One of my favorite things about San Francisco was the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. On sunny Saturday mornings the Ferry Building and its outskirts were packed with stalls selling everything from local artisan cheeses and fresh crusty bread to warm crimson strawberries and brilliant orange tangerines.
Inside there were stores selling wild mushrooms, rich chocolates, perfect story-book cakes, and delicious gelato. I loved wandering through the market stalls picking up French-style yogurts in clay pots, juicy figs with beads of sugar bursting out the sides, and fresh heirloom tomatoes. My favorite lunch stand, Primavera, always delighted me with its warm chilaquiles and brightly-colored aguas frescas, and I could never leave the market without stopping to admire the princess-perfect cupcakes at Miette patisserie.
London doesn’t have the Ferry Building, but its farmers’ markets certainly give San Francisco’s some good competition. Starting with Borough Market, the most famous, London has some pretty amazing markets dotted throughout its narrow streets. I have spent the past two months exploring a number of them.
Borough Market, while a bit awkwardly located underneath a raised train platform, is a thriving space where one can buy anything from fresh venison to slices of giant pumpkin to hot raclette sandwiches. There are at least four vendors selling ten different kinds of fresh olives, multiple bread bakers, a handful of specialized cheese shops, two wine stores, a smoothie bar, and a Scottish meat counter. Free samples are given generously, and one could eat an entire meal on bits and pieces alone.
Last week I took a trip to Borough Market and stocked up on ingredients for a Greek salad with a side of pita, tzatziki, hummus, and tabouleh for my first home-(sorta) made meal in London. It was really easy and didn’t taste half bad, so it’s going to be a regular dish from now on.
While Borough is the largest of London’s markets, there are lots of smaller, local markets as well. At Christmastime I stumbled across a mushroom vendor called Sporeboys at the 12 Days of Christmas Food Market in Covent Garden. I found their website and decided to track them down at some of the other local markets.
My quest led me first to Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell on a rainy Friday afternoon. The market was small (probably smaller than normal due to the weather), but had an outstanding selection of prepared foods. The Sporeboys vendor disappointed me with his lack of sandwiches, so I chose to eat vegetarian Indian food from a husband-and-wife team at a nearby stall. I was in luck. My samosa chaat was so amazing that I sat on a bench in the rain stuffing food in my mouth without even noticing that I was getting wet.
My next market was Leadenhall Market in central London. The beautiful old covered market was high on history, but a bit short on food. I spent a little time staring at the ceiling and avoiding the boozing bankers on their lunch breaks, then headed out in pursuit of other markets.
Speaking of other markets, there is one market in London that most certainly falls under the “other” category. That would be Camden Market, or markets.
On Sunday morning I ventured down to Camden Town to soak up the alternative/goth style markets there. I was expecting a small selection in one or two places, but I found a labyrinthine hodgepodge of markets spread all along the high street. I meandered through tightly-packed stalls of ironic T-shirts, spiky leather belts, and lace-up boots in one market, marveled at a mother/daughter team in French maid outfits at another market, and sweated through the sizzling stalls of ethnic cuisine at another.
I wandered down alleys and into an old horse tunnel market (complete with large equine statues), avoided the siren calls of eager shopkeepers, and stopped to admire the beautiful (and oddly out-of-place) river that runs perpendicular to the street. By the time I got back to the tube I was on sensory overload and for once welcomed the bland walls of the Underground.
There are still more London markets to explore, and I hope to get to more of them in the coming months. I can’t wait until the weather warms up and I can spend more time in the markets outdoors.
This post appeared in the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival “The Marketplace” in April 2011 on IndianBazaars.