05 October 2020, 08:25 AM
  • In his latest exclusive column for Speciality Food, Darren Henaghan, managing director of Borough Market, reflects on the vital role seasonality plays in the business
Darren Henaghan, Borough Market: “supermarkets are like Narnia: the season never changes”

Nothing at Borough Market stays the same for very long – and that’s not true only in extraordinary years like this one. Because of the way that our produce traders operate, the stalls are constantly being reshaped by the rhythm of harvesting, fishing, breeding, hunting and maturation. Right now, as autumn kicks in, that transformation feels particularly dramatic. It’s a change that happens gradually, day by day, but if you haven’t been to the Borough Market for a while it can seem as though a curtain has been brought down and the entire set changed, with all the bright colours of summer replaced with a more muted palette: squashes, apples, pears, nuts, beets, wild mushrooms, oysters, game birds.

What is sad is how unusual this has become. Industrialised food retailers have over the past couple of decades managed to almost completely eradicate the idea of seasonality from the wider public consciousness. Enter a supermarket through its fruit and veg section and whatever time of year it is you’ll see the same half dozen apples, the same soft fruits, the same brassicas and potatoes. The fish, meat and cheese aisles remain in a similar state of inertia. Pay close attention and you may notice subtle shifts in the volume of different products and the preponderance of little union jack stickers denoting their origin, but otherwise supermarkets are like Narnia: the season never changes.

There is, of course, an environmental price to pay for this. Far too much intensively farmed food is flown around the world for no reason other than the drive for constant sameness: a model that locks in high carbon emissions and reduced biodiversity, with all the accompanying ill effects. At Borough Market, we have chosen a different approach, one that celebrates the seasons rather than ignoring them.

One of the biggest things we gain from this is an incredible breadth of offering. By losing produce from the stalls as it goes out of season, our traders are able to clear the decks for whatever is coming next, in all its many forms. In 1883, the Royal Horticultural Society logged 1,545 British apples, each of which had its own small window of availability. Now, most people eat the same handful of varieties all year round, only one or two of which are native to these shores. In the coming months, our greengrocers’ stalls will feature a rolling cast of those old, unfamiliar apples, most of them from southern England, all of them highly distinctive. The same diversity will be seen in the squashes and mushrooms, shellfish and mountain cheeses.

But while much of our seasonal produce comes from local sources, our approach is not about being narrow and parochial. Ours is a proudly international market, and many of our traders bring in food from abroad – but their reason for doing so is to broaden our palette, not narrow it. Every year, in the same way that we get excited by the start of the short-lived English asparagus or cherry seasons, we look forward to the arrival of the first Vacherin cheeses from the Alps, the beautiful, bitter winter leaves from Italy, the blood oranges from Spain: all of them regional specialities that are in season at their place of origin, produced in their natural environment with minimal intervention.

And that, ultimately, is the point of all this. Eating with the seasons demands far less human intervention – nature runs its course. More often than not, the less we intervene, the better the food will taste. Food that has been produced in the conditions best suited for it to thrive, food that has been transported no further than it needs to be, is always going to be the tastiest food. At Borough Market, the food on the stalls may change all the time, but the commitment to quality doesn’t.

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