London's Borough Market a hidden treasure

London's Borough Market a hidden treasure

LONDON – Long before you see Borough Market, you smell it. Good smells. Like the kind produced by hot loaves of freshly baked bread left to cool on a rack outside one of the market's 80 stalls. Or sharp ones that come wafting from a cheese shop at the rear of the outdoor food emporium. And sweet ones rising from a table covered in chocolate truffles.

"I get hungry every time I pass under that arch," says Heather Hay Ffrench, an expert on British food who meets us at the entrance to the East End London landmark.

"There has been a food market on this site since Roman times," she says. "Borough is one of London's greatest attractions, but very few visitors know about it."

So who are all these people milling about the bustling market, wedged between the steel pillars that hold up the main rail line connecting London with Hastings?

"Mostly locals," says Hay Ffrench as a train rumbles overhead. "Oh, and the odd celebrity chef."

Borough Market, which was the scene of an horrific terrorist attack in 2017, is a place where British TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Alan Bird are occasionally spotted picking out the ingredients that go into their culinary creations. In fact, Hay Ffrench informs us, the market owes its existence to Oliver.

"They wanted to tear Borough Market down a few years ago but Jamie came to the rescue. He and others discovered a charter which says as long as four people want to set up stalls here, then the market must exist."

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Above: The cheese store at the Borough Market is unique in that the makers of the cheese sign their product.


Most of London's top restaurant chefs like to browse the market looking for specialty items on Friday and Saturday, the two days it's open to the public.

There were at least 40 stalls still open the late afternoon we stop by London's largest food market. No celebrity chefs. Just lots of locals waiting patiently in front of stalls with names like the Ginger Pig and Tiptoe Farm.

"That's a particularly interesting stall," Hay Ffrench says while pointing to one where lamb and beef are sold.

"Farmer Andrew Sharp runs it. He brings his meat all the way from Hardwick (the historic Derbyshire town in England's Peak District that is famous for its sheep) to sell here each week. The Queen Mum loved Hardwick lamb.

"Farmers from all over England come to Borough Market. This is the only place in London where you can get such a wide selection of food."

And what a selection. As a sign above the market entrance says: "If it's not at Borough Market, then it's probably not worth eating."

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Above: The market is populated with many interesting characters.


There are some odd looking products on sale, too. Like a long, skinny root vegetable that looks like a black parsnip.

"Its real name is a salsify but was often referred to as oyster in Victorian England. Lots of vegetables that have not been seen in England for centuries are making a renaissance here," says our guide, who points to another odd-shaped legume called a Jerusalem artichoke.

One stall seems to attract more attention than the others. It sells French butter.

"I go to Paris every week to pick up the butter which comes from a small town called Echire," says the farmer wearing the pork pie hat.

"Going to Paris (the halfway meeting point) every week is the sacrifice I must make to get the best butter in Europe," he says with a wink.

The busiest day at Borough Market is Saturday.

"Legally, there should be between 60 and 80 stalls. But on Saturday the number is countless because many people just set up small tables and sell their crafts," says Hay Ffrench as we reach the door of Neal's Yard Dairy.

Despite the late hour, there are still dozens of people lined up in front of what our guide says is "the best cheese shop in London."

Huge blocks of cheese are piled high on the counter. Even larger ones sit on shelves that line both sides of the shop.

A young man named Matt offers us a taste of a five-year-old Coolea. Its sharpness catches the back of my throat like a fine wine.

"Most of the cheeses we sell are from Britain and Ireland," says Matt. "We move 250 kilos of cheese every Friday and double that on Saturday."

The large blocks piled behind Matt are engraved with the name of those who produced it.

"This one was made by Maggie Maxwell," Matt says about a woman from the north of England.

The cheese shop, interestingly enough, is located just steps from Vinopolis, London's fabulous wine museum. Talk about a perfect combination.

As we stroll through Borough Market we meet other vendors, like John Bourne from Cheshire, whose family has been producing the region's famous cheese for 250 years.

He tells us the ingredient that makes Cheshire cheese - it actually dates back 2,000 years - so good is "a little TLC."

There are stalls selling prize-winning Melton Mowbray pies which, we learn, must be eaten cold. At another, rabbit carcasses hang from the rafters. Behind many stalls are paintings depicting life at the market in Victorian times.

The East End area where Borough Market is located is still one of the poorest in London and each year the vendors contribute products to a neighbourhood barbecue.

"It's held every September and it's an event that everyone looks forward to," says Hay Ffrench as we arrive at a stall displaying hundreds of bottles of different beers.

One of the bottles displays the name Heather Ale. It, according to our guide, is the oldest ale in the world.

"Just like Borough Market, it gets better with age," she says.

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