May 15. My household will not go hungry in this crisis. We have sorted out the supermarket home delivery system. The shelves of Sainsbury’s are open to us. But food lacks surprise. No meals out. No entertaining at home. No takeaways in the countryside (we are two miles outside the delivery radius of the enterprising restaurant in Shrewsbury which is sending out prepared meals).
One of the benefits of living for many years in the same place is that you get to know the local sources of good things. The best meat comes from Churncote Farm Shop. The best vegetables from Pomona at the foot of Castle Hill. The best fish from Barkworth’s stand in the covered market. The fish in fact is no better than fresh. The variety is limited. It is an abiding mystery to me why markets in France, often hundreds of miles from the sea, are so much better stocked than in those in a country where nowhere is more than fifty miles from water. All these shops are shut at the moment and were they to open I remain ‘shielded’ from the rest of humanity and unable to go out on a Saturday morning to see what I can find.
So, with food, as with travel and many other pleasures, there is nothing to do but read about it. This week I have been going through, for a history project, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861. Mayhew was an ethnographer avant la lettre, fascinated by the rituals and behaviours of the common people. He also loved to count where he could. At one point he turns his attention to Billingsgate, the London wholesale fish market on the banks of the Thames. Its business had recently expanded as the new railway network brought in fresh supplies from the coast. Mayhew set out to calculate, for the first time, the annual turnover of the market:
Table, Showing the Quantity … of the Following kinds of Fish sold in Billingsgate Market in the Course of the Year
Salmon and Salmon Trout 406,000
Live Cod 400,000
Fresh Herrings 1,225,000,000
[Sprats 4,000,000 (by measure)]
Barrelled Cod 750,000
Dried Salt Cod 1,600,000
Smoked Haddock 19,500,000
Red Herrings 50,000,000
Dried Sprats 288,000
You read it correctly. That’s over a billion fresh herrings consumed by Londoners in the middle of the nineteenth century (with a population of some 2.5m). Almost five hundred million oysters and shrimps.
That’s fish! Enjoy the sight.