Last Saturday I found myself, for the first time in ages, at Borough Market. I will really struggle to describe to you the intensity of my love for the place and, as always, I found it enormously difficult to drag myself away with a heavy heart, a sorrowful soul, and a childish mind asking “but WHY do I have to go?” I trudged off to the tube laden with beautiful english goat’s cheeses, lush smoked spanish anchovies, deliciously sweet and smoky oak roast tomatoes, the most amazing squidgy sourdough loaf, a rainbow of long romano peppers, gooey alabaster mozzarella, heavenly salty parma ham, and a huge smile – promising myself I’d return every Saturday for the rest of my life!
Of course I know that’s not going to happen, but I just feel so happy surrounded by all this wonderful food.
The retail market at Borough was less than 2 years old when I moved into my flat a couple of minutes walk away. I don’t remember my first visit, the place just very quickly became a huge part of my life, and subsequently a significant reason why I stayed living at London Bridge for the next seven years. It was my larder, my local, my place of worship, my sanctuary, my playground. I have infinite memories of stumbling out of most of the bars and restaurants at various times of the day and night (with friends, obviously!) having spent hours shopping then diving, exhausted, into Brindisa for tomato bread, grilled chorizo, and lashings of ice-cold Albarino; or The Wright Brothers to perch at a stool along the bar and munch on a lip-blistering plate of deep-fried crunchy ‘New Orleans’ oysters washed down with a bottle or two of French cider; or just a handful of pints on the bustling pavement outside the Market Porter pub. Always though, we would be surrounded by a sense of excitement, happiness and love. The place just has that effect. If ever I felt lonely I would take myself off to the Market, no matter what the hour, and there would always be something going on; if it wasn’t traders setting up their stalls, then it was pallets of fruit and vegetables being stacked sky-high up against a damp, medieval stone wall underneath the dripping railway arches, and always a meandering street cleaner or a scurrying market porter to say ‘hi’ to.
The Spring was always an exciting time; on the first really sunny morning I would rush off to the market earlier than usual, in just a dress and flip-flops, but cloaked in a feeling of relentless hopefulness and an abounding sense of, well, of existence itself! Spring time has the ability to perk you up anyway, but add to that the vision of stalls heaving with vivid pink rhubarb, their luscious leaves hanging off the end of the tables, huge punnets of English strawberries bursting with juice, their sweet smell permeating the air, mountains of artichokes longing to be simmered to yielding tenderness and dunked into bowls of freshly melted butter, piles of seductive asparagus, dainty fragrant pea shoots, and luminous golden lemons. Who wouldn’t want to load their basket with as much as they could carry, go straight home and get cooking?
But Christmas, oh Christmas. At Christmas time the market was every festive movie you’ve ever seen rolled into one! I became Meg Ryan in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ dragging my tree home through the snow, tipsy from a morning spent guzzling mulled wine, placing my cheese order, picking up a few last-minute foodie gifts, and generally just soaking up the twinkling jubilant atmosphere. After the humongous effort of lugging the tree and all my shopping up the 8 flights of stairs to my tiny top floor flat, shoving the smoked salmon, brandy cream and black pudding in the fridge, I’d head back down there, free of the burden of all my packages, to meet friends and enjoy the celebratory vibe. Finally I’d wobble the few hundred metres home, pour myself a glass of bubbly, pop on the ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ soundtrack, and decorate the beautiful tree, my little sitting room illuminated solely by sparkling fairy lights. Christmassy perfection! (I LOVE Christmas, but know I’m not alone in enjoying the build up more than the day itself).
Borough was my local market for a long time, but frankly, put me in any food market anywhere in the world and I am equally excitable. Last summer, my first stop within an hour or so of arriving on the French atlantic island of Ile-de-Re, was the bustling grocery bazaar, the nerve-centre of St-Martin-de-Re, swarming with discerning locals selecting from the incredible 12-metre long fresh fish counter that was groaning under hundreds of varieties of seafood including masses of the famous local oysters grown on the flat beds that carve the island into its spectacularly latticed landscape. I picked out some ripe red vine tomatoes heavy with juice, selected a fat, crispy rotisserie chicken with a heavenly smell, chose a still-warm baguette and bought a small bottle of local olive oil and a little bag of sea salt. I settled down of some rocks, and with my feet being lapped by the ocean, set about tearing the warm chicken apart with my fingers, pouring olive oil onto ripped bread, and dribbling tomato juice down my chin. What a perfect meal! When it was all finished I cleaned my hands and face in seawater and headed back to town safe in the knowledge that it doesn’t get much better than that. It was going to be a good holiday.
It’s a shame places like Borough are so few and far between in the UK. We’re so reliant on supermarket convenience, myself included, in order to satisfy our busy materialistic lives. But if – like it still is in some corners of the continent – these sorts of markets, and this type of shopping, cooking and eating could become the cornerstone of our lives, would we still need so much of the other stuff when such happiness can be derived from the simple delights of taking time to select fresh local seasonal food, lovingly prepare it, and share it with our nearest and dearest? Could that not once again surpass the modern pastime of gaining more, and improving on, all the STUFF in our lives that we just have to work ever harder to keep up with? The insatiable urge to keep up with the Jones’s, like an unstoppable fermenting yeast that just grows and grows with a life of its own until we forget why we wanted it in the first place, doesn’t make us happy does it? If we had the time to spend at the market in the first place could it make a comeback? I know a huge countrywide change of priority would be required, and in this day and age of being able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime, to express our desires, buy and sell anything and everything on the internet, spend money, make money, stay in Selfridges til 10pm, jump on a plane and be on the other side of the world in 24 hours, is it too much to ask for us to take a few steps back, not give it all up, but maybe just some of it, to make way for a few of the good old-fashioned pleasures of a previous generation or two?
I, for one, would take a shopping basket, a trestle table laden with fresh farm produce, and a sunny afternoon at the barbecue, over an Ocado delivery and a packet korma any day of the week.
Last night I made a delicious salad using the smoked Spanish anchovies I got at the market, inspired by Rick Steins new tv show, the beautiful bright yellow garlicky citrus dressing took its incredible colour from some lovely organic Colombian Blacktail egg yolks. It was perfect with a roast corn-fed chicken…
If you’ve got a couple of minutes and are prepared to forgive my very dodgy cameramanship then check out my video of a mega French food market…