How Did London Get Its Food & Drink Trends?

By James FitzGerald Last edited 33 months ago

Last Updated 29 October 2021

How Did London Get Its Food & Drink Trends?
Posh avocado-toast. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Every so often a new food or drink changes London. Not every freak shake, activated charcoal, or poké bowl transcends ‘fad’ status — but those that do seem to reflect the time in which they arrive. It’s not hard to see climate concerns expressed in the rise of meat-free dining, for example.

What can be tougher is to figure out where a new idea has come from. Some items — like the cronut — have high-profile pioneers and are easy to trace. Other trends emerged more murkily. Typically, you’ll find that London imported them from somewhere else.

We will never know which prehistoric human accidentally invented wine — but we thought we could at least find out who brought the flat white coffee to Soho. We set about investigating five top trends in recent history — asking what each of these said about the city at the time.

Antiquity (and mid-1990s): sourdough bread

History to get your teeth into. Image: Vanessa Kimbell

Microbially, sourdough has plenty in common with the bread eaten in Roman London. Its baking principles are ancient, and only in recent history has industrial bread-making been divorced from them. The sourdough revival is about London’s gut health. It’s born of a mounting fear that all the seemingly inoffensive things we’ve ever loved — from sliced white supermarket loaves to social media — are actually destroying us. Interrogating our very bread means going ‘back to basics’.

“Baking sourdough is the most beautiful disruption you can have,” says Vanessa Kimbell, founder of the Sourdough School, researcher of bread digestibility, and teacher of many a London baker. There’s a lot of history to chew on, but she traces the sourdough renaissance to San Francisco radicals of the 1960s, themselves inspired by the French. She cites St John (opened: 1994) and Baker & Spice (1995) as two key London players in the campaign to raise standards in British bread.

“In terms of making the most nutritious bread, London still hasn't quite caught up with research,” adds Kimbell, who goes on to recall a time, years ago, when a baker nearly vomited as she explained sourdough when applying for a job. “We need to redefine what flour is. Humans actually evolved eating a multitude of ingredients in it. Commercial flour is only one species, which is useless when it comes to nourishing your gut. What we need is diversity.”

1962: avocados

1800 illustration of an 'avocado pear'. Image: Wikimedia Commons

London’s canonical fruit. An obsession began, in earnest, in 1962 when Sainsbury’s became the first supermarket to sell the so-called avocado pear. But it’s possible these had been eaten on our shores as early as the 18th century. The naturalist Hans Sloane (after whom a square in Chelsea is named) is believed to have been the first to use the precise modern spelling in English, in 1696.

European sailors of that same era used this New World food as a spread, but the origin of avocado-toast has confounded historians. They note references to comparable culinary creations in both California and Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1994, the Independent was referring to avocado-based toasted sandwiches on sale here in London; five years later, Nigel Slater published a recipe for “avocado bruschetta”.

Tested primarily by Instagram likes rather than by taste buds, the avocado-toast was arguably the first food trend created by digital London. It raised the philosophical question of whether or not a snack could be said to have been consumed unless it had first been photographed. Nowadays, though, the dish is no longer remarkable to Londoners; it is simply their index of inflation. One day, aspiring prime ministers will be quizzed on whether they know the cost of avo-toast.

2005: flat whites

All foam, no froth. Image: Flat White Soho

London’s had coffee-houses since the 1600s. But one brew beloved of many cityfolk today was not visible here until 2005. Flat White, on Berwick Street, was the capital’s first ambassador of the titular drink. The joint was set up by Aussies and Kiwis, whose countries both claim to have created the ‘flattie’ — and whose many citizens in London had long been clamouring for a better coffee scene.

The flat white is cooler and with more foam (less froth) than a cappuccino, and in a smaller cup than a latte, explains one of the café’s founders, financier Peter Hall. “Ideally, someone knocks off the first one, then says, ‘gee, that was so delicious. I’d better have another.’” This coffee says something about London’s exodus out of offices. A moderate, gulpable beverage, it's for freelancers who don’t want to face up to their caffeine intake as they spend their day in a café buying drinks to fund a wi-fi connection. Hall had hoped to inspire hipster hangout spots like those he’d seen in Sydney.

The chain coffee shops sent spies — and soon the flattie was ubiquitous. Hall sees the rise of the coffee shop in London as an indicator of social change. “It’s about the equalisation of the sexes. The pub used to be the place that people get together — but that was a blokey environment in which settling in for a long drink meant getting smashed. The coffee shop gives power to women.”

2009: craft gin

Detail from William Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' (1751)

It may have been the clean drink that London craved to flush out binge culture, but gin has been sipped here for centuries - and the relationship has been pretty complex. In his history of the spirit, Simon Difford writes that a crude version of gin, used as medicine, was being distilled in London by the early 1600s. A new king, William III, further popularised Dutch ‘jenever’ in the British capital, and soon the state was actively encouraging its production.

If London today seems mad for a certain juniper-flavoured spirit, imagine the scenes as the city entered its ‘gin craze’ in the 1720s. Commentators wrote of pandemonium in the streets. As Difford puts it, “London’s population went on a drunken bender which was to last until the end of the 1750s.” Various pieces of legislation were used to put the habit on ice, following which gin fell out of fashion.

Martinis ahoy: Portobello Road Navy Strength Gin

Chiswick-based Sipsmith claims it provided the tonic in 2009, by contesting an archaic law which banned distilleries below a certain size from opening. What followed was a ‘gin-aissance’: a tenfold increase in 10 years of English distilleries, according to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. This trend is as much about Londoners’ hunger for authenticity as it is about actual gin. Along with beer, gin is the refreshment of choice for devotees of craft. Followers of this religion renounce big brands in their day-to-day lifestyles; they stomach higher prices for something deemed ‘artisanal’. Timing-wise, this was a dismissal of the macho capitalism that characterised the noughties.

2009: no-reservations restaurants

Queuing for a meal? Some won't stand for it. Image: Sompon Choosong in the Londonist Flickr pool

A trend which thrills and baffles out-of-towners in equal measure. The city has always had eateries that are not set up to take bookings, but it’s now grown a battalion of anti-reservationists: places which are perfectly able to pop you in the diary, but who choose not to — typically only fuelling their hype. Russell Norman’s Polpo has been credited with importing this practice from New York. Again, the year was 2009. “I’m not sure why”, he tells us, “since Barrafina on Dean Street had done it since 2007, and Wagamama for years before that.” Norman reckons he was simply talked about more by early Twitter users.

Ditching the reservation system soon after opening was “nerve-wracking, and people got very irate,” he says. “But we wanted to protect Polpo for the people of Soho we identified when we opened.” He speaks of a neighbourhood restaurant which reflected “scruffy” post-recession culture. And the model worked well because hungry diners could never complain about seeing empty booked tables.

Gluttons for punishment talk about, say, Dishoom as if waiting in line for a table is somehow part of the fun of dining out. But not Norman, whose restaurants usher you in for a pre-meal drink. “What Dishoom does is fantastic, but the one thing I object to is queuing on the street,” he says. “I distinguish between restaurants that have a genuinely hospitable way of operating, and those that start your experience only when you walk through the door having waited in the cold and the wet.”