LONDON—In a city rich with markets, Borough Market is foodie central.
While it doesn't rank with Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London as a tourist destination, the word is out that it's a market not just for Londoners.Frequented by top chefs (Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay) and a location for movies ("Bridget Jones's Diary," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Howards End"), it is a place where running into a celebrity shopper ("Is that Helen Mirren?" "Did I just bump into Keira Knightley?") can add extra spiff to the scene.
But Borough is more than a fashionable, trendy place. Located in the Bankside area of London south of the River Thames and the London Bridge, it is a market where visitors can engage the fishmonger who caught diver scallops off the coast of Dorset that morning, the London woman who will share a secret or two about her steamed puddings, the Cumbrian farmer who is determined to elevate mutton's not-so-tasty reputation and a cheesemaker from Cheshire whose family has been making Cheddar for about 200 years.
They come from far and wide, the 85 or so vendors (depending on time of year), some traveling hundreds of miles for just two days of hectic trading each Friday and Saturday.
"Borough Market is a reflection of Londoners' growing interest in food and concern about its provenance," said Henrietta Green of the group Food Lovers Britain. "Shopping at Borough is top of a foodie's list of where to go. Not only is there sumptuous food to buy but producers to meet and great food-to-go to munch on as you wander around."
One such producer is Peter Gott of Sillfield Farm, who makes the weekly four-hour trip from his farm near Kendal in the Lake District of Cumbria. Dressed in a bowler hat and breeches, he is a ringer for the late actor Peter Finch. Pig is Gott's specialty, and he keeps 150 rare breeds (Middle White, Tamworth, Saddleback). He also has a herd of about 75 wild boar. His products include just about anything that can be made from the animals.
Equally passionate about his livestock is another Cumbrian farmer, Andrew Sharp, who breeds Herdwick sheep. A distant relative of Sharp's was a shepherd for a more famous breeder, author Beatrix Potter, who bequeathed her flocks of Herdwick sheep to The National Trust when she died in 1943. Sharp raises Galloway Beef, too, but it's from his Herdwick sheep that he produces charcuteries like air-dried mutton and mutton salami. Horns from Herdwick sheep are on display at his Farmer Sharp stall.
Another vendor, Lizzy Vines, makes a four-hour drive to the market. She and husband Richard own Wild Beef Farm in Devon, where they raise native breeds of cattle, chiefly Welsh Blacks and South Devons that "are reared off permanent and unimproved pasture," according to Vines. But the cattle are not wild, despite the farm's name.
"It is a rather an odd name, isn't it?" Vines asked. "But it makes people stop and after we tell them about the beef, they usually buy some."
Centuries of trade
The Borough Market is London's oldest food market, first built by the Romans. Once known as "London's Larder," it has been moved repeatedly since Roman times, arriving in its present location in 1756. Today it's a semi-open air market spread over several streets. The present buildings date to 1851, with additions made in the 1860s and a new entrance designed in the Art Deco style added on Borough High Street in 1932.
For more than a decade, the London architectural firm Greig + Stephenson has been working to enhance and bring back some of the original look of the market. In 2004 the firm moved the South Portico from the dismantled Floral Hall (previously at Covent Garden) to the market.
A turning point for the market came in 1995 when the board of trustees decided to revive the retail market that existed during the 18th Century. And the event that helped kick-start the market's present success was the 1998 "Food Lovers' Fair," organized by Henrietta Green, that showcased a variety of products from 50 British vendors. (Sillfield Farm, Farmer Sharp, Turnips, Mrs. King's Pies and The Ginger Pig--all in the current market--were among them.) Over a three-day period, the show drew 30,000 people, and convinced the organizers that there was an audience for such a market.
Today it's easy to wander the market and follow your nose to the scent of ripe fruit at Turnips, the aroma of chocolates at Dark Sugars, the briny smell of fish at Furness Fish.
Many vendors encourage tasting of their goods, such as the dozen or so olive oils at Apulia Blend, the cider at New Forest Cider Co., olives at the Fresh Olive Co., cheese from vendors such as H.S. Bourne (exclusively Cheshire) and Neal's Yard Dairy (with a wide variety from the British Isles) and hand-carved Iberico and Serrano ham at Brindisa, a purveyor of Spanish food.
It doesn't take long to see why the retail part of the market attracts about 17,000 visitors a week.
Depending on the season, it's not uncommon to see whole boar, wild rabbits, pheasants, grouse, venison, wild ducks and partridge. Always present are butchers carving carcasses into rump roast, lamb chops, tenderloin and the like.
At fishmonger stalls you might see a sea creature or two you didn't know existed.
And you might even hear Kevin Loe, a tenor who works as a greengrocer at Turnips between operatic engagements, making like Enrico Caruso with his rendition of "O Sole Mio."