What is Local Again?


As we wait to board our plane here at Heathrow, I’ve been thinking about food (since it’ll hours before I get some decent food, I suppose). I spent some time getting acquainted with local food by visiting Borough Market, eating at “local” restaurants, and even shopping at a Farmer’s Market in Oxford. So, in my last few minutes in the UK, I am asking myself, “What can Philadelphia learn about local food from London?” Here, in no particular order, is what I’ve found.

Local Seafood – Naturally, I was impressed by what was available at Borough Market, but that extended to several dinners I had in London and even Oxford. Granted, London is a short distance from the coast, but so is Philadelphia, and we don’t have anything remotely commensurate. The fish and oysters I’ve had here surpass anything I’ve tasted in the States – particularly the oysters. Aside from wine (see below), I feel continually frustrated in my efforts to eat local seafood – and I know I’m not alone.

Local Food Gardens – For whatever reason, the Tate Britain was lined with a luscious herb garden. If I had a kitchen at the time, may very well have plucked a few leaves when no one was looking. However, last week, when I visited Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the garden (dubbed a “Victorian” garden) was full of enough food to feed me and my wife for the remainder of the summer – including the most amazing artichokes I’ve seen since Culton Organics’. There’s a nascent movement of converting vacant lots into urban farms, and what I’ve seen here indicates to me that this holds only more promise. If a restaurant like Konstam can fashion its menu from what can be found within the London Underground network, what can Philadelphia do?

Gastropubs – As well as any American city, Philadelphia gets gastropubs (we’ve had the Standard Tap much longer than New York has had the Spotted Pig), but we do not have anything to compare to London. I was fortunate enough to eat at the Duke of Cambridge (an organic pub to boot), but I also enjoyed the Anchor and Hope (potted cockles, yum) as well – and those are just what I managed to get to on my budget. There was the Eagle and the Coach and Horses that were on my list, too. Should places like the Royal Tavern and Standard Tap continue to open, it seems only natural that they – seeking to be neighborhood destinations – showcase local food.

Local Organic Beer and Wine – Philadelphia is such a great beer town, so why don’t we have organic beers? Of course, the Duke of Cambridge was serving them, but I also had an organic ale at a chain restaurant (Gourmet Burger Kitchen), that was brewed from hops grown on the farm. Local wine for me, mostly, is still nascent. As much as I would love to drink local wines, I’ve tasted very few that equal my favorites from Southern Italy.

Celebrity Chefs Gone for Local Food – If you haven’t already seen Jamie Oliver (and, given the crappy timeslot from the Food Network, you may not have), he’s already gung ho for local food. At our lunch at Fifteen (a worthy enterprise in its own right), my braised pork shoulder actually named the local farmer from whom it was purchased. Yet, that’s not all. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, has a weekly series. More interesting, Marco Pierre White is fashioning the ultimate British feast . Marco is, to be frank, insane (just read Bill Buford’s account of him in Heat, if you don’t believe me), but he is talented, and it’s been very interesting to see what he finds as he traverses Great Britain. The show could be a complete sham for all I know, but that anyone thought it was worth making is interesting to me.

Above all else, though, I admire the genuine pride in local, artisanal products that I’ve seen here. I know that “British” cuisine was not considered serious for some time, but that seems to be disappearing (I hope), as this country has a long and distinguished culinary tradition. It’s nice to see traditions thriving alongside and complimenting London’s international cuisines.

And so, Goodbye, London Town…

As I walked on with a heavy heart
Then a stone danced on the tide
And the song went on
Though the lights were gone

– “Lullaby of London,” The Pogues


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