Our European friends really know how to do markets; where in the midst of a city you can wander out to stalls full of fresh bread, jams and pickles, bright vegetables, fruits, fish and dried meats for days. The emphasis there, and traditionally with food markets, is on the fresh produce; on the bread, vegetables and fish instead of on the juicy burger, already wrapped and packed and ready to eat.
Though a few of the larger European markets such as La Boqueria in Barcelona and Marche des Capucins in Bordeaux sell food to eat on the spot, this has originated from a need to feed the market traders, and has in no way surpassed the great interest in primary produce.
For me, real markets are a place of inspiration, not just a place to get your fill and then move on. As a menu designer, I naturally go to see what primary, seasonal ingredients the vendors are offering, and from there create the evening’s meal to share with friends.
London’s interpretation of what a market should be has somehow been lost in translation – our farmers’ and produce markets give in to a culture of instant gratification, with more stalls selling take-away produce than real food. But there are certainly exceptions.
Brixton Market is one of them; at one time a run-down market with sad-looking shop faces, the market which now includes Brixton Village and the arcades has become a foodie favourite and a place for true flavour discovery. Saunter down to Electric Avenue and you will find stalls bursting with halal meat and fish and exotic fruits and vegetables: from mangoes to plantains, to breadfruit, green coconuts and callaloo.
Brixton Village, the rambling indoor collection of cafes and small shops, has its share of notable restaurants offering a fast-as-a-flash meal, from Honest Burgers to the Japanese Okan, but it is better known for its hard-to-find ingredients; if I ever need pigs trotters or dried fish I know where to go.
Cornercopia inside Brixton Village is another great place for ingredients, and it is seriously local. Their small shop sells only local products made by local people using local ingredients, and their small café serves delightfully seasonal dishes made with whatever ingredients they find that week.
Brockley Market, a relative newbie in the market scene, is situated in Lewisham College car park and has grown to be a regular destination for local families and those from further afield who can’t quite face the crowds of Borough or Spitalfields. The focus here is on locally sourced seasonal food, and, unlike the produce from our friends at Brixton, it is mostly food you would recognise, from lamb joints to red cabbage, and olive oil to charcuterie.
With the popularity of The Smokehouse in Islington spearheaded by chef Neil Rankin, Pitt Cue Co. and its legendary pulled pork, Dukes Brew & Que, John Salt and many other meat-focused Kerb street-food players, Londoners have definitely acquired a taste for smoking, pickling and curing.
So in my most recent visit to Brockley I instantly gravitated towards a man who seemed to be smoking fish on the spot. This turned out to be Chris Box of The Little Greenwich Smokery who was finishing off smoking kippers, sea bream and mackerel while serving brightly coloured smoked and cured salmon. Chris handed me a slice of the side that was purple in colour – cured with beetroot, juniper, fennel and calvados and apple-smoked.
Chris’s salmon comes straight from Scottish Loch Duart every Wednesday, where it is picked up at 4am and filleted by 5am, before it gets creatively cured and then smoked in his natural draught smokehouse in Greenwich on Thursday. Nothing is rushed and nothing artificial is injected, making for truly gorgeous smoked salmon that is heavenly on some granary bread and slathered with cream cheese or crème fraîche and topped with fresh dill.
Maltby Street Market near Tower Bridge attracts a glossier set of weekenders and an arguably more refined selection of produce. From Honourable Sausages selling their rare-breed, free-range pork sausages using an Honour family recipe that is almost 100 years old, to fresh rye sourdoughs and white sticks from the famous St John’s Bakery.
Home to construction materials, carpenters and antique shops during the week, this street market cheerfully populates the high arches on a Saturday – the bits of wood and tiles messily stored adding to the slightly eccentric character of the market.
The Spanish produce from Tozino is very popular – with a very on-trend Spanish saloon-style bar beckoning those who are looking for a tipple of sherry and some charcuterie, as well as a dedicated stall outside selling artisan cheeses, roasted almonds, olives and sobrassada (raw, cured sausage from the Balearic Islands) to passersby.
The biodynamic Brambletye Farm from East Sussex always provides a stunning array of fruit and vegetables – ever-changing, truly seasonal and more than organic, expect to be served by someone warm and informative and expect only the best from their produce.
Last week they had rainbow chard, beautiful dark green leaves with brightly coloured stalks of bright red, dark pink, cream and yellow – the stems, when steamed, are perfect for making a gratin layered with creamy béchamel and topped with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, while the leaves can be sautéed with garlic, chilli and olive oil, and finished with a squeeze of lemon juice to create the perfect accompaniment to grilled fish.
Though not the food markets of France, Italy or Spain, there is always a buzz I get when leaving these markets – bundled with breads, cheeses and maybe a bottle of wine, and my mind whizzing with ideas for the dishes I will create tonight.