Anyone arriving laden with persistent stereotypes about the poor standard of London food will find themselves in a city where, after years of mediocre and overpriced eating options, tourist hotspots are finally beginning to confront their bad international reputation on the food front.
A Jellied Eel survey of the capital’s top attractions has found some beacons of good practice, and a general shift in ethical food efforts - thanks to pressure from visitors themselves, and more stringent requirements from landlords, who are welcoming a new generation of catering companies with a more modern, greener approach. “Catering at London attractions has changed over the last few years and they now offer a wider variety of healthy and ethical produce, with Benugo outlets at the British Film Institute and Natural History Museum a good example,” said a spokesperson for London & Partners, the city’s official promotional agency. “The changes appear to be a result of developing consumer demands, and attractions keeping up with the choice of food that people want when they visit the capital..”
“Public expectations have changed,” confirms Colin Lees of Company of Cooks, caterer behind the food at the Imperial War Museum, Royal Opera House, the Brew House at Kenwood in Hampstead Heath, and several other park cafés. “The food at attractions used to be fairly similar and bland – the same piece of cake and lasagna or cottage pie everywhere you went. Now people expect it to be unique.” And many want to take a more ethically-informed pitstop too.
Tell it to the tourists
None of the attractions we talked to have a clear strategy for communicating their approach to food and sourcing, though Benugo is about to introduce a range of ‘British’ and ‘In Season’ stickers on sandwiches and salads, and some attractions use ad-hoc descriptions on menus, such as ‘organic’, ‘and seasonal’, and the Tate mentions specific sources such as fish ‘fresh daily from the Newlyn day boats’.
This consumer power is having an undeniable impact, says Colin, even at the Royal Opera House, where fois gras was just dropped from the menu due to customer comments, and because it didn’t fit with the caterer’s own ethical policy. Pressure is also coming from the landlords themselves, reports Zoe Watts, head of events and catering at the Natural History Museum, which recently awarded its catering contract to Benugo, the company now running cafés at the Science, V&A, Childhood and London museums. “We’ve always been asked about green policies, but it is becoming much more prominent,” says Benugo’s Ben Warner. Likewise, Darren Elliott from Elior UK, which just won the catering contract for the National Maritime Museum, says “attitudes to sustainability were undoubtedly a key factor in the contract tendering process.”
St Paul’s, via caterer Harbour & Jones, has one of the most comprehensive food policies we came across, covering sourcing, animal welfare and ethical trading. On top of free-range eggs, and a commitment to promoting the use of local suppliers and seasonality, it supports the Marine Conservation Society, and with its help put together a good fish guide for the chefs. It has developed relationships with regional fruit and vegetable growers on farms trips where chefs are taken out to meet producers, the chefs take an annual trip to Sussex to harvest cherries from trees it sponsors under the ‘Cherry Aid’ initiative, and it sponsors bee hives in Regent’s Park and uses the honey in the kitchens at St Paul’s.
Sightseeing is thirsty work
Some of the easiest ethical accomplishments have been with drinks. Jugs of free tap water are now de rigueur, and Fairtrade coffee the norm. Like others, Tate Modern collects coffee grinds for composting around Southwark, and Company of Cooks and Harbour & Jones both get ethically-traded beans from Union Hand Roasted Coffee, the small, privately-owned company, based in East London.
The British Museum ranks as one of London’s top ten most popular attractions according to tourist website Visit London (part of London & Partners). Museum caterer DO & CO has gone one step further than the general commitment to sustainable fish made by most attractions we surveyed, and signed up to the Sustainable Fish City campaign, pledging to make sustainable seafood choices and communicate the message to customers.
Also hoping to impact on visitor’s fish buying habits is the London Aquarium, which gets an estimated 750,000 visitors a year. While it doesn’t have a café, it regularly hosts catered events, and conservation officer Rebecca Carter says it has a responsibility to educate people about the importance of sustainability, and in particular sustainable fish. The Aquarium hands out MCS Good Fish Guides to visitors, and - like DO & CO - holding company Merlin has signed the Sustainable Fish City pledge. Now not only must all outside caterers hosting events in the venue agree to use only sustainable fish, the Aquarium is looking at sourcing sustainable food for its animals too!
Our survey highlighted there is still room for improvement in certain areas – for example in relation to the meat most caterers use. At best we found meat to be Red Tractor accredited, a standard which can apply to intensive farming systems that leave much to be desired in terms of animal welfare. But there’s no doubt London’s top attractions are working to shake off the bad image of days gone by.
And just as well, with the tourist influx expected in 2012. LOCOG is the first Olympic organising committee to have developed a ‘food vision’, not only for food within the Games’ sites, but also throughout the city – aimed at improving approaches to local, seasonal, healthy and sustainable food across the events, catering and hospitality sector. This Olympic-led initiative will provide an even stronger incentive to attraction caterers already under growing pressure from the public to make good food a focus.
How ‘attractive’ is the food at your favourite?
V&A; Museum of London; Science Museum; Natural History Museum; Museum of Childhood (Benugo) British Organic milk, Fairtrade coffee, tea and some chocolate. Some seasonal British produce. Donates some leftover food to homeless charity Crisis.
Cow and Coffee Bean in Greenwich and Regent's Parks; Pavilion Tea House in Greenwich Park; Lido café in Hyde Park; Imperial War Museum; Royal Opera House (Company of Cooks) Free-range chicken, Organic and Fairtrade tea and coffee, apple juice from Kent.
St Paul’s Cathedral (Harbour & Jones) Free-range eggs and Fairtrade coffee and tea, emphasis on seasonal food and supporting local producers and initiatives, sponsor bee hives in Regent's Park, fish from sustainable sources. British Museum (DO & CO) Sustainable Fish City signatory, meat served in restaurant and at events Red Tractor accredited, commitment to buy more British, seasonal produce.
National Maritime Museum (Elior) Committed to buying local and seasonal wherever possible, avoids the use of the most endangered species of fish, Red Tractor accreditation for meat and vegetables.
The Tate Gallery (in-house caterer) Only uses suppliers that source sustainably, food waste recycled, coffee grinds composted.
Pavilion Café, Victoria Park Producers from within 50 mile radius, most food organic, Fairtrade tea and coffee, plans to grow own vegetables on nearby waste land.
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