Bankers, Butchers, Farmers, Fishmongers: A Visit to Three London Markets

In London for business with no time to sightsee? Three of London’s oldest markets lie within minutes of the city’s financial hubs. Visit them early, have a local breakfast and return to work before the opening bell.

Billingsgate Fish Market

London’s oldest and the UK’s largest fish market is a 10-minute walk from Canary Wharf. The clean smell of salt water greets me as I enter the cavernous hall. The logo of one of the dealers is apt for the entire market: If It Swims, We Sell It. From the banal to the exotic, the fish is labeled by origin: Conger eel from Dorset; Saber fish from France, Cornish sea bass, doctor fish from the north Atlantic. A fishmonger confirms that the market is especially popular with South and East Asian immigrants who can find here their homelands’ exotic delicacies unavailable elsewhere.

By 7:15, many of the stalls have finished for the day and I enter the small café tucked in a back corner. The board announces several fish-based breakfasts. I order the kippers (wood smoked herrings) with scrambled eggs and grilled tomatoes while my friend has smoked haddock. Both are excellent. Pictures of market characters plaster the walls, including some who are present this morning noisily chugging mugs of tea as strong as their language. Football World Cup banter dominates and several Spanish mongers come in for good-natured ribbing at their country’s ignominious defeat the previous night. This is as different as it could get from the suited bankers working in the skyscrapers that overshadow the market. Replete, I walk back to that world, the only hint of my morning excursion a faint whiff of smoked fish that clings to my clothes.

Smithfield Meat Market

A lovely Victorian building houses London’s 800-year old wholesale meat market. Plaques outside detail the history and danger of this site dating back to medieval times. Public executions then were almost as prolific as the pickpockets. The great Scottish warrior, William Wallace, made famous by Mel Gibson in the film Braveheart, met his gruesome end as he was hung, drawn and quartered here. But it is the next sentence that stops me in my tracks. It speaks of the wife sale practiced in early 19th century when “divorce was exceedingly difficult and men brought their unwanted wives along with the usual goods to sell in the market.”

The vast market has been upgraded to meet today’s hygiene standards and all the carcasses now hang in refrigerated rooms that allow only a peek into the brutal art of butchering. Disappointed I repair to Cock’s Tavern, the local greasy spoon. Its “world famous” Butcher’s Breakfast consists of “Rump Steak, Cumberland Sausage, Bacon, Eggs, Panfried Liver, Black Pudding and Carmen’s Famous Recipe Kidneys, washed down with a cup of tea ” All for just ₤9.45. I order tea and look around to see who might be tucking into this eye-popping, artery-clogging meal. Smithfield is bordered by St. Bartholomew Hospital, the Central Criminal Court and the City, so the early feeders include butchers, doctors, bankers and policemen. Alas, no one has ordered the full monty though several are enjoying a pint of London Ale with their breakfast.

Borough (Burra) Market

A ferry on the River Thames makes this market easily accessible from Canary Wharf or the City. We glide past Dickensian warehouses that are now upmarket homes, ancient riverside pubs, and the HMS Belfast, a WWII warship that has been converted to a museum. We alight at the London Bridge stop for this foodies’ haven, purveying almost everything good and edible. No need to buy breakfast: the free samples will do you just fine. I try fresh pesto on homemade bread, mouth-melting artisanal buffalo mozzarella, Thai green curry and fresh peaches. I forego the wheatgrass shots to graze in Neal’s Yard Dairy, perhaps the best cheese shop in the UK. Here the provenance of the cheeses includes not just the name of the locale but the person who actually made them. I sample Ardhrahn made by Mary Burns near Kanturk, County Cork; Berkswell, ewe’s cheese made by the Fletchers at Ram Hall, W. Midlands; and Kirkham’s Lancashire by Graham Kirkham of Goosnagh, Lancashire. How different our eating experience would be if all our produce, dairy and meat could be traced to a single person responsible for it!

I wander by the Spanish corner selling pickled peppers, vinegar and five-liter tins of quality olive oil. The Arab section has hot Libyan harissa and traditional hummus. The Portuguese stand offers intensely smoky chorizo and soft serra cheese from sheep grazing in one of the coldest and highest regions of Portugal. The cheese is unpasteurized—a no-no in the U.S.—but has a tanginess and texture unrivaled by its pasteurized cousins. I buy some, along with the quince paste that the stall owner recommends as a fine accompaniment, risking the lie on my customs form about bringing in foreign food.

My final stop is a stall selling Turkish Delight. Free from gelatin, glucose and artificial flavorings, the ‘delight’ is a sugar candy flavored with rose water or ginger or lemon or studded with walnuts or pistachios—over 20 possibilities in all. “Eat Sweetly, Speak Sweetly” proclaims its sign. This is a fitting epitaph for my three-market experience, and I leave satisfied that I have learned something valuable about a people simply from visiting their markets.

This article was originally published on The Three Tomatotes.

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