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During the lockdown, Borough Market has felt like a very different place to the crowded, slightly chaotic melee you’re probably familiar with, filled with visitors from far and wide. Clear, orderly queues. People buying, not just browsing. Before, it was more of “a spectacle, a sensory overload,” says Charles Tebbutt of nut stall Food and Forest, who admits to missing some of the old buzz. But the change of pace caused by the need for social distancing has brought with it a major benefit. Borough Market’s traders don’t just sell food; they also, each in their own way, tell stories—about regional cultures, production methods, sustainability and ethics—and those stories have been found a bit more space to breathe.
“I don’t blame anyone at all, but the intense, crazy atmosphere of Borough Market on a normal Saturday afternoon wasn’t always conducive to having those conversations,” Charles explains. “People now have a bit more time to listen, we have a bit of time to speak to them, and it’s nice to be able to showcase what we do.” Shoppers are still abiding by the Market’s Come Shop Leave mantra, but the steadier pace means traders have the headspace to interact more during the course of the transaction, and their customers—starved of human contact for weeks on end—are keen to listen and engage. Charles has been able talk about the types of nuts he stocks, about the concept of agroforestry, about the small-scale, sustainable producers his customers are helping to support.
Nuts are like apples, he explains. “There are so many varieties, each of which has distinct characteristics.” His French walnuts, for example, come in three varieties: mayette, parisienne, and franquette. English walnuts are different again. Then there’s the means of cultivation and of harvesting, which affect not only the quality of the nut but the ethics of its production: only last year we heard of the child labour endemic in Turkey’s hazelnut industry, while in California the intensive cultivation of almonds places extraordinary pressure on the region’s water supply. “It’s a complex message,” Tebbutt continues. “I think I underestimate that. And I haven’t always had the time or space to communicate that effectively.”
With the Market focusing on produce and with a sharp reduction in visitors from further afield, Charles has been selling fewer nut-brittles—a one-off treat generally favoured by tourists—and more raw nuts, “in larger quantities. People have very much come for cupboard staples.”
Though raw nuts have a much lower margin, “there is a real dignity to selling something so essential and worthwhile,” he tells me. “I feel that is more in keeping with the Market’s general ethos.” Of course, there is huge merit in welcoming tourists too—they are vital part of the Market—but there is something deeply rewarding about supplying the local community with wholesome, necessary and sustainable produce in an environment in which its true value can be communicated effectively, too. Those stories do need to be told and it’s up to us to make sure they can be.
This content was originally published by Great British Food