There were already food markets in London in the 11th century. The area around London Bridge attracted traders who specialised in livestock, fish and vegetables. By the 13th century many of them had gone further south of the Thames River and what is nowadays known as Borough Market was born. This is where I began my journey southwest-bound but not before I had taken a stroll around the numerous stalls. I have been to Borough Market a few times and I love the atmosphere. There is a mix of the authentic and new. Spanish and Portuguese are heard more often these days (Elephant and Castle is not far away and it is here where the largest concentration of Colombians outside Colombia live. Brixton, my next destination on this cycle tour, is fast becoming a Brazilian settlement). The names of the stalls themselves were evidence of the rich, intermingling nature of this market: Irish-born, Gerard Coleman's Artisan du Chocolat, Italian-run, charcuterie Gastronomica and Caribbean-inspired De La Grenade, with its otherworldly range of spices and condiments.
What has always made Borough Market distinctive is the close relationship between product and seller. Most vendors are producers themselves which means there are not that many who use a middleperson. Just like in the 18th century customers knew where their fruit’n’veg came from, same in 2015 (or 2016 for that matter). There is a strong and long-standing tradition of quality assurance.
Uniquely also for this part of tourist London (the Shard is a stone’s throw away, the Walkie-Talkie can be seen through the tree branches that grow on Southwark Cathedral’s grounds and if you cross the bridge northwards you will bump into the Great Fire of London memorial) is that the market still caters chiefly to its local population. In danger of extinction scarcely a couple of decades ago, Borough Market has had to adapt quickly to the same myriad changes that other parts of London failed to foresee and assimilate to. Amongst these changes the threat from major retailers and supermarkets has featured prominently. What saved Borough Market was timing and boldness. The former in the shape of a food revolution that took off in the 90s in the UK and has continued apace. The latter in its approach to food sourcing and pricing. Borough Market values the quality of its products over its cheapness. I can vouch for that as a few times whilst in the area I have bought dairy-, egg-free cakes for my daughter and, though a bit dear, they are of the highest quality one can find.
As I parked my bike against a pillar on this rather hot August morning, I also noticed that the physical space was pivotal in attracting customers. It was not a cycle-friendly place (I felt rather guilty saddle-pushing my bike through the crowd) but the market layout made it easy to “get lost” and chance upon products one would not normally go looking for.
Talking to some of the stallholders I heard similar tales: there is a food revolution in Britain, mainly in London and other well-populated and ethnically diverse urban centres in the rest of the country. Customers’ concerns about calories-intake, especially of the cheap and unhealthy type, are causing a minor tremor in the fast and knock-off-price food industry. Perhaps not serious enough to register in the Richter scale, but still, noticeable. Markets, like Borough, have, in a way, become barometers with which to gauge social changes, as well as economic ones. The relationship between the customer who purchases a kilo of “jamón ibérico” and the seller is not just food-based, but also environmentally- and politically-based. Suddenly issues such as obesity, climate change and water waste stop being niche topics and become focal points. They raise important questions on our lifestyle.
I left the market and turned right on Borough High Street. Low-flying and bold-looking black-headed seagulls (probably attracted by half-chewed, barely-eaten leftovers) joined me temporarily as I cycled straight down this busy road. I went on a rather pleasant and smooth bike ride. I was still officially on the A3 but the road had changed names already. It was now Newington Causeway and with each forward-pedal-motion I was coming closer to one of London’s most picturesque, diverse but lesser-known spots: Elephant and Castle.
|My bicycle in Borough Market|
Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Sunday 13th March at 10am (GMT)