A thousand years in existence! Do you really need any other piece of evidence to prove popularity, sustainability, customer connect, innovation… When you walk under the green arched roofs of Borough Market, one hardly thinks about any of these aspects. But that is the truth – the Borough Market, tucked away at a stone’s throw from London Bridge Station and now the famous Shard, is yet another reminder of a British institution that has marked its presence in more ways than one and is an example of the old and new co-existing in perfect harmony.
To the uninitiated, Borough market is probably one of the many markets dotted around London that sell fruit and vegetables but to a food fanatic, professional chefs and food bloggers like myself, it is the holy grail right in the heart of London. Borough has long been synonymous with food markets and as far back as the 11th century, London Bridge attracted traders selling grain, fish, vegetables and livestock. In the 13th century, traders were relocated to what is now Borough High Street and a market has existed there ever since. In 1755, the market was closed by the Parliament, but a group of Southwark residents raised £6,000 to buy a patch of land known locally as The Triangle, once the churchyard of St Margaret’s, and reopened the market in 1756. The traingle now forms the heart of the market.*
While I may have lost count of the number of times I have visited Borough Market, this is a first for me as a food blogger and hence an adventure in a new light.The maze of corridors under the arched roofs in white and green leading up to the various stalls put up every morning by the traders is a sight to behold. From the moment you enter, the excitement grows and builds up as one would experience in Aladdin’s cave, a treasure trove of all things food. There aren’t any hawkers shouting to grab your attention unlike other farmers’ markets ( although that’s equally endearing), just extremely polite traders who are just as passionate, enthusiastic and quietly confident about their produce. Be it the exotic vegetables and fruits or the fantastic selection of highly sought after cheeses, vintage wines or mountains of spice, each food stall is meant to be savoured and relished without hurrying just as you would take your time to sip a prized wine or enjoy a delicate sliver of an artisan cheese.
For the vegetarian in me, the pictures here are testament to the sheer array and selection of vegetables which is unlike any other market I have been to. Like the cow heart tomatoes….never seen anything like that…lying amongst the pile of other varieties of the humble tomato. They are large, heart shaped albeit a little stretched with deep ridges and folds with a sweet intense flavour unlike that of other large watery species of tomatoes. They are such a beauty that it would be heart breaking to even cut them up! Surely that didnt take away the attention from the rest of the more popular varieties: red and yellow vine tomatoes, juicy and sweet plums, green tomatoes that make for wonderful tart relishes or dark purple ones for an exotic salad, there is so much you can do with the humble tomato.
The black carrots which seem like a mutant version, are in fact the real colour of carrots when they were originally cultivated in the 10th century in Rome and then in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Purple broccoli, white asparagus, green cauliflowers, yellow beets, red radicchio, pink radishes, black truffles – the rainbow assortment of leafs, herbs, fungi, roots, tubers, gourds, squashes, edible flowers, beans, pods, bulbs is a delight to the senses and enough to convert anyone into a foodie and surely get my creative juices going in the kitchen.
The cheese shops are another experience in themselves. Albeit some of them being quite expensive, the artisan and single farm house cheeses available are a bit like vintage wines. Like the Mistralou, which is a seasonal cheese made from raw goat’s milk between spring through to autumn. The goats are free to roam, which means the farmers do not control what they eat. They are then wrapped in chestnut leaves and further matured for a couple of weeks. This is what gives each cheese block a unique flavour and variation, tasting of herbs, wildflowers and a bit goaty perhaps. Then of course, there are the hard cheeses like Gruyere, Raclett and softer ones like camemberts, bries, blue cheeses like Rockforte and Blue Stilton and fresh curd cheeses such as the Goat’s, Feta, Halloumi, the list goes on.
Borough Market is not just for amateurs, many of the traders are suppliers to Michelin starred restaurants, have a very tight connection with the producers and in some instances are producers themselves.
And that’s what make this place so exciting…start chatting with Mario Prati at ‘Tartufaia Truffles’ and you will soon realise that he is a walking encyclopaedia on all things truffle!! Apart from truffles, they also stock a variety of mushrooms, morels, truffle pastes and oils, each made with pure and natural ingredients and nothing artificial. From the picture below, you now know that the market isn’t for the faint hearted either…some of the truffles do cost a small fortune.
Every owner that I interacted with at Borough Market has such an in-depth knowledge of their specialist produce, it is almost as if they were meant to be here! The pride with which they talk about their products, the process, what makes their merchandise more special than anyone else’ is enough to keep you hanging around for hours. One of the first stores that caught my attention was Magali Russie’s ‘Spice Mountain’. Magali is more than happy to explain the 100 odd varieties of spices that she stocks, its uses, countries that she sources them from and her knowledge of each spice, salt or chilly, is mind boggling. And she does this while catering to the needs of a constant trail of customers walking through.
The market itself has evolved from a purely trading ground to what it is now with hip restaurants, cafes and bars along the periphery of the market, many of which source their ingredients directly from the traders next door. Corporates hire the market to hold events and parties (seriously you cannot get a more unique venue), celebrity chefs hold workshops through out the year working with seasonal produce and children find delight in the rows of stalls selling exotic chocolates, pastries, breads, fresh pasta – this place has something for everyone.
As for I went around the market, I couldn’t help but wonder that I was in fact strolling through a time machine that has not just survived but stood the test of time alongside the Gherkin and the Shard. I cannot think of one other city that could boast of something similar, even remotely. As I exit the market, I can feel a smile rising on my face, as its just one more reason that makes my love grow for one of the greatest cities on this earth!
Thanks to Magali Russie, Mario Prati and all the other lovely traders who shared their experiences with me and let me photograph their fantastic products.