Thursday, 7 June 2012

An Olympic Diet: Part One

The London 2012 Olympic Games will provide a fantastic showcase for British Sport, while an ambitious arts programme has been attached. However, as a showcase for British food culture it will be a massive lost opportunity. Visitors from around the world will think we are a nation colonized by multinational fast-food outlets and foreign beer. Local food and drink products will be conspicuous by their absence.

This is the first impression that you might get when reading about London 2012. The only branded food and drink products allowed at Olympic events will be those of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Cadbury and Heineken. Meanwhile, Brand Police working for Locog (The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) have already been very active in keeping it that way. They are clamping down on businesses making unauthorized use of Olympic symbols, and local cafés along the Olympic Torch route offering “Olympic breakfasts”, in a very heavy-handed way (e.g., see link below).

However, in addition to the corporate sponsor’s offerings, Locog will be mounting their own massive catering operation during the games to feed the athletics in the Olympic village, and some of this food will be available to spectators. So, will the simplistic picture painted in the opening paragraph come to pass, or will the organizers work around the ubiquitous branding to present visitors with some real British food culture? I’ll be reporting back from Olympic and Paralympic events in Cardiff and London during the summer to try and answer this question.

The Olympic Torch Relay has been bringing communities together, with locally-made food often to hand. The torch passed through Dinas Powys 7.00-7.10am on the morning of Saturday 26 May. It seemed like the whole village was lining the streets. Afterwards, the local school was serving bacon rolls and Danish pastries, with teas and coffees.

The previous evening, we attended the Olympic Concert in Cardiff (Friday 25 May). I must admit, I ate beforehand with my youngest daughter. We went to Pasta Pot (see link below). I had penne with salmon, prawns, samphire and creamy dill sauce; my daughter had pasta shells with Bolognese sauce topped with olives and sweetcorn (it’s a serious choice for kids, all those pasta shapes, sauces and toppings). We picnicked on the grass in the Druid’s stone circle, before the main area. I dwell on this, of course, because a pot of Pasta Pot is exactly the sort of locally branded product you are not going to get at (or into) an Olympic event. In fact, all food and drink was confiscated; including bottles of Coca Cola.

Inside the event, Coke and Olympic beer sponsor Heineken had the soft and alcoholic drink options sown up, respectively (in tents on opposite sides of the area). However, this was very much a Coke event, with McDonalds not represented. Local catering company First Cafés was therefore given the food gig. There was a greater variety of food available than I thought there would be.

Cardiff-based First Cafés (established 2000) operates mobile food vans under the “Posh Fast Food Company” brand. Several of their vans were at the Olympic Torch concert, including Posh Fish and Chips, Posh Pie and Mash, and Posh Sausages, Burger and Chips. There was also a Festival Pizza van, a Noodle Bar, Paella stall and more besides. The vans were doing good trade, rather than roaring trade; possibly because people (like us) assumed there would not be as much food choice inside.

During the actual Olympics, Locog’s massive catering operation will be run by multinational catering firm Aramark. It will involve over 800 chefs cooking around the clock for the athletes in the Olympic Village. In the main dining hall, which seats 5,000 people, around 65,000 meals a day will be served from four “pods”: Asian, African-Caribbean, Mediterranean and Western, and “Best of British”. Around 1,300 dishes will be on offer. The emphasis will be on getting regional dishes tasting authentic and, especially, on food hygiene (with up to 130 qualified environmental health inspectors on site). In addition to the main dining hall, there will be coffee carts around the village offering breakfasts, sandwiches and salads. One of the only independent caterers in the Olympic Village, Café Môr from Pembrokeshire will be serving seafood in a dedicated Street Food area.

Locog’s caterers will also be offering food to spectators, alongside the corporate giants and acting within their strict stipulations (e.g., fish and chips outlets cannot sell chips on their own). Jan Matthews, head of catering at the games, has said that they wish to create a food festival with some of the atmosphere of London’s Borough Market. Stalls will offer British cheeses, seafood and other products. (Guardian article by Robert Booth used as the main reference for these two paragraphs is linked to below).

In terms of food, the Olympic site will be dominated by Europe’s biggest McDonalds and the products of the corporate sponsors will be everywhere. American-style fast-food will be the main choice. However, the Olympic Games may not be the complete disaster for British food culture that some at first envisaged. I’ll be sampling the food on offer later this summer and will keep you posted!

Pasta Pot:

First Cafés:

London 2012: Olympic organisers' pettiness risks undermining goodwill. Owen Gibson (Guardian Blog 24 may 2012):

London 2012: Why feeing Phelps and Bolt will be an Olympian feat. Robert Booth (The Guardian 25 May 2012):

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