Wednesday 9 March 2016

London, my London

To write about London is to write about trade. And to write about the British capital’s trade is to delve into the history of its markets and their well-earned reputation, their variety and uniqueness. That is why last summer as part of my bicycle tour I undertook a trip around three markets that have become landmarks in their own right in my adopted city: Borough, Brixton and Portobello. By the end of my journey, not only had I gained a better understanding of what has made London such a renowned commercial hub for centuries but also, I realised I had, inadvertently, drawn a sort of urban smile with my two-wheeler from SE1 to W11.

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

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Sunday 13th March at 10am (GMT)


  1. There used to be a huge food market in the center of Portland, Oregon when I was a child...around '55. I was taken there by my grandparents and I remember being so overwhelm and excited at a short 5 years. I guess it's hayday came long before that because I never saw it again. In that era there was no talk of natural/organic/local - because it all was, you couldn't get anything else.

    Now there are small Farmer's Markets, many, in the city and they provide a wealth of all these things, but like you say they're expensive. I love to go and see all the different types of food and there are lots of ethnic little food stands to salivate over. It's not possible at this time for them to be really affordable for lots of reasons, but I eagerly look forward to the day when such lovely things are within reach of low income people.

    It was fun to get such a "virtual visible" with your descriptions. Love to hear one about E and C.

  2. Oh, my. Do you think I'd ever get a chance to come and visit your London? Would love to one day!

  3. I imagine most cities began as trading centers and grew with surging populations. I do enjoy buying produce and other food stuffs directly from farmers and food producers when I can.

  4. Farmers' Markets have taken off here. Sometimes (not often) they are cheaper. Usually they are not. The quality is excellent. And the growers have some intriguing stories to tell. I also really love the creations that are made from that fresh produce.
    I really, really hope that markets can whittle away at the supermarket stranglehold. World wide.

  5. In London a few years ago a friend and I headed down to Borough Market, only to find it closed.There was scaffolding all over the place as the raced to complete the Shard. But I have fond memories of some of the other markets.In the 60s, Berwick Street was the best place to buy an organic, home-farmed chicken.And one fellow there sold yams!

  6. There usually is some good markets in most cities, you just have to search them out as some aren't so easy to get to, unlike the grocery stores on every corner.

  7. Lovely description-- I so want to visit! Thanks! K.

    Ps I lived in the uk in the early 80s. Right next to a lovely market though quite British-- in Oxford. K

  8. Great description and such a lovely photo.

  9. Farmers Markets come to my area of the UK about once a month. I wish they would come more often. They might if we had a suitable building, as it is they have to set up stall in the middle of the road. Having said that, the road is closed to traffic at all times.

  10. Hi ACIL - I love Borough Market and have been a few times .. I'd love to live nearby and be able to shop there more regularly! You describe it perfectly .. and I was fascinated by your description of Brixton and the Brazilian connection .. but still with plenty of ethnic mix - I have friends who go for their Jamaican food stalls. Fascinating about Elephant and Castle having lots of Colombian connections ...

    London has 270 nationalities and 300 languages ... a right mix!

    Looking forward to your other markets ... cheers Hilary

  11. I love markets - all over the world, we come together to trade. And it's great that, in the middle of all the modern mayhem of London, there are still some ancient markets, based on ancient principles - men and women producing their own food and selling it locally. (Such a shame that some of our lovely market towns have let this go, driven away by th supermarkets.)

  12. It has been a long time since I visited London, but even back in the day I loved being able to get a good curry there. How cool that you can now get Portuguese linguica and Brasilian feijoada...might be time for another visit to London...

  13. Oh I found this wonderful post so evocative of my childhood, CiL.
    My father was addicted to markets, so he and I used to visit as many as we could...and we would often find some really unusual items that couldn't be found anywhere else.
    I really must visit the London markets someday.
    I'm sure they must have totally unique atmosphere...:)

    Have a great day! :))

  14. What an interesting multicultural history! You are brave to bike around London. I enjoy these segments with your evocative prose.

  15. My hubby and I both grew up in Baltimore, and one of the things I loved about it there is that immigrants from all over the world settled there, and formed their own little communities with fabulous ethnic markets and restaurants. That's probably true of most port cities all over the world.

    Farmers' markets and international markets are thriving here in Atlanta. The big move is toward selling locally grown foods, and locally raised meats, and eggs, etc. Organically grown fruits and veggies, and meats without growth hormones and antibiotics, etc. It's a fantastic trend, and very popular. I really hope it lasts.

  16. Boa tarde, Reino Unido ao longo da historia foi absorvendo as mais diversas culturas através da imigração, Londres com os seus cerca de doze milhões de pessoas encontra-se de tudo nos seus famoso comercio, infelizmente estive em Londres somente de passagem com vontade de regressar com tempo.



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