How the Olympics Will Reflect London's Changing Food Scene
Does it matter that visitors to London’s Olympic Park this summer will mostly be guzzling Singapore Noodles, barbecue wings, burgers and burritos? News arriving last week that food offerings at London’s Olympics won’t be particularly British may come as a relief to some visitors. With a reputation for producing boring stodge, Britain’s international culinary renown remains modest, no matter how many cursing TV chefs and trans fat witch hunters we export. Perhaps recognizing this, London’s Olympic Games will offer spectators a distinctly familiar roster of dishes (bar the odd hog roast), distinguished from what’s available at the average airport mainly by even higher prices.
The Olympics have nonetheless made one admirable concession to local conditions, one that will help plough visitors’ cash back into the country. British producers will produce 55 percent of food served at the Olympic Park, with even McDonald's using 100 percent British farm assured Red Tractor chicken. Its meals might not be British in the narrowest sense of the word, but Olympic Park catering is so far living up to London 2012’s promise to create a relatively green, carbon footprint-conscious games season.
Visitors who fear of British food, it should be pointed out, are way behind the times. Beyond the Olympic Park’s confines, London’s food standards have shot up in recent years, with the greasy tea and clammy sandwiches of yesteryear increasingly rare. London’s multinational population has made it one of the world’s best places for global eating – the Olympic Borough of Newham alone contains South Asian restaurants to beat anywhere else outside the subcontinent itself. It’s not just a case of immigration diluting traditional British blandness, either. Londoners have been rediscovering indigenous livestock breeds and excellent seafood from the Thames Estuary, with local delicacies like Gloucestershire Old Spot Pork, Suffolk Gressingham Duck and Whitstable Oysters now commonplace on menus. Meanwhile the once dying art of British cookery has been kicked back to life in the city’s countless gastropubs and many farmers markets.
The McDonald's in London's Olympic Park. It will be the largest in the world. Photo credit: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
This gastro boom has obvious limitations. Farmers’ markets are cute, but only a modern day Marie Antoinette would suggest ordinary Londoners could get by on dainty local asparagus tied up in biodegradable twine. While independent traders flourish in the market’s upper reaches, further down the scale London’s supermarkets are increasingly suffocating competition. Despite resistance from local communities (even from zombies), chain supermarkets increasingly poach the sites of successful independent businesses by offering landlords higher rents, opening up stores whose ranges (if not prices) are smaller. London opponents of these chains are often criticized as being wealthy aesthetes who care more about local prettiness than affordability. The truth, however, is that when large supermarkets open in many London neighborhoods, it’s often only expensive niche businesses serving the wealthy that have been able to survive alongside them.
In some ways, the new flagship megamall next to London’s Olympic Park is part of this process. Specializing in higher end brands, its one supermarket is a Waitrose, part of an upmarket chain normally found in districts far more prosperous than East London’s Stratford. The surrounding neighborhood is still no food desert, but with the Olympic Park’s displacement of local people’s century-old allotments, there is a creeping sense that Olympic developments are not making poorer residents’ food access easier. London’s food culture may be stronger and more diverse than ever, but like the Olympic Park’s £7 a pint beer, its variety is far from accessible to all. Greasy tea and clammy sandwiches might have once given tourists the shudders, but at least they were cheap.