Around 1850, if a visitor arrived in London and wanted to eat food distinctive to the city, it would be easy. This was the world's most rapidly industrialised city. Its population was more than three times that of New York City and five times that of St Petersburg; its food supply was more eclectic and adulterated than anywhere in Europe. Yet every Londoner in 1850 still ate the same bread. As George Dodd noted in his panoramic book The Food of London in 1853: "A Loaf of wheaten bread is a London staple; [a worker] demands it as well as a peer." Everyone knew that the standard loaf of London was a 'quartern loaf' weighing around two kilos. The bread was still made by hand, and there were 2,500 bakers making and selling this bread in London in 1853. It was the most basic way for a Londoner to satisfy hunger; a single flavour and texture uniting rich and poor.
If someone asked us for 'London bread' today, where would we direct them? Would we offer them the chewy-warm bagels of Brick Lane or the flat, moreish chapatis of the Indian restaurants near Euston, or the artisanal breads available at Borough Market? For most of the 8 million who live and work in London, 'bread' means an industrial sliced loaf bought from the local supermarket: flabby, hardly proved and packed with additives – the same unsatisfactory bread found everywhere in Britain.
Londoners enjoy the worst and best food in Britain, perhaps in the world
Perhaps the biggest change in London food over the past 200 years is that it has become so diffuse, from the Vietnamese restaurants of Kingsland Road to the Full English eaten at formica tables at E Pellicci on Bethnal Green Road. It is hard to say what constitutes a quintessential taste of the city. Even in 1853, London already had spicy curries from India and green tea from China. Thanks to the steam revolution, global delicacies were available to those with the money to buy them. Railways brought pineapples from the West Indies, lemons from Sicily and oranges packed in oblong boxes. But when it came to seasonal produce, the whole city ate in sync. Sellers put notices in The Times to announce that Jersey pears had just come into season or that East Lothian potatoes had arrived. There used to be a common language of food in the city. Take sandwiches. Around 1851, according to Henry Mayhew, the great social investigator, 436,800 sandwiches were sold on the streets of London every year, but all of them were ham. The sandwiches – which cost a penny – always consisted of boiled ham, sliced as meagrely as the seller could get away with, slapped between two slices of quartern bread with some mustard. Fast forward and sandwiches are more beloved than ever in this workaholic city, with 3m of them sold in a year from a single branch of Marks & Spencer, in Moorgate.
London was once a city with clearly defined tastes. Where Paris was a place of poultry and melons, London was a metropolis of herrings and gooseberries. Londoners were fish mad. In the summer, you could take a riverboat to Greenwich to eat a whitebait dinner. In 1849, 9.8m eels were sold at Billingsgate market – nearly four whole eels for every man, woman and child in the city. Now jellied eels persist mainly for tourists eager for a taste of authentic olde London.
The default cheap protein of the city is now chicken, sold in myriad fried chicken shops in the poorer parts of town. Rosie Boycott, chair of the London Food Board, has found that there are London schools with dozens of fast food places within a few metres of the gates. Often, they lower their prices at 3pm when the kids come out. In 2016, it's possible for a London teenager to spend 70p on a portion of chips that contains 1950 calories, close to the total energy needed in a day. Many children in the city eat virtually no green vegetables, although many schools are trying to reverse this trend, with gardening and cooking clubs and improved school dinners. Some say it is unrealistic to expect poorer London households to eat five a day but this only shows what short memories we have. In 1958, the average British person ate around 400g of fresh vegetables a week, compared with a paltry 189g in 2011.
Some Kensington residents are so wealthy that a cupboard clear-out may produce caviar. Others are so poor they cannot afford rice
Londoners enjoy the worst and best food in Britain, perhaps in the world. For those with money, there are Ottolenghi salads more inventive, beautiful and health-giving than any to be found in San Francisco. Yet London also suffers worse rates of poverty and diet-related ill health than the UK as a whole.
One new phenomenon is the rise of the food bank. In 2013, Joanna Biggs reported on the Kensington and Chelsea food bank for the London Review of Books. The donations at this particular food bank included caviar, Green & Blacks chocolate (handbag-size) and looseleaf Orange Pekoe tea as well as the more usual tins of tomatoes, baked beans and rice. Here the two Londons meet. Some Kensington residents are so wealthy that a cupboard clear-out may produce caviar. Others are so poor they cannot afford rice.
A laissez-faire attitude to food in London can no longer be justified. Child obesity levels in the capital are the highest in Britain, prompting some boroughs to turn down applications for new fast food outlets within 400 metres of a school. Meanwhile, the Greater London Authority has part-funded Chicken Town: a new, healthier chicken outlet in Tottenham. These are small signs that London is realising that food is too important to leave to chance. For now, despite all its diverse delights, it is a city in which rich and poor have no food to unite them.