Postcard from London: Borough Market

It’s going to be my home

On my first Friday afternoon in London, having moved to the U.K. less than a week before, I took a walk down through Southwark, just south of the Thames, toward London Bridge Station. I was headed to Borough Market, which I had heard was one of London’s oldest and most important markets, and nearly the biggest. Between what I had read online and what I had managed to piece together from a few travel and food shows on television, I had anticipated a pretty decent farmer’s market, with fruit and vegetable sellers mostly, a few flower sellers, one or two butchers, and maybe if I was lucky some specialty vendors with high-end granola or something.

I was completely under-prepared for the Borough Market experience.

Mind you, it was a Friday afternoon in a mostly business district part of town, and it was sometime close to 2 p.m. at that. Still, the place was mobbed. And it wasn’t just tourists and idle-day amblers. It was jammed with pint-wielding guys in suits and fashionably sensible Londoner women in dresses and heels. Sure, maybe there were some travelers who had stumbled out the back door of the Tate Modern and happened upon the market, but it was predominately local working people, I’d guess, judging from their dress and how they clustered into groups of twos and threes.

The market is held in one of those indoor-outdoor spaces: it’s covered on top but is open to the elements on all sides. It takes up two full blocks (though in England, they don’t count by blocks, so don’t go telling that to the locals). As I picked my way through the multitude of vendors, I was so overjoyed by variety and quality of the food, I actually got goosebumps.

My first week in London, prior to checking out the market, had been mostly a disaster. I flew out from New York, where I had been enjoying the last days of summer, on a Sunday and was set to show up to a new office (same job, new office) on Monday. And Monday at the office didn’t go well. Despite the fact that I had been planning for this office transfer for four months, double and triple checking my visa, my work permit, my status with the U.S. human resources, and so on, I showed up to the London office to blank stares. Apparently, no one knew I was coming. It was a complete and utter letdown. It was as if all my hard work and planning had been for nought, and on top of that, these people had no idea how much time and hard work and planning I had put into the affair. They had (and still have, sadly) no idea that I am an overtly organized and methodical person, that I am the kind of person who double and triple checks her visa and work permit, that I am precisely the type of person who does not let this stuff happen to her. And yet, there I was (and still am) sitting among strangers who haven't the slightest clue why I’m here or what I do or what kind of extreme A-type personality I have.

So that’s why the market nearly brought to me to my knees in elation. It was like I had found a place where I belonged.

And not only would I appreciate being there, but the market wanted me there. It wanted another amateur gourmand to eat and drink and pay for those pleasures.

That fateful Friday, there was a line maybe 20 people long for wild boar sausage sandwiches. I made a mental note, and when I came home that night, I told my boyfriend we had plans for lunch tomorrow.

We ate those wild boar sausages (£2.50 for a small, £4 for large) when we returned late the next morning. They were served on long chewy white rolls with arugula (better known as “rocket” in these parts) and sweet roasted onions, dashed with dipping sauces. We shared a rich dark coffee brewed to order in one of those over-the-cup filters. I bought a few sticky Turkish desserts (about £2.70 for three), which I polished off before the day was through. One was like baklava with walnuts, one was a shredded wheat log held into shape by honey, and one was a nest made of shredded wheat filled with petite diced almonds and dried apricots. Meanwhile, Boyfriend delighted in a dense maple syrup cookie bar.

We wandered through the stalls and picked up a “punnet” (a little more than a U.S. pint) of strawberries that were small and natural looking, not at all like the monstrous ones we find in most grocery stores that look like that are trying to mutate. I got a punnet of plump blueberries for a pound as well. And we found fresh eggs with bright orange yolks at 99 pence for a half dozen.

The rest of the time we spent there, we just walked around and ogled. There was one vendor who had luxurious casks of hot spiced cider, the autumn scent wafting down through the stalls. We tasted bits of cheese from both England and France, cured meats, dried fish, jams and preserves, a dab of harissa that reminded me (after a week of eating pretty mild foods) that indeed my taste buds can handle heat! We watched two young girls make “roclettes” by setting a half-moon wheel of cheese under a long blue flame until a good inch of cheese lava had begun to bubble; they then heaved the wheel of cheese into their arms (I don’t know how they weren’t scarred up and down with burns), tilting it to an angle, and scraping the scalding liquid onto a pile of boiled potatoes and cornichons.

And since, I’ve been back two more times to just wander in and out of the halls and see what’s fresh. I’ve been comparing prices among the four or five vendors of English savory pies, like pork pies only more elegant with sage or apples or both. I went back to taste more cold pressed olive oils from Tuscany. I went back to taste a pear and vanilla butter that was heavenly and smooth as baby food. Down on a side street just next to Borough Market, I’ve popped my head in time and time again to see the foot-ball sized meringue cookies flavored with chocolate or blackberry jam or raspberry coulis. There’s a fish vendor you can’t miss who has had on display 1) a gigantic butchered tuna, 2) a monkfish’s head, and 3) a small shark, mouth agape.

In the coming months, I’m sure I’ll be visiting and writing about the other markets and speciality food shops of London, but Borough Market will live on in my heart, with great bias, as the saving grace I needed so badly in my first week here.