“Market food requires an element of theatre. Presentation must be persuasive. The food has to look good, taste good, and whoever prepares it has to demonstrate a high level of expertise. It’s a skilled chef who can persuade the shrewd housewife to pay a premium for something they could very well take home and cook for themselves”
Elizabeth Luard, Still Life
Last November I went to the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid which got my taste for culinary markets well and truly piqued.
So, as a birthday treat, my daughter took me to Borough Market and as part of the treat she organised for a friend of hers who knew the market well to show us around.
It was just as well. The Mercado de San Miguel is a specialist tapas market whose limited scope makes it delightfully manageable. Borough Market, by contrast, is a joyfully chaotic riot, encompassing every imaginable kind of artisan food and drink, with colourful stalls heaving with every variety of their own chosen merchandise jostling against each other. And I was seeing the market at its busiest, on a Saturday.
Where did our guide steer us? We took a circular route, working around the perimeter towards the heart. Because I faced a long train journey I wasn’t buying any fresh produce, although the stalls laden with vegetables, fruit, meat and, particularly the fish, were all magnificent. But as a source of unusual and interesting presents, or of curious ingredients with which to experiment, Borough Market is a veritable treasure trove.
We hurried on and I almost lost my companions as we passed The Turkish Deli – where I spotted many of the meze I’d tried on my recent trip to Istanbul. They stock Gemlik salt dried olives (aka kuru sele) which are almost impossible to find outside of Turkey. There were no green plums though…. but then they are a very acquired taste.
I caught up with the others at Neal’s Yard where I tried their most expensive cheese – St James – as well as the interesting Irish Coolea, more on both of those in future posts. I asked about the fountain in the shop and was told its function was to keep the humidity up and thence stop the cut cheeses from drying out.
Our guide decided that we needed a sugar boost to keep up energy levels and generously bought a round of hot chocolate at Konditor & Cook. It took a while for me to collect mine as I’d stopped spellbound at the shop window, gawping at the enormous gooey-looking raspberry meringues, and the exquisite rhubarb and custard muffins, definitely something to try. I was also generously treated to a caramel and pecan brownie, another future experiment to look forward to trying.
My sweet tooth was further pandered to at both Hotel Chocolat and at Artisan du Chocolat. At Hotel Chocolat I bought a bottle of Cocoa Gin for a serious gin-drinking friend and some cocoa infusion tea bags to share with my colleagues. Somehow I managed to resist the horseradish and white chocolate sauce, the chocolate orange marmalade, the cocoa and chilli finishing oil, the cocoa balsamic, and the cocoa pesto.
At Artisan du Chocolat, on the advice of my guide, I bought a box of No 1 salted caramels – elegant in a Chanel No 5 looking box, and anything but elegant with their devilishly oozing liquid contents, they would guarantee any house guest a warm welcome. I also bought some salted caramel sauce – usually I make my own, but this, I thought, might be quicker and better.
Not all my purchases proved so successful. At Greenfield Farm, in a classic example of the triumph of hope over realism, I bought three packets of ‘slim’ – drink some of this tea before a meal and you will feel less hungry was the promise – so far not realised.
If I had had the time, I could have gained instruction on two fronts – Bake Ahead runs all kinds of dough workshops – croissants, pizza, doughnuts, Italian breads…. the lot. Follow this link for more information; while Cannon and Cannon runs charcuterie courses on curing meat and making your own bacon.
Yard are impressively professional and others, such as Hotel Chocolat can afford to be daringly creative with both products and marketing blurb, but Magali Russie and her partner, Matt Norris of Spice Mountain, and Mrs Sandhu and her daughter, Preet of Temptings, seem to me to embody the real spirit of the market. At Spice Mountain I was able to pander to my penchant for pink, but I could have indulged a passion for virtually any colour, and knowledgeable advice was on hand to describe flavour and usage.
The enthusiasm and humour with which Mrs Sandhu described how you could use her products, how the idea for that one had come from her father, and for this one from a cousin, how she’d added this or that and why, was completely infectious. I was seduced by the ginger and mint chutney – like everything on this magical stall it was the ingredient to raise a meal from ordinary to sublime. Bake any white fish for example in olive oil, spread the chutney over and grill. Serve the whole on a bed of sweet potato and spinach. Simple but masterly!
Although the history of the market goes back some thousand years, the current buildings date back to 1851 and have been thoughtfully restored to include some of the old Covent Garden market architectural features, so as a venue in its own right it’s interesting to visit (you can even hire it). Borough Market is owned by a charitable trust which has introduced a panel of experts to ensure quality standards of the produce are maintained. All in all it’s hardly surprising that out of a couple of thousand attractions to visit in London, the market is number fifteen in the popularity ratings.
Borough Market is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10.00 – 5.00; on Fridays from 10.00 – 6.00; and on Saturday, the busiest day, from 8.00 – 5.00. Some traders are also there on other days and at other times. If you visit the market’s website the opening hours and locations of the individual traders are all easy to find together with all sorts of other useful information including directions for how to get there.
This post is dedicated to Jacqueline Crocker