At approximately 10 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, Borough Market hums quietly, practically buzzing with potential energy. It will take less than an hour for the small roads that connect each little stand to fill up with curious customers, but for now, the space is filled with a quiet calmness one might feel before a storm. This soft energy fuses itself with the glorious scents that waft from each and every stand as they open; each consecutive promenade unveils another vendor and another smell. The coarseness of cheese, the freshness of fish, the warmth of bread, the sweetness of fruit, the richness of fresh sandwiches. You could walk along with your eyes completely shut and still feel the shops pass you as if you could see the vibrant colors of their chalkboard signs. My favorite part of any market is always the smell. It’s almost like it’s own language; the food is speaking to its customers, calling them over to investigate, to inquire, to consume.
Overwhelming is an understatement. By the time the market is in full swing, the sounds alone create a bubbling atmosphere of chatty vendors and happy customers, and that’s before you factor in the smell, the sights, and the incessant claustrophobia that comes with crowding around a popular food stand with a conglomerate of strangers. But what is the attraction? What draws people to spend hours wandering from seller to seller? The simple answer is that Borough Market is a reflection of British food culture, and people come here to indulge in the reality of what British food truly is. So the real question here is; What makes Borough Market British food, and furthermore, what defines British food?
Most of the people I spoke to before traveling to England told me that I would be thoroughly disappointed in British food. ‘It’s bland’, they’d say, ‘It’s boring’. ‘It’s not what they’re known for’. Stereotypically, we think of fish and chips, Sunday roast, or even beans on toast when we think of British cuisine none of which sounds particularly exotic or exciting. Traditionally, food culture is connected almost exclusively to the food that is local to said culture. Northfield Farm’s bustling stand sits almost at the heart of the market selling both hunks of meat for customers to take back to their homes and hearty sandwiches for the market-goers to eat as they peruse the rest of the vendors. Northfield prides itself not only in its local livestock, being situated on the Rutland-Leicestershire border, but also on the treatment of its livestock. They say that their “aim…is to produce the best quality beef, lamb, and pork, which has had the best possible life, has been slaughtered humanely and butchered skillfully” (Northfield Farm). If we live by the traditional understanding of food culture, then what Northfield Farm is selling is, in fact, British food.
Unfortunately, while this understanding of food culture is not untrue, it is a far cry from the whole truth. Allison James writes, in her essay on British food, that “cuisines are not limited by geography or nationhood” (Caplan 73). This line of thinking, the belief that food culture is sustained by local foods, has been drastically altered by the rise of globalization and global trade. Not only can you now buy foods from around the globe at your local supermarket, but people from around the globe are traveling and bringing their food culture with them as well. This, in my opinion, is what defines British food. The local food that grows here in the UK is most definitely British in its origin, but what makes British food British is its reflection on the globalization as it has affected the country as a whole. So many different ingredients are imported from foreign places that the food itself is not a representation of the foods’ origin, but the origin of the people who believe that that cuisine means something to their cultural identity.
Just a minutes walk from Northfield’s ‘Original Borough Market Burger’, in the heart of the street food section of the market, is Balkan Bites. The owner, Ran Wilson, took a “childhood yearning” (Balkan Bites) and made a boureka shop out of it. The food itself, boureka is a “flaky, crispy layered dough filled with spinach, cheese, tomato and more” (Balkan Bites), is not native to Great Britain but a popular Israeli food, something Ran’s grandmother would create during family get-togethers. Ran, though, lives here in Britain with his family and in order to bring part of his past culture into his new home, he recreated an old family recipe and started selling it at Borough Market. You may think that Ran’s Balkan Bites and Northfield Farm are, in conclusion, completely different. However, I believe that they are exactly the same. Each vendor considers themselves a British citizen, and each vendor identifies strongly with a dish that aligns with their cultural identity. Thus, they sell their food at a popular British market to spread to the masses.
To summarize, what makes Borough Market British Food? It is Northfield Farms’ local livestock and commitment both to the community of London and to the land that they raise their animals on. It is Balkan Bites’ locally made bourekas that remind Ran Wilson of his grandmother’s cooking. It is the fish farmed off the shores of Scotland. It is the cheese stand run by Londoners. It is the people that walk up and down the tiny streets who want to see what is right here right now in Britain. The vastness of variety in this bustling area is a mirror image of the city of London and, by extension, Great Britain. And it is showcasing the thing that brings all people together: food.