A Visit to London's Borough Market
"I went to the market to realize my soul" —The Clash
8 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1TL; map); +44 (0) 20 7407 1002; http://www.boroughmarket.org.uk/
Getting There: National Rail/London Underground to London Bridge station; 381, RV1 bus routes; parking located on the corner of Southwark Street and Southwark Bridge Road and on Snowsfields
Hours of Operation: Wholesale Sun.-Fri., 2 a.m. to 8 a.m.; retail Thur., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fri., 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sat., 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Borough Market is said to be older than the City of London itself. According to the Borough Market Trustees, it has been operating for more than two millennia, predating the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD. At that time the site upon which the Romans built the city of Londinium was just a watery marsh adjacent to the river Thames. They erected the original "London Bridge," at virtually the same location as the modern one, quite possibly because Borough Market was already there.
The story goes that the market thrived in the shadow of London Bridge, outlasting Roman Britain and surviving subsequent invasions by the Norsemen and the Anglo-Saxons. The documented history of the market begins in 1276 when it was located at the mouth of the rebuilt London Bridge (the original Roman bridge was destroyed by the Norsemen). It become so physically insinuated into the bridge itself that it became a serious public nuisance causing major traffic congestion. By various Royal decrees it was moved around the Southwark neighborhood that it inhabits before being abolished altogether by an Act of Parliament in 1756.
The act did, however, allow parishioners of Southwark Cathedral to set up a new market at the current location. Ideally located near London Bridge railroad station and the Pool of London, Borough Market had access to Britain via train and the world via ship. It thrived through the Victorian Era, and the current building, a towering metal and glass pavilion that gleams in the sun like a diamond, was built in 1851. Since then the market has continued to be "London's Larder."
In 1998 the market, which was traditionally wholesale-only, was opened up to the general public. The policy change coincided with a major refurbishment that saw the market restored to its original luster and with the burgeoning locavore movement and a renewed interest in indigenous foods. The market has been championed by numerous chefs, and if you have eaten out in London restaurants, chances are your food came from Borough Market.
Visiting Borough Market is a feast for the senses. The aromas are as intoxicating to the nose as the kaleidoscope of colors are to the eyes. A seemingly boundless number of stalls are densely packed under the majestic canopy, creating a warrenlike maze. At some points in the market shoppers are as jam-packed as the imported Spanish sardines ensconced in olive oil that are sold at the "ethnic" stalls. You literally need to squeeze through the throng to get through it. And all about you the aromas of sizzling sausages, mulling cider, and fresh-baked bread swirl, constantly beckoning in one direction or the other.
Borough was traditionally a fruit and vegetable market.
The market is truly international, especially at the Borough Street end, where you will find German delicatessens selling yards of smokey bratwurst next to a Greek stall selling impossibly thick yogurt. Stinky French cheese, dark-pink Spanish ham, olives from Italy (apparently the Romans are back) and Morocco all belie the perception that the Brits have limited palates.
Of course the majority of the produce at the market is from the British Isles, such as fish and seafood from the North Sea, rare-breed grass-fed livestock, and bountiful fruits and vegetables.
Familiar cuts of beef sit alongside more esoteric fare, such as hogget (meat from a sheep between one to two years old).
What is remarkable about shopping at Borough, aside from the sheer size of the place and the panoply of products on offer, is that there are virtually no labels on anything. This is food sold in its natural form. It is food with soul.
No serious eater should miss an opportunity to visit Borough Market when in London, the Romans certainly didn't, and you know what they taught us.