Henrietta Green: When you've got taste, you know it
The champion of regional produce is preparing for a second gastronomic market – just one more flavoursome chapter in her foodie career. Susie Mesure meets Henrietta Green
Sunday 27 June 2010
Henrietta Green is apologising for the state of her garden. "It's very blowsy," she says of the explosion of English flowers that give her north London terraced house the feel of a country cottage. Short of walking in to find her garden turned over to vegetables, I wouldn't expect anything less from someone who has created a vocation out of developing rural oases in the heart of urban areas.
Not that you'd guess at first glance, but the sharply coiffured author-turned-food campaigner is the person the nation's middle classes should thank for giving them a taste of the countryside at any one of the 800 or so farmers' markets that now dot Britain. Or blame, depending how much you like a little bit of carrot with your mud, or blowing your week's entire meal budget on a dinner for two.
Next month, the UK's most vocal champion of regional produce, who helped to bring US-style farmers' markets to Britain in the mid-1990s, is at it again, with the launch of a new Saturday food market in the centre of London. If this article were a film trailer, the tag line would read: "And this time it's personal".
Green, you see, has a point to make with her latest venture, which sees her go head-to-head with one of the tourist phenomena of the past decade. I refer, as any self-respecting foodie will know, to Borough Market, which was little but a run-down Victorian wholesale venue before Green organised a three-day food fair there in 1998. The market's trustees liked what they saw and the rest is food history except for one salient point: Green's contribution has been all but erased from Borough's annals. "Borough just kind of elbowed me out of the project. They seemed to think they could take my idea and run with it. I felt rather let down by it, I must admit," she confides.
If things had turned out differently, the IoS photographer would have been snapping Green in front of one of Borough's laden food stalls rather than her climbing roses; as it is, Green hasn't set foot there in months after the trustees banned her from one of the market's recent events. "I myself, and my organisation, was banned at an initiative that the Real Food Festival did there. I was told I couldn't have a presence. It's ridiculous. I wrote their fucking cookbook," she says, her rare use of blue language suggesting she's still clearly aggrieved despite later attempting to persuade me that she doesn't bear a grudge and, "I'm not setting up in competition".
I remain unconvinced, however, especially as Borough today is not the Borough of yesterday, despite its magnetic tourist status. A massive redevelopment project has forced the partial closure of the market, while National Rail rebuilds the railway viaduct that crosses the site. Some traders have vanished altogether, citing changes to their leases that made their businesses unviable. Not only that, but the influx of tourists has turned the market into more of a snacking hotspot than a gastronomic destination.
"I don't want to go on about Borough, but if it had been the thriving, interesting place that it was, then one might have thought longer and harder [about setting up a rival]," Green adds. "I'm not involved now, so I'm putting this really diplomatically, but I do hear all kinds of unfortunate stories about what is happening. A lot of people feel it has become no more than a place to go and gawp at businesses and have lunch or graze."
Green's answer is a new weekly market in a corner of Soho, between Rupert Street and Winnett Street. Unlike some of the farmers' markets, it will not limit its suppliers to a local radius: Green is particularly excited about some Turkish pickled caper shoots that will be on sale alongside pig trotters and cheeks. Other initiatives include inviting what her business partner, Shane Holland, who organised the recent Slow Food markets on London's South Bank, calls "one-man wonders" to sell their goods. "If someone is only growing wild strawberries, or has just picked a certain type of mushrooms, then they can bring it in their panniers rather than take an entire stall." She is also keen to involve local restaurateurs by getting them to put on a special menu featuring at least one ingredient bought at the market.
I can't help wondering how Green, who fell into her foodie career after realising she hated her job producing television commercials for an advertising agency, will avoid her market befalling the same fate as Borough given its central location? "God, to be killed by one's own success is hugely exciting," she says. "If that is the case, there are ways to reconfigure how you put the stalls, with an area to graze and an area to shop."
The food champion has the work she put in on writing Henrietta Green's Food Lovers' Guide to Britain in 1993 to thank for the strong relationships she has with producers such as Anna Mogford of Parshalls Farm in Somerset, whose Bringing Home the Bacon products will be among those on sale at the new market.
That's Henrietta Green's guide, mind, because she is nothing if not a self-promoter. Then again, who can blame her given what happened with Borough. Not to mention a certain guide to Britain's food heroes. "It's not been easy. People have copied my work, taken it as their own. People have forged TV careers on my research, but let's not go there," she pauses. "But do if you want to." OK, then, who? "Who do you think? Rick Stein. Fine, he was more telegenic than me, or whatever." Stein's book was indeed a spin-off from his BBC TV series, although I'd imagine he'd contend that there are enough home-grown food producers to support more than one person championing them.
Stein might be better known than Green, who set up the interiors shop Graham & Green before selling up to her business partner, but it's unlikely his success is because he looks better on screen. Despite a recent "significant" birthday, Green is as blooming as her garden. She has swapped her home counties blow-dried do for the haircut of her childhood: a Mary Quant bob.
Green, 62, is clearly conscious of her advancing years, making frequent self-deprecating comments about her age. Not that she needs to worry; a new decade clearly suits her, as does being busy. If she can make the market a success, she wants to replicate it elsewhere.
Although increasingly popular – a recent poll by the National Farmers' Retail and Markets Association found that 33 per cent of people have bought food from farmers' markets in the past 12 months, although 72 per cent say they would be prepared to do so – farmers' markets and their middle-class clientele have a certain reputation. Green's own local Sunday market in Queen's Park is pure "yummy mummy" territory, she tells me, although the school where it is located has a midweek "rainbow culture". She adds: "That's a huge negative. I'm fully aware of that." It's less clear what she might do to change that, particularly as she is so unashamedly middle-class herself. She claims that means she's also not the right person to take on the challenge of improving the diet of those considerably less well off than 99.9 per cent of farmers' market shoppers.
"It's very tricky. Here I am; I'm middle-class urban with very decided opinions. I have very little experience. I was brought up with a very affluent, highly privileged background. I'm probably not the right person to go to a housing estate and say: 'This is what you do, and this is how you cook,' because probably I'd put everybody's back up."
Green is no fan of supermarkets. "They have shot themselves in the foot because they advertise their food being terribly good and terribly cheap, but the sad fact is you cannot have really good food if it is really cheap. Something has to give. We are stuffing things into a jar and every so often the lid pops off with another food scare."
She's also not a big advocate of organic, despite a term on the Soil Association's council. "There is a dilemma [with organic food]. It's not an either/or." Is the Soil Association to blame, then? She pauses, sips her tea and draws breath. "I'm not sure they've made their reasons to buy organic as compelling as they might be. God, I'm getting tactful in my old age!"
Although Green has a beautiful kitchen – all cream cupboards, white-painted floorboards and Blue Willow china – she says she doesn't cook as often as she should. She ate out last night, in fact, with a friend, at the modish Dock Kitchen, in west London's Ladbroke Grove, where what you eat is what the chef, Stevie Parle, has chosen to cook that night.
"It was a no-choice meal, and everything, with the exception of the soup, tasted really scrummy. We ate with our fingers because it was squab. It was very middle-class and indulgent, but I've had as much fun when I've gone and had really good fish and chips somewhere."
I'm disappointed that our early-morning rendezvous means we can't chat over a meal; I can't even forage any goodies from her garden because, save for a few gooseberries and one green tomato plant, her crops are entirely floral. I guess I'll have to wait to check out the new market.
1948 Born in St John's Wood, north London, where she grew up.
1959 Attended Queen's College, in Harley Street, London. After school, she studied production at Rada.
1974 Opened the first Graham and Green interiors store in Notting Hill, London, with her business partner Antonia Graham. Sold her stake to Antonia 10 years later.
1978 Published her first cookbook: Fine Flavoured Food: Fresh Approach to Lighter Cookery
1987 In British Food Finds, the first book of its kind, Green tracks down specialist local producers for a directory intended for the trade.
1993 Henrietta Green's Food Lovers' Guide to Britain is published, a revised edition of her previous book, which is aimed at the public this time.
1995 She holds the first Food Lovers' Fair in St Christopher's Place, central London, to promote her guide.
1998 Holds her second Food Lovers' Fair in Borough Market with help from Randolph Hodgson, from Neal's Yard Dairy. Not invited back, and left to watch from the sidelines as it became a permanent – and wildly successful – weekly fixture.
2009 Green's foodloversbritain.com venture launches Cherry Aid in an attempt to save the British cherry.
2010 Will launch her first Food Lovers' Market, on 10 July in London's Soho.
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