London street food heads the queue
IT’S Saturday morning at south London’s clamorous Borough Market and, despite a mild hangover, I’ve scoffed several fingerlicking samples of smoked gruyere, chunky olive bread and hot slivers of spicy boar sausage.
Forgetting the previous night’s beery excesses — thanks to London Pride ale — I’m hitting the streets for some restorative fresh air and a little early alfresco dining.
Once a wasteland of limp bacon butties and scalding dishwater tea, many London markets have undergone a culinary renaissance in recent years, becoming wandering smorgasbords of gourmet baking, rustic comfort foods and a UN of international cuisine. Best of all, in a city famous for overpriced noshing, they typically offer some of the best value meals around.
Back at Borough, nestled among the labyrinthine streets near London Bridge station, my senses are continually assailed by what’s on offer. With a weakness for strong cheese, I’m lured by the earthy aroma of fresh-cut stilton, piled like edible pyramids at several stalls. But there are less familiar cheese treats too, including creamy capriola, sharp Lincolnshire poacher and ubriaco, a crumbly Italian creation matured in red wine.
With other stalls hawking hearty, fresh-baked breads — focaccia with onion catches my eye, and rye with rosemary — and one walk-in stall with a selection of European wines, this is the ideal market to collect the makings of a great picnic: hop on the tube and, within minutes, you can be spreading lunch on the grass in a London park.
While Borough is all about food, many markets provide side dishes of additional shopping pleasures. Colonising a glass-roofed Victorian market hall, east London’s Old Spitalfields — which I visit the following day— offers everything from ironic T-shirts to Banksyinspired urban-art lithographs. Attracting an artsy, trend-setting crowd, it’s a colourful spot to spend an hour or two. Reflecting its professional-bohemian clientele, Old Spitalfields drips with the kind of pricey-looking artisanal grub that’s often available in high-end delis at three times the price.
One stall is studded with shuckready Irish rock oysters, another is topped with a just-made mound of cured meat sandwiches, while another is lined with aromatic minibarrels of shiny-skinned olives. There are several vegetarian options that are tempting enough to sway even diehard carnivores. One stall displays a rainbow-coloured array of organic fruit and vegetable salads with names such as Tropical Coleslaw and Caribbean Sunrise. Tempted to embrace my inner vegetarian, I opt for a mouth-melting two-spinach-and-ricotta pastry from a nearby vendor.
Bypassing a wall of bottled beers — despite the intriguing Belgian Trappist monk brews on offer, it’s a little early for that — I amble deeper into the market for an espresso and a sweet snack. Expecting to nibble on some organic banana bread or a chunky homemade cookie, I’m instead lured by a double stand of giant, cream-packed cakes and filigree pastries.
Regular customers circle like piranhas, picking off their favourite calorific treats, but I make several guilty passes before my willpower completely crumbles. Succumbing to the inevitable, I’m soon sinking my teeth into a soft, brick-sized slab of Belgian chocolate fudge cake. That should cover all the day’s necessary food groups.
Waddling towards the Underground station, I squeeze on to a train and trundle to north London’s largest and most popular street market. Actually a string of interlinked markets lining the High Street, Camden is a must-see. Packed with disposable fashions and artist-designed knick-knacks, its hundreds of stalls offer an eminently browse-worthy way to spend the afternoon. Alongside the shopping, though, there’s some great budget dining. Entering Camden Lock Market (which was untouched by a recent fire), just under the blue-painted railway bridge, I push through the swelling crowds and soon find a covered hawkers’ row of steaming ethnic takeaways, offering bubbling cauldrons of Indian, Chinese and Thai curries.
Initially blinded by the choice, I settle impulsively for a heaping platter of black-bean chicken, chillifried rice and a crunchy banana fritter. After this stomach-filling meal, I weave around the rest of the stalls before stumbling on an unexpected clutch of homestyle food stands serving African goat curry and Jamaican jerk chicken. Tempted to nosh to a glassy-eyed standstill, I ultimately accept the sad fact I’m stuffed to the gills. Of course, I could always come back next week, if I avoid eating until then. www.boroughmarket.org.uk www.oldspitalfieldsmarket.com www.camdenlockmarket.com
Nice spice: Camden Lock Market