Q: Can you elaborate on that? Will you be improving the cold chain, refrigeration, food safety, logistics flow, etc.?
A: We provide the overall building structure but each tenant would be responsible for refrigeration of their own building. What we’re doing is designing a market which is much more efficient in terms of how traffic can move around. The buildings were designed for traditional wholesale and don’t allow efficient distribution. In the New Market, you could take a unit back to back, which would allow linear flow. They could have goods flow in one end and out the other, where at the moment they have to take them side by side.
Also, we are aware standards are ever getting higher and higher, whether it be in terms of environmental performance, in terms of health and safety or food hygiene, so we want to make sure we provide the best possible facilities to insure people are able to meet those requirements in the future.
Q: In the UK, the larger retailers have a reputation for requiring the most stringent standards. Does that carry over to the customers you’re handling?
A: In this country, food safety standards are always higher in retail than food service. But increasingly, as you know, there have been a number of quite high profile food scares, most recently there was the issue in Europe of E.coli that eventually got traced back to sprouting seed. In the past, there was a sense that fresh produce was less risky than meat or fish but while that is the case to some extent there is no room for complacency. We need to make sure our market can meet whatever regulations are thrown at it going forward.
Many of the companies on site have very high levels of accreditation that are served out by third party organizations, and that gives their customers confidence in their processes, and procedures and traceability, etc. And those levels of accreditation, while many relate to internal procedures, the infrastructure is also of relevance. Some of the tenants don’t have enough space to store everything inside of their units all of the time. In the new market, we’ve designed it specifically so that all new product can be stored undercover; those higher standards can be complied with before it is regulated. There’s a difference between the best possible practice and the minimal regulatory standard, and we would aim to be at the best possible practice.
Q: How has the market’s product selection changed to meet customer demands and what are the biggest trends you’re seeing?
A: I’ve been doing a troll through the archives, it’s interesting to see what products have changes in demand, what products increased and declined. It’s very much what’s been happening in the States. There’s been a trend towards convenience. Wider trends still a lot of interest in exotic product, one of the big fashionable cuisines in London is that of South America, so moving away from just thinking about Mexico and thinking about Peruvian and obviously because of the World Cup, Brazil. And I mentioned street food, where we’ve seen a huge explosion in the UK. People are very interested in where food comes from. We find a growing demand for UK products, and along with that, real interest in traditional methods of growing and storing as well. Chefs want something new, and often times that turns out to be quite old. Take carrots; you can get carrots in four different colors. You think of carrots being orange, but originally they were purple, and people are interested in having that variety and color and looking at the heritage of product as well.
Sometimes it’s about the variety, and sometimes it’s about how it’s grown. We’re also seeing an interest in sand grown carrots. Carrots like sandy soil. It means they grow really, really straight. When you get twisted carrots, it’s because of a pebble, where it grows round it rather than through it, which is how carrots are grown commercially. But suddenly we’ve seen this interest in sand grown carrots, so they come in a bit sandy and apparently they keep longer. It’s a technique that was used in the 17th and 18th century.
Q: What about organic?
A: There’s a lot of interest in sustainability, but that’s not the same necessarily as organic, we have a few companies on the market that specialize in organic, but their core customer base actually is the consumer and not the food service. Restaurants struggle to pay the premium for organics, but also to get the consistency for the product. But they are very interested in providence, which I mentioned earlier, and how it’s grown, but sometimes that’s not organic. There’s an organization called LEAF, which is linking the environment and farming and while it’s not organic, it provides product that is grown with integrated farm management systems that use less pesticides. There’s a wide range between conventionally grown crops and organic.
Q: Thank you for sharing so many insights and vignettes about the Market, as attendees at the London Produce Show get the opportunity to come see it in action. Do you have any numbers you’d like to provide as additional perspective on the size and scope of the market?
A: We don’t really collect volume statistics, but we do carry financial statistics on the value. One of my jobs is updating our important accounts, with latest figures out in the next couple of weeks. In very broad terms, the annual turnover of the market is about 600 million pounds.
Q: For context, is the market growing?
A: It has grown and it has plateaued, last year it was actually down marginally. That’s the total market but the core fruit and vegetable market was up five percent last year and is continuing to grow. Where we saw a slight decline last year was in the distribution but again that’s related to the contraction of the economy and we’re looking to see that grow again.
Q: What about the floral side of the market?
A: The floral sector has changed dramatically over the past 20 plus years. New Covent Garden is the only dedicated flower and plant market in the country. Flowers and plants are sold elsewhere but we have dedicated space designed specifically for flowers and plants, which is unique. We have 30 plus traders there. Generally, there are two big trends that hit the flower market; one is that supermarkets have gotten more and more into flowers and that’s had a negative impact on independent floral shops, so we’ve seen a decline in that core customer. But there are some really interesting parallels in the floral world to what’s going on in the fruit and veg world. The traditional retailer has suffered.
We’ve seen growth in contract florists, who don’t go face to face with customers, but provide flowers for weddings, funerals, for big events and for corporate clients, where you go to embassies and see beautiful floral arrangements at reception, but also functions for hotels, etc. In fact at the London Produce Show, one of our contract florists is decorating the ballroom.
So, because the focus is moving towards events and contract florists, there have been changes in the types of product people want. They want bigger range, but smaller volumes. But also parallel to the fruit and veg side, we’re seeing a growing interest in where the flowers come from. Last year we launched the first ever British Flower Week. That will be happening again in June, a bit later than the London Produce Show. And it’s something that’s being taken up nationally.
There’s a huge resurgence in interest. The flower industry has declined dramatically here. The amount of acreage that’s used to produce flowers has gotten smaller and smaller, but people are very supportive of smaller growers, We believe it’s right that the flower market be at the heart of supporting an initiative like this and giving it more publicity. We are bowled over by the support it got nationally, and we’re doing it again this year and again it’s being taken up around the country. Because we’re the only market of this kind, It’s not just about the transactions and product, it’s about the communication, and support that goes with that, that’s really important. Even if British Flowers Week is in Cornwall or Yorkshire, I see that as a huge success and it is right that our market should be driving that.
Q: Would someone shopping for flowers also be shopping for produce? Is there overlap?
A: Sometimes there is a cross over but it does tend to be quite specialized.. Floral is very key in hospitality, so it’s where you’ll get this crossover. You’ll have big events like a launch party for a film premier and there will be food and there will be flowers. That goes back to the fact that the Market is at the heart of the hospitality sector in London.
Q: We come back full circle to how we began this interview.
A: I always say: Food for your stomach and food for your soul.
Q: That’s a fitting way to sum up everything you describe in this interview. It sounds like you’ve got the Market in your soul. Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to your role at CGMA?
A: CGMA is a public body, and while we’re basically the landlord, unlike a purely commercial landlord, we believe we have to support our tenants. it’s not just about providing value for money in terms of that facility, but it’s also about supporting with marketing and communication, and insuring we do everything we can to maintain our leadership role in produce industry. We’ve got 200 companies on site, and they are all small and medium size firms. Individually, they don’t have the resource to do much of the marketing and communication with customers and suppliers. That’s an area where we can work on their behalf. We can lobby at government level and wider community both nationallyand internationally. We work to represent tenants at every level. It could be introducing new growers to the market. I regularly take delegations around the market from other countries. Equally, I will put a lot of resources into trying to attract new customers to the market.
Q: As part of the redevelopment, isn’t there a plan to get consumers to come to the market? How would that work?
A: A lot of work we do, whether with florists or chefs, is business to business, but there’s no reason why those workshops and demos couldn’t be for consumers. Food and flowers in London is our focus, If you think of food and flowers, whether you’re a journalist, or a customer or a member of the general public, you should just think New Covent Garden Market; it should be synonymous. So the idea is that in a new market, the facilities we have to work with for the trade, could also be available at the consumer level. There would also be the opportunity for there to be a retail market, so we could showcase the best of produce to the wider community. People could actually buy, eat and learn about fresh produce in London.
Q: That’s quite a vision…
A: It is, and also quite frightening. Sometimes it’s difficult to describe, but when you look at the design for the new market, there will be a building we’re calling the Garden Heart, with the administration, meeting rooms conference rooms, at the ground level there could be a bank. It’s the core central building, and would act as the physical barrier to the edge of the market, One side could be the public square for the retail market but behind it, where the public wouldn’t go, would be the wholesale market.
Our market is most active between midnight and five in the morning before most people get up. So the market would have different activity at different times and in a different physical space as well.
The hero shots of the new markets are not ready to be released yet, because they will be saved for press release going out imminently.
Q: How familiar are people with the New Covent Garden Market. Do you think this will be an awakening for many?
A: One of the things I discovered when I joined the market is that a lot of people think they know the market, but what they know is the market 20 years ago as opposed to what the market is now. I think people have preconceived ideas of wholesale markets being the dumping ground for supermarket rejects, and a lot people don’t really understand the value that wholesale markets bring. That’s an area we work quite hard at but it is difficult to get the message out. We are a very, very vibrant industry, made up of lots small companies that want to get on with their business. And in the past wholesale markets haven’t been good at communicating, but I think that is changing. We’ve done a lot here in New Covent Garden and in London, but I still think there are many within the produce industry who think they know, but they don’t.
We hope the London Produce Show will help you in your mission!
When the Hunts Point Market in New York opened in 1967 the joke was that it was the newest antiquated market in the world. Why? The planning and development took so long that by the time a design was approved and then executed the world had changed sufficiently that the design didn’t accommodate contemporary trucks in an ideal way. It is inevitable that the efforts to develop a new market will be contentious. But the world needs markets and we hope that the parties involved find a path to make the redevelopment an occasion for the rebirth of a stronger and more vibrant market.
Let that, however, be a battle for another day. For tonight New Covent Garden is the most generous host to the trade, both Authority and Merchants urging the whole industry to join them the 5 Star Grosvenor House for the Opening Cocktail Reception of the London Produce Show and Conference. Let us raise a glass to a glorious history in Covent Garden, 40 years of service and prosperity in the current location and to a future filled with mutual success.
You can register to attend tonight’s Opening Cocktail Reception and the whole London Produce Show and Conference right here.
Let us know via e-mail right here if you would like to go on Friday’s tour of New Covent Garden Market.
And, of course, review the whole event on our website here.
An important element of The London Produce Show and Conference is our University Interchange Program through which we allow universities a portal to influence the course of the trade by presenting the results of their research, while we also allow students the opportunity for exposure to the industry so they can evaluate opportunities to focus their career aspirations so that they become the next generation of talent to engage with the trade.
In London this year we have already profiled two of the upcoming academic presentations:
Nyenrode Business University’s Henry Robben Speaks Out: How To Win A Sustainable Business Advantage
At The London Produce Show And Conference: ‘Room at the Top? — What U.K. Retailers Can Learn From U.S. Natural/Gourmet Retailing’ Cornell University’s Rod Hawkes Points Out That ‘Upscale’ Has Changed And That The American Experience Points To The Possibility Of Big Changes Ahead For UK Retailing
For our third we reach out to a unique Italian University which has often presented at the London Show’s sister event, The New York Produce Show and Conference with pieces such as these:
New York Delegates To Receive An Education In Ethnobotany From Eminent Italian Professor
Meet The Gastronomes — And Learn About Their Mission To Increase Produce Consumption — At The New York Produce Show And Conference
Food “To Die For” May Do Just That… Seminal Study Encouraging The Eating Of Bitter Vegetables For Health To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show And Conference
Our friends at Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche (The University of Gastronomic Science) are bringing students to London and have asked a most fascinating speaker to deliver a rousing wake-up call to the industry. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Barny Haughton, Founding Director and lead teacher at Square Food Foundation, Bristol, England, and Professor of Food Education Studies at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, Pollenzo, Italy.
Q: How will your talk shed light on ways to increase produce consumption? What insight can retailers, food service providers, suppliers/growers, educators and industry consultants gain by attending your presentation? In what ways do you seek to transform food culture, and why do you believe such actions can change people’s lives?
A: In terms of an outline for people to check in with before the Show, how can I persuade people to come and listen to my talk; that it’s worth bothering to stop by, when there are so many other things going on. I’d like to feel my presentation could provoke questions around how do we get people to buy more fresh produce and how do we really engage in that challenge, I hope to describe ways in which that can be done.
Q: Ironically, does the phenomenon you describe at the London Produce Show — a whirlwind of activity and myriad choices pulling people in different directions, and competing for their time, parallel an issue you raise, where cooking from scratch is a lost art?
Yet, surely this is not an issue for a large majority of London Produce Show attendees — a sophisticated international gathering of industry experts and fresh produce connoisseurs… Is lack of time just a catalyst for problems that go much deeper?
A: During my presentation, I will demonstrate how to use produce in cooking, and the vital connection between the soil, plant growth, cooking and eating. It is this connection that has been lost in today’s food culture for the wider community.
One of the things I would say, is if you go to Italy and you eat in any ordinary restaurant, you’ll find people of all walks of life eating there, whether you’re a lorry driver, a company trainee or you’re Silvio Berlusconi, you’re going to eat the same pasta dish and that’s what I think is a rich, healthy and diverse food culture. That’s what food culture needs to be, and it isn’t with us. The food culture we talk about is the domain of upper middle class, educated people, financially and culturally better off people.
Q: There are plenty of wealthy, well educated people that eat unhealthy food as well…
A: So I suppose there are two sides to my work. One is to work with and teach people that have got money and time and want to know more about cooking, who are already aware and sophisticated, but also to teach those that have nothing, that don’t have skills and money and all the other deprivations that people who eat bad food would be subject to and vulnerable to.
There are all sorts of aspects to it. But the key is there’s a sense of building a bridge and it’s hard to describe that, but it’s something that I talk about a lot because I think the bridge between the food culture we love and the thing that creates passion and joy in people is one that belongs in the wider community. It isn’t here, so we need to create a kind of bridge between the two elements of food culture. It works both ways and that’s why I talk about my food education work in the community with people that come to my classes to learn about all kinds of food, Italian or French or Spanish food, for instance.
Q: Are there generational gaps as well?
A: Something else with this bridge is the gap between the lost generations. So I am teaching grandmothers how to make pastry, to distinguish between a turnip and parsnip because they don’t know. I’m also teaching children to take home what they know to their parents, who know even less than they know. So it’s a very strange reversal of roles in all this.
Q: That is quite unexpected. One would think more traditional forms of cooking would be passed down from the older generations, who had more experience cooking from scratch…
A: That was the biggest surprise to me and I’m sure it is to many people; to realize that the gap is not a couple of generations but rather four generations. People who were becoming mothers in the early 60s were already beginning to lose the connection with cooking from scratch. Those are people, who are now grandmothers and sometimes even great grandmothers. In rural Ireland, it’s a very different picture of course; they can make pastry and cook vegetables. When people are older, in their 60s and 70s, it’s quite a big thing to admit you don’t know how to cook, so you’re dealing with the pride and shame of that as well.
Q: Was there a pinnacle moment in your childhood or early on in your career where you knew this is the path you wanted to pursue?
A: You ask me what switched me on to cooking. It was a very early childhood experience but it took me a long time to discover that’s what I wanted to do. I was an English teacher before I pursued anything to do with cooking. I think everybody has a food story, and that’s a key way of identifying connections.
How do you wake people up with food and cooking? How do you bring to people that longing for learning? For me, it’s through enabling them to look to their own story.
Q: What was the experience that sparked your interest? And how do you translate that to others?
A: I was one of large family for one thing, so food and meal times were quite significant. My mother was a very good cook. She made bread and all the rest of it, Food was very much part of our life; central to it. Hospitality and guests sitting around the table was something we took for granted. What woke me up to my own love of cooking was when I was in France at age eight or nine. I went to a market and it was sort of a transforming moment. I knew that, and it’s the same for many people. There’s something that triggers and it could happen at any time. It doesn’t have to happen in childhood, but often does.
Given the context of the Show — the production and retail of produce, and strategies of increasing consumption, one of the things that interests me is that people really don’t eat vegetables. It’s a challenge, and one that crosses many cultures. Addressing that challenge is an absolute mission in the work that I do.
Q: Could you elaborate on the scope of that work?
A: I plan to illustrate my talk with produce I’ll bring from Ballymalou in Ireland, where I’m staying prior to the Show. Ballymalou Cookery School is a brilliant place. No place of learning how to cook has put greater value and significance on the connection between the soil, the growing, the cooking and the eating. Hugely inspirational, and of course, they have the most beautiful produce.
How do you get people to want to cook and want to buy this kind of food, rather than something that’s ready-made? Most people, even the middle class don’t eat the right amount of vegetables and don’t really get the potential joy and excitement that certainly for me is part of cooking with vegetables.
Q: That’s a good question you pose. Aren’t eating habits and behaviors difficult to change, especially when people get older and more set in their ways?
A: It’s kind of an awakening process. It’s not just about health. It’s about satisfying the palate. People don’t realize how wonderful vegetables are and what you can do with them; incredibly simple things that can taste so good.
My mission is to make real food culture more inclusive and the only way to do that is showing people how to cook food from scratch and sharing with them the passion and joy that it gives me; and so it is with all the teachers at Square Food Foundation as well.
Q: Are you considering the health and nutrition components?
A: It is also about health. We live in a society that’s got massive health issues and they all come back to food — diabetes around obesity. We know all this. That is a big problem, but there are all sorts of others as well. I work with some elderly care homes, where there is no good food being cooked for its residents. We know that between 400 and 500 people in care homes die of malnutrition every year in this country. This figure comes from one of the care home trusts I work with that owns 50 care homes. And are on a mission with me to improve quality of care in care homes. It comes primarily from introducing simple food, not the awful food — I wouldn’t even call it food, canned spaghetti, for instance, that gets served in many of these care homes.
One other thing I thought of recently is that we would attribute people’s lack of eating well, to not having time to cook, not having the knowledge and maybe not having the money to cook. Those are the three things that people often site for their reasons for using convenience food and so on. But actually there’s another one, which is that they don’t have to. There is no critical reason for them to change. If people are facing cancer, then they might consider changing their diet. What I’m trying to do is find less dramatic ways to affect that change in Bristol, where I do my work — this is about Bristol, I’m not trying to change the world.
Q: That would be a lofty goal! You mention the reasons people site for not cooking and it’s interesting because a lot of people in our industry are working on healthy grab and go items, and convenience packaging to accommodate increased demand…
A: This is the food culture that we have created. It’s based on this delusion that we don’t have the time, which is the big one. But I totally disagree with that and I would hope to show that. One of the demonstrations I do is preparing eight different dishes simultaneously without any help to show it can be done. It is not because I’m a skillful, brilliant chef, but because I’m focusing on what I’m doing. I’ve organized myself, I’ve got a plan and that’s it.
Q: That could be quite an entertaining draw at the Show…
A: Maybe I’ll do seven, for the seven fruit and vegetable servings we’re supposed to be eating each day. At the same time, I don’t want to be prescriptive. We need to be balanced and not stress out about it. I wouldn’t want to say the grab and go thing, or even convenience foods don’t have their place, but with some small adjustments to how we see our week, and so on, it is possible; and also such a wonderful thing. We don’t have to banish that space of eating the food we’ve prepared simply from scratch. We could have more of that, and there’s something lovely about that.
Q: What role can produce executives have in this scenario?
A: Food and chef demonstrations are a really strong feature of New York festivals and a main part of food shows and conferences these days. The reason they are an attraction is because they are creating that link between the producers and the retailers. It’s the business of cooking and eating and it’s a very immediate visceral link.
I encourage demos in a few stores in Bristol, especially on a Saturday morning, which is a busy day for most fruit and veg stores. I’ve done them myself and organized them with other chefs. It encourages people and then they can buy all the ingredients right there. It gives them confidence. Often, they don’t know what to do with ingredients or what to buy. And that’s why those veg boxes that producers put together, nearly always come with recipes these days. This is what you can do with your box.
Q: Do you have any stories of where you really made a difference with a person’s life?
A: There are countless small stories, I don’t always like to use the word transformation, because it’s a strong statement, but you could say it was that in many cases. They’re coming for a course on say, Northern Italian cooking and leave discovering something not just about the dish itself or an ingredient they never knew you could use that way, but something about themselves. They find out they can do something they didn’t know they could do. Particularly with children, that’s where you really see it, because it’s unencumbered by self-consciousness, and their experience is more open. It’s a more obvious indication of a change. For instance, one of the courses we do is Simple Suppers. It’s a Saturday pub, and we teach them to cook and they have to be able to duplicate it at home with little supervision.
Q: Do you follow up to see if they were able to pull it off?
A: The idea is they take a photo of what they did at home, and bring it to the next class and talk about it. And it’s easy for them because they all have their smart phones with them now. It could be Charlie making an omelet in his own kitchen, sometimes quite sophisticated stuff, it’s a matter of great pride, and parents love it. The parents are bowled over by the whole thing, and they are learning too. They’re finding out things that they didn’t know about as well. That program has made a real impact.
I see no point in teaching people to cook if it’s not something they can do at home. That underlines the methodology of our teaching. One thing about a lot of these television programs and magazines to a lesser extent, that it’s restaurant food, not really what people do in their own homes.
Q: Are you conscientious of the fat content and other elements like sugar?
A: I’m very conscious of that, but one could say I take a very radical or opposing view to what you would expect. The approach to food is often determined by fear rather than love, focusing on the toxicity of food itself, and the fat and sugar, and so on cut very much into that fear. So what my argument is, I’m going to show you how to cook and you won’t have to worry about any of those things. I’ll use butter, oil, and pig fat, and a little sugar, as I do think sugar is more of a problem. You have to look at these things in the right context.
There’s a whole world of anxiety around food and health. It brings up many emotions and dominant among them are quite negative emotions. So when you talk about fat, particularly fat, it is not something people are going to normally feel good or relaxed about. They’re going to be very alert about it. I want to unpack where that comes from and look at ways of seeing food in a different way, cooked in the right way and using the right ingredients. All these things have their place.
Q: Could you talk more about the people that you are trying the hardest to reach?
A: It’s worth saying that the people that are the focus of most of the community work we do are financially and educationally deprived and it goes back a long way. When I first started where the cookery school is now, I remember asking myself, what gives me the right to impose my middle class food values on these people. But then you see what they’re eating and the impact it’s having on their health.
Another important point, if we want a strong sustainable food culture in the UK or in any country, which is about food production systems, about growing, about the use of land, and balance of meat and animal food production and fruit and vegetable production, then we want people to eat the kind of food I’m teaching people to cook. We want more people to eat produce because it enriches the food culture itself from the soil right through.
It’s all connected, absolutely. I should have talked about sustainability right from the beginning because food culture is not just about magazines and what’s on plates. It goes right back to the soil. In fact, one of the first recipes that the students in Ballymaloe get shown on their 12-week course, and something I’ll present at the Show, is how to make compost and what goes into soil. That is something we all need to be thinking about now. It’s such an easy thing to forget.
Why should food culture extend beyond middle class elite in society? Why should food be a democratic thing? You could argue that in being so, it better supports biodiversity. It challenges soil degradation. In the end, when produce is grown properly and if it is looking after human health it shouldn’t have all the pesticides and chemicals, which goes beyond my purview in many ways.
What are the aspects of relationship between everybody cooking well and eating well and sustainable food systems? It’s to do with waste, transport systems, seasons. I can’t think of anything in the structures of society that wouldn’t be benefited by everybody eating better food — just think of national health, and hospital bills.
Q: One aspect of sustainability is cost/benefit analysis and economic viability, when companies prioritize where to invest their resources… Further, can’t it be more expensive to eat well, buying fresh fruits and vegetables versus a can of peas, or all the ingredients to cook from scratch versus a value meal at McDonald’s…?
A: You need to look at true or the hidden costs, and that’s difficult. One reason we don’t eat well is because we see that we don’t have to. Yes, it is more expensive, let’s not pretend it’s not. That would be wrong. I’ve spent far more on food then most people but I chose to do that. It means I can’t spend as much on other things that other people would spend money on. We used to spend 35 percent of our income on food in 1958 in the UK, after paying rent or mortgage. We only spend 4.5 to 6 percent of our disposable income on food these days, depending on which demographic group we’re in. It is more for the middle classes, actually.
Having said that, I did live on 21 pounds, 50 a week. I did it deliberately to prove a point, because that was what our government health section was expecting for low-income people getting support to live on. I managed fine because I spend time in the kitchen. I know about food. I ate almost no meat. I lost weight, which is a good thing, because generally we eat too much. That’s a big issue.
Q: On one hand, we have an obesity problem, and then on the other we have a global malnutrition problem, where people are starving. It’s quite a dichotomy…
A: I know. It’s bewildering that we have those two polar opposites of human health. In the end, it is a global issue, just as food trade is global. it’s important that we’re connected with what people are eating in other countries. When I work with different ethnic groups, it’s about making a connection right back to their roots and the traditions going back generations.
Q: Do you also look to expand people’s horizons, and expose them to new types of cooking?
A: I think its two things. One is acknowledging where people are in their food culture and what won’t be threatening, find out what food people are used to and then you can take them back their own story. Of what they eat, and going back generations you’ll see it wasn’t always that way. But also it’s about making connections to other cultures whether it’s in Africa or indeed Bristol cooking.
Q: What is the Bristol food culture?
A: I’m learning about the area I’m in. There are very distinctive areas around Bristol. You could say the food culture is partly determined by the west country production, the main areas of production, beef and cheese, which are strong players in the farming scene. Wild rabbit is a distinctive part of their inheritance, being famous for rabbit pie and that style of cooking, but they don’t actually eat it now.
In thinking about the Show, all these producers, retailers and marketers from around the world, it’s good to have a sense of the global market. In the local market in Bristol, where you’ve got 30 different stalls with people selling different things and maybe some of the same, it’s good to feel a part of the whole thing, which is the consumer’s experience. . We live in a global culture and have access to food around the world, It’s good to have an understanding of that.
I also believe cooking and food education should be fundamental in schools, along with math and history and language. It’s marginalized and if coming in, it’s just a gesture. If children from the earliest ages were learning to cook properly, I think we’d see a very different food culture in 20 years time.
Q: Are you familiar with the Food Dudes Programme?
A: I do know it. It’s brilliant. And those kinds of approaches are the ways we need to proceed. It’s a big challenge to change eating behaviors. There was never a truer word spoken then when that Jesuit said, give me a child age seven and he’s mine for life. You have to start young, and I love the idea of teaching pregnant moms.
We’re not a massive organization, but we happen to run a program that covers a lot of age brackets, incomes and demographics. In the end, comes right back to very beginning, what we’re talking about is rediscovering or maybe creating for the first time in the UK a food culture that is truly democratic and for all the benefits it would bring.
We read Professor Haughton’s words and we think of Hemingway and his classic The Sun also Rises and its haunting final phrase: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
That Professor Haughton lays out a vision of a rich life deeply connected to the earth and to tradition, that one can see it as a route not just to health or more produce consumption but to a richer, fuller life is really incontestable.
Yet it is also true that people who have actually lived in that close engagement to the earth, always leap to leave that state and join the western middle class as soon as they can do so. Indeed this is the story playing out right now in India and China.
Yes, among the wildly affluent, there is a bit of this “back to the earth” celebration, but it is almost entirely among people whose prosperity gives them the luxury of great expanses of discretionary time. For even the middle class, much less the poor, the time struggles of balancing two jobs, taking the kids to play sports and other activities, helping ageing parents and painting the house on the side, leaves this vision of scratch cooking, gardening, a kitchen centered home life all seeming a bit misty, as ina dream.
A pretty one though. Can Professor Haughton make the case that not only is this ideal beautiful it is practical? He is bringing recipes and produce. We can’t wait to see what he cooks up as part of his talk.
Come and hear and watch the professor in action by joining us at The London Produce Show and Conference.
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