A guide book to London will tell you that Borough Market is probably the best food market in the country. As affirmation, in February 2004, the market won the title of 'Best Market in the Country' in a competition organised by The Observer food magazine. The official opening hours are between 12 and 6 on Friday and 9 to 4 on a Saturday (though you won’t find many stalls open after about 4:30 on a Friday. The pubs do good business then, though). You can find it on maps of London, or behind Southwark cathedral, near London Bridge railway terminus.
Although its roots can be traced back to Roman times, the actual market was granted its first royal charter a mere 600 years ago, in 1406. It moved to its current site in 1756. Not only is it Britain's best food market, it is also the oldest. The market was first mentioned by name in 1276, but it is known that a food market was operating on a bridge in the area in 1014. The bridge, incidentally, has long since collapsed. It was built by King Canute.
Those are the facts. Perhaps they entice you in, but they give no sense of the flavour of the place. Borough Market is the nearest you will get to a French or Italian food market in London. In many ways it is better than these traditional continental markets. First, because of the range of international produce; second because of the variety of ready-to-eat hot and cold food on display and third because of the history of the place.
It is the history which has allowed a small community of specialist food retailers to establish itself in the streets around the market buildings. The area has long been known as "London's larder" because during the Victorian period (mid 19th century) ships used to unload imported food at the wharves near Tooley Street and London Bridge. As part of its royal charter, the market has an unusual arrangement with some of the shops in the area immedately adjacent to the market buildings.
If a shop owner has a proper shop on land owned by the market, a stall at the weekly market comes as part of the deal. So Monmouth Coffee has its main shop on Stoney Street and a stall in the market on Fridays and Saturdays. De Gustibus the specialist bread maker, has its shop on Southwark Street, and also sells it's 'artisan bread' at the weekly market stall. As a result, there is a small permanent community of high class food shops in the streets immediately adjacent to the market grounds. Some of these permanent businesses trade only from stalls within the covered market halls, among them my favourite greengrocer, Elsey & Bent.
I pass by the market every working day as I walk from London Bridge station. The first shop I pass is de Gustibus with its exotic breads. Next is the Elsey & Bent, trading from a stall near the Stoney Street entrance. He sells fruit, vegetables, herbs and all sorts of salad-type food. This morning I bought two large punnets of English strawberries for £1 and an apple to eat with my lunch.
On Fridays, I use the same stall to buy fresh basil and dill, that I use in cooking over the weekend. These herbs are sold in generous quantities at a much lower price than the small, hermetically sealed packs you can sometimes buy at large supermarkets.
Carrying a bag of fresh strawberries, I walked on a few paces to Monmouth Coffee, where I bought a pack of Brazilian coffee beans, and enjoyed wonderful, friendly service at one of the best coffee shops in London. The coffee is better and the prices are cheaper than the large chains such as Whittard or Costa. If you want your coffee strong, there is no better place to go in London. They use about 50 grams of coffee beans per cup, grind it in front of you and use a filter to make some of the most aromatic coffee I have drunk anywhere. If you think that a pound is less than 500 grams, and they only get ten cups from that, you will realise what a caffeine-jolt their coffee provides.
I am a regular there. The first time I went, I was subjected to a 30-minute ordeal of coffee-mania. I was shocked to find that I could not simply buy "half a kilo of that, please". Instead, the manager came across and insisted I tried three or four different varieties, to get the right flavour and depth of roasting. Each cup made to the same strength as their normal coffee. She told me all about the different acidity, how it is grown, why they use fair trade practices wherever possible, but never so that they compromise quality. I bought a pack, but when I got it home it did not taste the same. I probably make it too weak.
I returned a week or two later, taking a sample of the coffee beans I usually drink. Another 30 minute session and another four or five cups of super strength coffee, and the same lady found me the right combination of strength, acidity, depth of roasting. I have been using those beans ever since. These people love to talk coffee, but If you want just a cup, then you can sit in their comfortable seating area, read a newspaper, eat croissants or fresh bread with farmhouse cheeses and spend as long as you like just watching the passers by, or reading a newspaper.
If that little hors d'oeuvre has whetted your appetite, let me now introduce you to the main event, the market itself.
You know there is a market there, because of the smells. There is a lot of meat available. Although many stalls do cater for vegetarians and vegans, anyone visiting the market has to be prepared for the sights and smells of dead animals and cooking meat. Many of the stalls cater for the lunchtime office crowd, and those workers have the choice of ostrich burgers, fried chorizos, venison sausages, bockwurst, roast hog, noodles, Greek kebabs and a hundred other types of hot food.
One of my favourite stalls is a wet fishmonger who has sells everything from scallops and lobster to rod-caught sea bass and fresh tuna. The fish is superbly fresh, with shining eyes and hardly any fishy smells. He has skate wings, bream, mullet and every other type of fish for sale.
Where the office workers are buying ostrich burgers, I am buying ostrich steak to barbeque over the weekend, or game pies made from wild boar, venison and other flavoursome meats.
I buy my oil from a stall dedicated to olive oil from Puglia. Again you are not encouraged to buy "a bottle of that, please" but to taste each type and make a positive choice about which tastes best. You will probably want to buy two or three different types: one for salad dressings, another for frying and maybe a third type for using in recipes. Last time I was there, they slipped me a leaflet advertising a family holiday villa in southern Italy at ridiculously cheap rates.
On the vegetarian front, other stalls are devoted to herbs and spices; to vegan supplies, to beans, wild mushrooms, vegetables. There is a stall devoted to nuts and seeds; another sells smoothies made in front of you. There are dozens of stalls selling cheeses.
I love cheese, and Borough Market satisfies all my cheesy appetites with a wide variety of different suppliers. Some from France, some from Italy, others are more general. One is devoted purely to Caerphilly cheese. Having tried most of the traders, I have become a regular at one of the Italian stalls. I now get special treatment. When I buy a few hundred grams of parmigiano-reggiano cheese, the stall holder will give me a chunk with rind on only one edge, instead of a piece which seems to be mostly rind. I buy mozzarella de bufala there and it is so delicate, complemeting the taste of basil and tomatoes wonderfully. If I see something that looks good, then the stallholder encourages me to try a morsel.
Next door, East Teas sells wonderful jasmine blossom teas and every other type of oolong and green Formosa that you could hope for. Like almost all the stalls, he will make you a cup of any tea you desire, and explain about the origins and how the drink might help your health. Or maybe just talk about how unseasonably warm it is today. It's up to you, but he can tell you all about the history of his teas, if you want him to.
I could go on endlessly about the smells and flavours you find there, but it is one of those things you have to experience yourself. To revert, for a moment, away from sensual enthusiast and return to my role of analytic information provider, I have to say that this market is so different from most other food shopping in the UK because it is all about flavour.
Food shopping in England has become more about appearance and presentation than about taste and smell. Perhaps that is also true on other countries. There is no doubt that Tesco, or Sainsbury will sell you a perfectly-presented pack of the roundest, reddest, plumpest-looking tomatoes you ever saw. They would not look out of place in an art gallery, but they have no taste. When I fry bacon bought from the supermarket, I see all the white gooey preservatives coming out of the meat as I cook it. Do you know that the only reason it goes brown is the white chemical gunk burning onto the meat? The supermarkets have perfected the way to get good-looking, browned bacon, that is cheap and tastes of nothing. Their answer is to fill it full of white gunk that sticks to the meat and burns to a pleasant brown colour
Buy dry-cured bacon from one of the organic butchers in Borough Market, however, and there is no white gunk oozing out of it, the stuff has a good flavour and smells divine in the morning. I can't be certain how the stuff is raised or butchered, but all the meat I have bought at the market, from bacon to venison and ostrich, has a recognisable flavour.
When I emphasise the fact that stallholders at the market encourage you to taste their produce, I am really saying that the market appeals to people who are more interested in taste than presentation. In many cases, the presentation is terrible. Those oils from Puglia are sold from large steel cans. No fancy labelling or pretty bottles there. Just the chance to taste the oil on a crust of dry bread. Contrast that with the way we buy oil in a supermarket. You look along a row of bottles and try to decide on the basis of the design of the bottle and label. When you stop to think about it, that is completely ridiculous.
A few months before Christmas, a goose farm comes to Borough. Seldom Seen goose farm, it is called, and you can either buy a goose and order it for Christmas, or you can buy a triple roast, which involves a grouse de-boned and stuffed inside a chicken, also de-boned and itself stuffed inside a de-boned goose. The whole can be roasted for the Christmas centrepiece and then carved without having to worry about how to deal with the bones. And you can bet it tastes better than the turkey you ordered from Tescos, too.
In the week leading up to Christmas, the market opens every day, and the place is full with geese, turkeys, game, and all sorts of delicacies and treats to grace the tables of taste-conscious Londoners. It is a fabulous sight, reminiscent of all those period dramas, trying to show the good old days of Victorian England.
But today is a sunny summer's day and I want to tell you the best thing. You can buy a jug of strong beer from one of the stalls. They will sell it to you in a recycled milk carton, either two, four or six pints, and give you some plastic cups. Then you can buy the hot food of your choice and stroll through the grounds of Southwark Cathedral to the river. You can set up camp with your beer and your hot venison burgers with onions and mustard and enjoy a couple of pints of real ale in the late summer sunshine, watching the boats fighting the flood tide on the Thames as they power their way to Tower Bridge.
It's one of those gentle pleasures to enjoy on a not-too-busy Friday afternoon in the dog days of summer. Bon Appetit!
On the web: http://www.boroughmarket.org.uk/