Call me a glutton, but when someone says “let’s go shopping” I reach for a canvas bag and, with equal parts glee and perfectionist angst, begin planning a menu rather than a fashion ensemble.
Putting some food together on a table is less of a commitment and potential disaster than me putting an outfit together. Food is a fleeting pleasure: buy, try, share. Unless of course we’re talking about food poisoning, which by all means you should avoid trying and sharing. If in London, go on ahead to Selfridge’s if you like; me, I’ll go the Borough Market.
What makes Borough Market so fascinating is that it’s the modern-day global bazaar (I say modern-day, despite its history stretching back to the 13th century); a glorious and glammed-up menagerie of ingredients and epicurean products clattering in daily from all corners of the world. Far below its soaring, cathedral-like canopy are gleaming piles of pretty produce and seafood displays neatly tumbled over crushed-ice altars, a paean to Mother Nature and whomever that jelly bellied food god is.
It is one of the planet’s loveliest, most scrumptious street food hubs. Its maxim is deliciousness and indecision. For how on earth do you walk into this temple of food, armed with a fistful of £5 and £10 notes and an empty belly that’s endured a breakfast ban – and choose between a whole hog roast sizzling on the spit, a Jacuzzi-sized paella pan bubbling away, ostrich sausage sandwiches simply daring you, savoury pies aplenty, roasted scallops on the grill, fresh oysters that practically waltzed out the sea and onto your disposable plate, mounds of Swiss raclette cheese draped over potatoes and pickles, and Indian street food making exotic catcalls?
At Borough Market you’ll find almost everything here from North America, through most of Europe and some of Asia. Geographically speaking, London’s time zone squarely straddles the 12-hour difference between New York City and Hong Kong, so that while New Yorkers are eating their morning bagel at 09:00, the British are lifting their pinkies to sip High Tea at 15:00 and Hong Kongers are splashing out at 21:00 on the second round of wines. Its airport is the hub for Europe and, basically, the rest of the world.
Culturally speaking, London is incredibly welcoming of food from every corner of the world. Let’s not make lame jokes about how “it’s because British food is so bleak,” because it’s obviously not about a Pieminister steak & mushroom pie (or the seasonal asparagus, pea and cheddar pie).
It’s only fair to interject here, that an equal contender for Best Food Market in the World is of course the collective hawker centers of Singapore – actually the entire, blessed, food-loving nation of Singapore – but that’s mostly limited to Singaporean-Asian cuisine.
You’ll love Borough Market if you like eating Chinese-style, which is to say a bit of absolutely everything rather than one main course, which entails more restraint than I care to exercise; and if you, like me, think food tastes better when eaten standing upright (I’m not the only one; legendary food writer and street-food-lover Calvin Trillin claims, “My sense of taste is at full strength only when I’m standing up.”
I couldn’t believe I’d spent so many years being googly-eyed with admiration and not buying all these treasures that lay within a finger’s poke; I’d taken for granted how easily available things like truffle pastes, Jamaican chili jams, fresh game like pheasant and grouse, wild mushrooms and North Sea shellfish are… and I was a terrible stinge at the time. Now, I could only goggle again, unable to bring back the fresh stuff to Beijing. I made off with some exotic spices here and a few jars of stuff there.
Stuff for sale is one thing, but another aspect Borough Market gets right is in their earnest efforts at getting interactive. Most days, including the Thursday we went, there are chef demos set up on a cozy station you can waltz right up to, with even a mirror suspended above to see the action of cook’s-eye-view. They keep a Twitter account to update on happenings. They’ve now got a cute, polished gift shop with tastefully branded aprons, market shopping bags and a cookbook. There’s a warm sense that it’s a market for the people, by the people – a solemn decree since 1756 when Southwark residents raised £6,000 to build this permanent marketplace to serve the area.
Even though it’s impossible to bring the raw ingredients on the return abroad, it’s satisfying all the same and immensely useful to visit such a vibrant, bountiful market like this. I was reminded of spices I hadn’t encountered in a long time; and inspired by flavours I’d never known before. The thrum of the market and all the individual foods on show will definitely be inspiring my upcoming menus and these memories will, perhaps like the excess baggage of having consumed 4 pies in two days, stay with me for a long time.