Travel is an inherently messy business, something that produces a fair amount of ambivalence –angst, even, at times — in the eco-sensitive travel writer. So it’s particularly gratifying when I find a destination that makes it easy to reduce my impact along the way.
England is just such a destination, with recycling bins everywhere, a vibrant “Buy Local” campaign and public transport that aces ours in every way. EasyJet, the budget airline I booked for my side trip to Spain, made it easy to offset my carbon footprint by checking a box and paying a few extra dollars to plant trees or invest in renewables. Picturesque walking and cycling trails crisscross the nation, and people actually use them — a lot. And a couple of our destinations — Totnes and Dartington — I later learned are important innovators in a desperately needed transition movement toward a sustainable economy.
In London, we toured the Borough Market, a celebration of all things delicious, with a strong emphasis on locally sourced, sustainably grown food. This market was pulsing with color, aroma and flavor when we arrive on a Thursday morning, with everything from artisanal cheeses and breads to fresh morels and artichokes to pig snouts and sausages vying for shoppers’ attention.
The Borough Market has been a key player in Britain’s food revolution in the past five years. “This Market is part of our new food story,” said Adrian Bevins, a London-based food writer who gave us a whirlwind market tour.
Enter Peter Gott, a hog farmer from Westmorland County. Dressed in plaid flannel, suspenders and bright red socks, he could have played the part of a British country gentleman farmer on TV, if such a role existed.
Gott was among a handful of regional producers who brought this market back to life. “Ten years ago, this place was derelict,” he recalls. “London was a desert as far as food was concerned.” A market stood on the South Thames since the Roman times, and in this very spot for the past 250 years, but industrial agriculture and the advent of the supermarket had reduced it to a few produce stands amid all the parking lots. “The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were being taken over, pushed out by the factory farms.”
Gott read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and decided to do something about it. He and a handful of other producers organized a monthly market that grew month by month. Soon it went biweekly, then weekly. Word about the “Farm to Fork” movement began to spread, and a snowball effect began. Big-name chefs like Jamie Oliver became regulars, sourcing their restaurants at the market and through its producers.
Randolph Hodgson, the founder of Neal’s Yard Dairy, was another founder. His company has been credited with saving the craft of English farmhouse cheesemaking in Britain from being driven into obscurity by the corporate cheese industry. As I heard his story I sampled a savory Cheshire cheese and a Westcounty farmhouse cheddar, heritage cheeses that linger on in the tasting-room of my mind. But it was the crumbly Coolea Irish cheese that stopped me in my tracks and made me go back for more.
Here’s a quick tour of the Borough Market:
But the Borough Market was just the beginning. Nearly every restaurant showcased on our Visit Britain tour made a point of choosing locally sourced and sustainably grown ingredients. Here are a few:
Alfie’s, the delightfully offbeat restaurant named for a dog at our pet-friendly hotel in London, the brand-new and trendy Bermondsey Square Hotel in Southeast London;
Ottolenghi, an amazing experience packaged as a restaurant near Almeida Theater. The restaurant is described as Mediterranean which to me means hummus and falafel — which is fine with me — but the dishes I sampled here were something else entirely, and each was a work of art.
Rick Stein’s fabulous Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, which together with his other four local restaurants and cooking school have transformed this picturesque Cornwall fishing village into a foodie’s paradise;
Jamie Oliver’s truly inspiring Fifteen Cornwall, a spectacular restaurant overlooking the surfers on Watergate Bay. This restaurant doesn’t stop with locally sourced ingredients; Oliver hand-picks 15 local Cornwall youth from disadvantaged backgrounds and teaches them to be socially conscious chefs.
Michael Caines Dining in medieval Exeter, Devon County, a hotel restaurant whose chef is so famous his restaurants need no other name;
Last but certainly not least, we dined right on the farm in rural Devon in an innovative “field kitchen” at Riverford Organic, winner of the London Observer’s 2009 Best Ethical Restaurant award. The establishment offers farm tours right along with your meal and markets tens of thousands of fresh “veg boxes” around the country. This one was my personal favorite, and I’ve now got the cookbook to prove it.