This article is part of a new series by Wicked Leeks, Sustainable Cities, exploring what sustainable food means to those living in the city.
“They’ve got a product and we’ve got the money,” says Gary Marshall coolly, managing director of Bevington Salads in Vauxhall-based New Covent Garden Market, his tone reminiscent of a character in a Guy Ritchie movie.
Apart from selling fruit and veg, it’s a far cry from your average friendly weekend farmers’ market.
“It’s a premium market,” Marshall states proudly, as he leans back into his leather chair at 6am, his day drawing to a close when most have yet to begin. He looks as though it’s been a battle, a word his own son uses to describe Marshall’s negotiating style.
“Currently we have 120 products coming from 30 to 50 growers and importers, and we have to give a vast difference of qualities, price, and quantity,” says Marshall, who’s been a trader here for over 40 years and is also the chairman of Covent Garden Tenants’ Association.
The market (one of London’s three dedicated wholesale markets for fresh fruit and veg) is a complex network of suppliers; or a “delicate ecosystem” as general manager of the market, Jo Beare, puts it. Part way through a major redevelopment at its Nine Elms site, its historic role is also being upgraded for the future, from new units to a vision to become a visible and vibrant food quarter in south London.
“It’s hugely interdependent. The wholesalers sell to the caterers [suppliers to the catering sector] and the distributers,” she explains, of the relationship between different types of businesses operating on the market.
As a wholesaler, Marshall actually sells 80 per cent of his produce to traders within the market to caterers and restaurant suppliers in the ‘buyers’ walk’, an enclosed aisle where buyers parade up and down hunting for the seasonal best for their customers.
Multicoloured cauliflowers, fractal Romanescos, courgette flowers and even stinging nettles are just some of the unusual produce adorning the towers of veg-packed crates that line the buyers’ walk.
You may wonder where you can find this produce, but not wanting to give their best customers away, traders only give vague indications. From gastropubs to Michelin star restaurants, delis to independent greengrocers, they remain coy on specifics, clearly protecting their interests in this ultra-competitive environment.
It could feel like an exclusive atmosphere in the market dominated by rival family businesses with a macho culture. But there is also a vibrant and friendly energy that flows through the market even at the dead of night, jokes flying round and pop music booming from the industrial units.
DDP Produce is one such family business, a fresh produce supplier to the hospitality industry, where director Paul Grimshaw is the third generation of traders in the family.
“My great grandad was a ratter in the old market,” reveals Grimshaw, referring to the market’s previous and original location in London’s central and now tourist-hotspot, Covent Garden. Despite his family’s humble origins, Grimshaw has been a supplier of fresh produce to the royal household for over 20 years.
He stands proudly over a bag of unrecognisable greens. “We get asked for some strange things,” Grimshaw says. “They’re sea beets hand delivered from straight from a forager in Norfolk.”
Like Grimshaw’s rise, the market’s own evolution tells a tale, and it’s one that ebbs and flows with the history of the city, and with the changes in the way that we eat. Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry Cities and a leading thinker in cities and food describes wholesale markets as “oxbow lakes, the remnants of a previous system”.
According to Steel, the meandering river represents the diverse food system in which the wholesale markets were the principal source of fresh produce, supplying a raft of independent grocery stores and eventually supermarkets.
However, the river found a more efficient way to flow through a globalised food supply funnelled through vast supermarket networks, cutting off the wholesale markets and leaving them marginalised from the mainstream.
The roots of the market trace back to the 12th century, referred to the vegetable growing monks and nuns of Westminster Abbey as ‘Convent Garden.’ When the central London site became unmanageable for the burgeoning trade, the market relocated three miles away in 1974 to its current location in Nine Elms, near London’s Vauxhall.
Only a decade after the move, the market faced an existential threat. The supermarkets monopolised the retail market and subsequently started to buy direct from producers.
“What do we do now? We have no customers, it was closing,” Marshall describes the dire situation that the market traders faced. “But there was an upturn in the restaurant business, and we decided to focus on that.”
“There was a view 30 years ago that the wholesale markets wouldn’t even be here by now,” recalls Tommy Leighton, communications consultant for the market and former editor of the Fresh Produce Journal, the leading industry magazine for the fruit and veg sector.
According to Beare, this adaptability to changes beyond their control has proven essential to the market traders’ survival, not least in the last 18 months with the hospitality industry hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
“In Covid, we were busier than ever,” stresses Marshall. “All the brilliant independent greengrocers were busier than ever.”
“They will adapt so quickly and flex to meet that particular demand,” comments Beare. “Yes, it’s delicate, but it’s massively sustainable because of the expertise and the trust,” Leighton adds.
“While the supermarkets were screaming due to shortages,” says Grimshaw, “we were impressed by the lack of [shortages].”
It seems that in the same way that diverse plants on the land make a more resilient landscape, a range of suppliers with shorter links to farmers and producers makes for a resilient food system.
And while they might be a relic of the past in some ways, wholesale markets might even have a critical role in making cities sustainable again for the future.
“We need to be moving towards more regional, more seasonal food systems. If we want that, we need infrastructure,” explains Steel. “Markets are blindingly obvious infrastructure that were there in the days when we did have a local, regional food system.”
“They [wholesale markets] need to sell themselves as the food hubs of the future,” she continues. “The food hubs for a future system where it is more local, more regional but also more networked, a finer grain of networks.
“Smaller scale farms, smaller scale deliveries, then aggregation in the city, for delivery for smaller scale outlets.”
Should we resign wholesale markets like New Covent Garden to the confines of history? Or might we, as Steel suggests, consider them a blueprint for reviving a food culture in which diverse and nature friendly food producers, distributors, and retailers can thrive. Only time will tell.
Trending on the market
Traders at New Covent Garden are at the cutting edge of the newest and most exciting veg of the future, here’s what they spot coming up in the next year:
Asian wok cucumbers
Innovative chefs are using these in hot dishes, unlike traditional varieties, to add extra crunch and juiciness.
A stem lettuce eaten mainly in China and Taiwan, with a strong taste and Iceberg lettuce-like texture.
Sea beets and sea purslane
Sea beets has a dark leaf similar to chard or spinach, and when steamed have a rich, salt infused flavour. Whereas sea purslane is a small herb like leaf with succulent salty leaves, a bit like samphire.