Anyone who subscribes to the tired line that England is a culinary wasteland should consider this: one of London’s most popular tourist attractions is a food market. There’s been a market in Borough since the 13th century, but what’s recognised today as Borough Market was just a wholesale fruit and vegetable market until 1999. It’s now London’s premier farmers’ market and an important part of the contemporary food scene. It offers the best seasonal British produce and unique products (from suppliers too small to be picked up by shops), as well as carefully curated selections of imported premium European and international products. From fruit and vegetables, to meat, fish and game, cheese, charcuterie, bread, cakes, chocolate, wine and oil – some of London’s finest ingredients and treats are found here.
Maria Moruzzi knows Borough Market better than most. Her parents opened the Borough Café in 1964, catering to the working class dockers and locals. “We used to play in this market when I was little,” Maria says. When the cafe was forced to close in 2003, after planning permission was secured to build a train line through the market, Maria seized the opportunity to start something new and opened Maria’s Market Café. From about 5.15am (once the tea machine is going), Maria serves breakfast to traders and local police, or ‘dinner’ to night workers on their way home. She is famous for her bacon, cheese and bubble bap, which features her legendary bubble and squeak (fried potatoes and shredded cabbage). “If you find it somewhere else, they’ve copied me,” jokes Maria.
It’s a proper English ‘caff’, but the bare walls belie Maria’s fame. She’s been written about in the international press, featured on TV, and is a favourite with market regulars, including well-known chefs and food writers. “When the cafe first opened, the market was very much ‘foodie’ based,” she says. “Our main business came from chefs and passionate locals. Now we get lots of tourists, too, which gives me a chance to practise my languages.”
Provenance is another big draw at the market, whether local or further afield. Richard and Lizzie Vines, owners of Wild Beef, travel to London each week from their farm in Dartmoor where they breed cattle on rugged, mineral-rich land. “We were one of the first farms to sell our own produce,” says Richard. Since 1999, they’ve expanded their selection to include a hand-picked range of produce from small, neighbouring farms, so alongside beef, you’ll find eggs, rapeseed oil and Devon honey. Their cattle graze freely in the summer on the moors and meadows, and are fed a natural diet of hay and silage in the winter, with no supplements or concentrates. Richard says the proof is in the eating. “Our meat is unique: it cooks quickly, hardly shrinks and has a great flavour. People often say they can tell the difference.”
Richard has also noticed a change in customers to the market. “Since the recession hit, we get less people out of the City buying sirloin and have noticed a shift to eating cheaper cuts of forequarter meat.” As a result, Wild Beef now sells heart and liver, which he also puts down, in part, to the growing popularity of the paleo (caveman) diet.
Borough Wines, owned by Muriel Chatel, began with a stall selling a narrow selection of French wine imported through family connections, mainly in the Languedoc region. Having grown to a shop, those wines are still the focus but you can now find varieties such as Hungarian furmint, Spanish graciano and English sparkling. She also employs a team of knowledgeable staff, such as Christophe Lechevalier, who regulars seek for vino advice.
At The Ham and Cheese Company, all the charcuterie and cheese is sourced directly from butchers and farmers in Italy and France. The Tuscan finocchiona (fennel salami) and Po Valley (Emilia-Romagna) culatello (cured pork rump) are particularly good. A more surprising regional speciality is found at The Tomato Stall: perfectly ripe, juicy, sweet tomatoes grown in the Arreton Valley on the Isle of Wight.
The other side to Borough Market is the brisk lunchtime trade in ready-to-eat food. Top picks include Argentinean empañadas at Porteña (who also sell the city’s best dulce de leche and chimichurri sauce); Brindisa’s chorizo roll; Indian street food at Horn OK Please; and sausage rolls from Ginger Pig.
The ‘king of lunch’ is William Oglethorpe of Kappacasien, whose toasted cheese sandwich was described as the “platonic ideal of grilled cheese” by legendary food critic Ruth Reichl. About 12 years ago, William was working in Borough’s Neal’s Yard Dairy during the week and using their Montgomery cheddar to make his sandwiches on Saturdays. Eventually he went out on his own, collaborating with Somerset dairy farmer Jamie Montgomery to develop Ogleshield cheese, which he now uses to make raclette. This popular snack is made by melting the cheese under a grill, before scraping onto new potatoes and serving with baby cornichons. At his dairy in nearby Bermondsey, William makes a few other cheeses, but he tends to sell more from the dairy than at Borough. “It’s a dilemma, because it’s difficult to sell cheese if you’re also selling hot food.”
Many of the traders do their own shopping in the market. They get a discount, but the quality and choice is the biggest drawcard.
“I know where I’ll get my eggs from and it’s right in front of me,” says Christophe from Borough Wines, pointing to the Sillfield Farm butchers. “Wild Beef round the corner has fantastic beef, and I buy pork from Ginger Pig. I shop in terms of needs, but also friendship.”
And that’s another dimension to Borough Market: the camaraderie between traders extends to their customers. “It’s a nice community,” says Richard, adding “everyone is passionate about their products, and ready and willing to talk about food in general.”
Recent completion of a refurbishment (necessitated by work on the nearby railway) has given the market a bit of a facelift and, even better, eased the congestion at its centre, so it’s easier to spend time chatting to stall holders, without getting swept along by moving hordes. Traders, like Maria and William, are mainly positive about the changes. “It’s a new life but it’s kept its magic,” explains Maria. “It feels like the heart of the market’s been regained,” says William.
The London Markets
London’s markets play a part in the city’s unique character, with jobs and customs traditionally passed down to each new generation. But with the commercial world changing, what does the future hold for these institutions? Don’t miss this fascinating three-part series focusing on some of London’s most influential wholesale markets: Smithfield’s, Billingsgate and Spitalfields. The London Markets reveals how these iconic traditions are facing up to this changing world.
On air from Thursday, 31 October at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.
This Welsh cheese is a joy of textures: savoury and slightly fudgy near the rind, then creamy and buttery before you get to the crumbly, slightly chalky centre. Produced by the Trethowan family it’s one of the best. It needs to be – it’s all that’s sold at this stall.
Brindisa’s Ibérico jamon
Choosing is the difficult part at this deli. Will it be some chorizo or morcilla (blood sausage), salt-packed anchovies or olives? It’s hard to go past the three or four types of Ibérico ham – deep, sweet, nutty, and carved by hand, to order. It tastes unbelievable, but it doesn’t come cheap!
Rubies in the Rubble
Need a nice chutney to go with all your cheese? These are not only delicious, they’re also full of good intentions: the preserves are made with surplus produce that would otherwise be discarded, and the owners employ people who are struggling to get back into the workforce.
Konditor & Cook Dodgy Jammers
This bakery has taken the British teatime favourite Jammie Dodgers (biscuits sandwiched with jam) and gone R-rated – these have jammy letters, spelling out ‘suck’ or ‘MILF’. Childish? Yes, but there’s something satisfying about a sweary snack.
Richard Haward’s oysters
If you can’t make it to the Company Shed, the Haward’s famed no-frills (you bring your own bread and drink) restaurant in Essex, get the main attraction here. Knock back freshly shucked oysters with lemon, Tabasco or shallot vinegar.
Borough Wines – day drinks
The guys here always do a ready-made drink to sell at the front of the stall and have prosecco on tap for louche lunchers. In winter, the drink is mulled wine. In summer, it’s a spritz made with white wine, soda, a dash of cassis, a wedge of lime and ice. Take one to make your market browsing slide pleasantly by.
Photography Chris Chen (Food), Annabelle Moeller (The Flour Station) Getty Images, 4corners Images. Food Preparation Phoebe Wood. Styling Jerrie-Joy Redman Lloyd.