How London became a foodie capital – Celia Brooks
Michael Pollan, in one of his many musings on the subject of food, has said you should ‘shake the hand that feeds you’. Certainly food seems to offer much more than simple nutritional benefits. Celia Brooks, our food Insider, TV chef and food writer of note, sat down with us to chat about what makes London a foodie paradise and why we can’t seem to get enough of good things to eat.
Things are certainly different since I moved here 27 years ago: back then you could barely get an avocado in Sainsbury’s.
These days you can’t seem to move without seeing a new cook book, or restaurant or details of a new food-related lifestyle. Why are we so obsessed with food?
It’s something that links every human being and it’s a great way of understanding both culture and individuals. When you travel anywhere in the world, the quickest and easiest way to get inside the culture is to experience the food and the food markets – it’s like an illustration of the culture. This is certainly true in London, but the difference from the rest of the world is that, in many ways, the food culture has undergone a renaissance in the last 20 years or so. It’s an amazing hotbed of progress, so I think there’s no better place to be in the world if you’re interested in food.
It seems only very recently that overseas impressions of British food has become more favourable, though, doesn’t it?
I think for people who haven’t been here in recent years, there’s still just an impression from the days of yore. Things are certainly different since I moved here 27 years ago: back then you could barely get an avocado in Sainsbury’s. Things have just changed vastly in a very short space of time and it’s been incredible to watch.
People are taking classic dishes but using all the wonderful domestic ingredients that we have from small and artisan producers and cooking them in a slightly different way.
Britain is essentially a launchpad to the rest of the world: as we invite more cultures in, we start to see a kind of exchange whereby those immigrants introduce us to their food and we develop unique ideas based on them. When it became easier to travel in the 1960s and 1970s, people returned from their holidays with their interests peaked and with a curiosity to seek out those new foods at home as well. It’s no coincidence that foods like pasta didn’t really start to gain popularity until the start of the package holiday era.
So the ‘blank slate’ that you talked about has really enabled us to embrace food more globally?
I think so, yes. You see it in our approach to what is considered to be traditional British food. There’s something of a foodie revival going on where people are taking classic dishes but using all the wonderful domestic ingredients that we have from small and artisan producers and cooking them in a slightly different way. It’s a different approach and, in not boiling brussels sprouts for hours, we’re learning to love all those wonderful foods again.
Do you think part of that is thanks to the things learned from different cultures? A combination of education and food culture?
People’s curiosity has been awakened sufficiently to try alternative foods and techniques. Also, in terms of bringing different foods to people, it’s easier than ever to set up a retail business: the restaurant business has always been difficult and risky because of the initial investment, but now with food trucks and street vendors, these businesses are booming. It doesn’t take a huge amount of capital to get something going: just a vehicle and food hygiene certificate, some ingredients and a pitch. Some people are doing it almost as a hobby, just on the weekends. It’s allowing people to channel their culinary passions into small business ventures and I love that.
Is that the appeal of street food, do you think? That passion for something quite specific? It certainly seems to be something that Londoners have taken to their hearts…
A lot of it is themed by country or ethnicity, so there’s a degree of specialism there, but the ones that really seem to be capturing people’s imaginations and doing really well are places that focus on one or two offerings.
Kappacasein, in Borough Market, has quite the reputation for making these amazing grilled cheese sandwiches, which I know sounds very American, but the selling point is very much the authenticity of the ingredients. They’re done with British Montgomery Cheddar from Somerset and French sourdough Polane bread and leeks and garlic and they’re just put in this press that fuses it all together and it’s just to die for.
It’s exciting to see these other cuisines gaining popularity, and interesting that your Experience for SideStory is based around Turkish food. Do you think that culture of food is under-appreciated?
I think so, yes. I live quite close to Green Lanes, which is kind of like a Little Turkey, and what fascinates me about the area is that within the stretch of half a mile there are about thirty Turkish barbecue restaurants, which are always packed and constantly churning out this wonderful Turkish barbecue. The meat is amazing, yes, but there are so many other incredible traditional dishes too – many of which might be unfamiliar to anyone not acquainted with the country or culture. There are also baklava bakeries, people making flatbreads, and amazing grocers selling things like Turkish yoghurt, which is like the Greek version, but with bells on. it’s a very vibrant neighbourhood.
I love this about London as a city: it’s this wonderful patchwork of the old and the new and the gritty and the shiny.
There seems to be a kind of process by which food cultures come into the public consciousness: from that first generation authenticity, through to it being picked up and translated to a Michelin starred establishment…
Yes, it’s interesting actually: there’s a Turkish restaurant that opened up in Islington, which is run by a couple of English guys. Everyone’s been flocking there and you do kind of think that it must be to do with the spin, or the fact that it’s a couple of fashionable, tattooed, not-unattractive men who are running it, because if you go to Green Lanes, they’ve been doing that kind of thing forever!
Do you think that’s a problem?
Well, not really: if anything it brings Turkish food – or whatever food you’re talking about – to a market they might not be aware of it. That kind of adoption and adaptation of different foods and cultures is what makes London interesting and is certainly what I love about it as a city: it’s this wonderful patchwork of the old and the new and the gritty and the shiny. It’s such a hotchpotch of cultures and cuisines and characters and I think that’s what keeps it so dynamic.