It takes some work finding your way to Covent House, New Covent Garden. A bit of adventure in fact, walking down a residential road taking on faith that there is a gate at the other end of it, though you can see nothing until you are there. At the gate. Tucked down just before you hit the dead end. You walk through it and into an industrial world of large buildings and wide asphalt spaces and trucks. Pedestrian wanderers feel out of place, even after hours — I imagined the busy chaos it must be at peak times. But I arrived easily and safely and the talk by the lovely Helen Evans was so interesting, and opened up so many things I want to look into further.
It was immigration — the arrival of the Huguenots and the Dutch — that saw the real beginnings of intensive horticulture along the south bank of the Thames, and a shift from house gardens to growing produce for market. South London for many years was known for produce: the famous Battersea bundles, or asparagus, the growth of ‘simples’ or herbs like lavender on Lavender Hill. Artichokes, saffron, musk melon, even grapes and the now little known medlar tree (apparently for good reason as the fruit can’t be eaten until it is rotting off the tree and even then it was said it’s not very nice. I need to find some) grown as cash crops and easily transported to the old Covent Garden market by boats, which brought ‘night soil’ back to be used as fertiliser on their return journey.
I liked the sound of musk melons as well, what are those I asked myself? Turns out it is a general term for a variety of melon, cucumis melo, that includes the canteloupe and honeydew. Not as exciting as I’d hoped, but delicious, even if I’m slightly allergic to them.
This system of growing vegetables on one bank of the river, transporting them by boat to the city on the other side, and bringing back fertiliser underlines the sustainability of past systems of food production that we have left far behind — but should probably consider returning to again where possible. Interesting that climate change has already had enough of an effect that more crops are being grown in the UK for market that never used to be, like figs. Instead the New Covent Garden is part of a worldwide food system that is a little bit crazy. With the huge growth of London, the fruit/vegetable/flower market by the 1960s had long outgrown old Covent Garden, where essentially all produce was being brought, bought up by local produce shops, and redistributed again. The suburbanisation of South London meant that trucks rather than boats became the main vehicle for transportation. I can’t even imagine the chaos on the Strand. So it was moved to this new site, developed for access by large trucks moving produce from large farm to large clearing center to growing supermarket.
This all changed again very shortly after the new site was built (they moved in 1974). Ever larger supermarket chains developed their own increasingly globalised delivery system (talk about unsustainability), and dealt directly with large market farms around the world for their produce, cutting out New Covent Garden almost entirely. So the customer base is now almost entirely smaller consumers of bulk fresh fruit and veg: restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools. I started to get really jealous when she described the multiple varieties of fruit and veg the market deals with, not tied down to the ‘perfection’ sold by the supermarkets. The stuff grown because it lasts longer on the shelf and looks most like the ideal and always picked too soon. Instead you can buy tastier and messier mangoes, apples of multiple varieties, small and sweet strawberries — oh, delicious delicious! But only in bulk, and only early in the morning.
She had a fabulous chart of food fashion over the decades as well, the shifting trends in consumption, the date that Jazz apples were first introduced, when kiwis became a ‘thing’, when peppers and courgettes were still marginal (known as queer gear in the trade — curious). Apparently there is a move by cauliflower growers to bring it back into everyday cuisine because sales have fallen so steeply (so go buy some cauliflower!). There are now tourist trails through the rhubarb sheds of Yorkshire ( I am so on that). I learned so much, not least from the awesome little notebook we received that has the fruit and veg in season month by month — you can get a chart here. There are so many reason to buy seasonal and locally-grown food, taste and the future of the planet principle among them.
She had alluded to the Nine Elms development and the development of the market itself several times, which made my heart sink because I hate everything about the Nine Elms development and didn’t want to hear about the market getting moved on because the real estate it’s sitting on is too valuable for just fruit and veg. I was relieved to hear that it’s not getting moved on, though it is getting redeveloped. I’m always suspicious of that, but undoubtedly the market needs a thorough updating given the changes in food distribution systems. It seems like they’ve worked out a fairly good deal, financed through selling 20 of their 57 acres (where the flower market is now). I need to look into it more, and the plans and such are all here on their website, but from their perspective it will better cater to their actual clientele, have more capacity to sell direct to the public, and have a better venue for education and their own garden. I still hate that it’s part of this massive influx of cold high rise luxury development, I wonder what will happen to the very nice estate I walked past to get there, I fear that the new ‘public’ the developers at least are preparing for is a very different one than the folks living there now.
But these fears are all for future posts. At the least I am glad the market is remaining, is redeveloping. It is an awesome place.
[the image at top comes from the New Covent Garden food blog, which is also awesome]