October 25, 2013 7:29 pm

The new foodopolis

‘Deserted high streets supply premises for food start-ups, and social media is encouraging a subculture of pop-ups’
Illustration for Tim Hayward's 'The new foodopolis'©Richard Allen

I recently wrote a review of a Bristol restaurant for this magazine and commented on the development of an exciting “food scene” in the city. There was plenty of email response, mostly positive, but one or two made me think that I should probably try to explain what I meant by “food scene”.

In recent years there have been several places, from shopping streets to “quarters” and districts, that have become gathering places for the new tribe of food lovers. Some are the product of clever marketing, others the result of less obvious influences. Food, and the businesses that deal in it, has become one of the few areas of growth in our economy. The perceived wisdom is that “everybody has to eat – even in a recession” but there has also been an undeniable growth in interest among the public.

London’s Borough Market is probably the best example of a small-scale food scene that has developed in parallel with the “food renaissance”. The market had historically been a hub for food wholesale but had largely fallen into disuse. Initially a few independent traders, catering to “early adopter” hobbyist cooks, arrived and then, as interest increased in food and cooking as a broader “lifestyle”, new customers began to flock, as did the tourists.

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Tim Hayward

The Borough story reflects the way popular media have turned cooking from a domestic necessity into a spectator sport and a branch of entertainment. But there is definitely a mature and functioning food scene here – as there is in other areas where food has been recognised as an important commercial sector.

A food scene at a town scale is a different story. In some odd cases a single motivating presence can attract enough interest to turn a small place into a “foodie destination”, Rick Stein’s influence on Padstow being the most obvious example. But for a whole town to develop a food scene without a star attraction is a more unpredictable business. Abergavenny is home to one of the most successful food festivals in the UK and a small but impressive clutch of restaurants. It manages, through most of the year, to exert a modest pull on food lovers with money to spend.

Why Bristol is growing a lively food culture, while other larger towns in the UK are not, could be ascribed to various factors. There are enough people with disposable income in the area so they are not dependent on seasonal incomers. But there’s also something less tangible about the place, something about the attitude. Beyond just having the money to spend, there needs to be a belief that going out to eat good food is worth spending the money on. There are other towns in the UK with just as much middle-class cash as Bristol but where the hedonistic habit of dropping it on good food, wine and company is not so quick to take root.

Things are changing, though. As we get more enthusiastic about food as a nation and as the economy shifts, different areas will develop at different speeds and around different motivating stimuli. In some places cheap property on deserted high streets is supplying premises for food start-ups, in others social media is encouraging a subculture of pop-ups. In my home town of Cambridge, the traditional concentration of eating out around college high tables is being challenged by a ferociously enthusiastic little coterie of independents and a Twitter-facilitated food crowd.

If your town doesn’t have an identifiable food scene yet, it surely will soon. Watch social media and pop-ups, visit the start-ups and make sure you’re a part of it.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; Twitter: @TimHayward

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