William Skidelsky grazes in London's Borough Market
The perils of trying to describe a chorizo and red pepper sandwich
In this space a few weeks ago, I suggested that London, in comparison with other major cities, is not a great place to eat. I realise that by doing so, I have opened myself up to the charge of being unfairly critical. London, many would say, undoubtedly has its shortcomings - the restaurants are expensive, the quality is variable - but surely there has been an immeasurable improvement since the days when every second restaurant had prawn cocktail on its menu and no one had even heard of sun-dried tomatoes? Not wishing to appear too much of a grump, therefore, I have decided to devote this week's column to one of my favourite Saturday-morning haunts - Borough Market, the absurdly chichi food market that lurks under the railway arches close to London Bridge station.
About the worst thing that can be said of Borough Market is that it is a difficult place to write about. How, without resorting to the tropes of bad food writing (unbridled effusion, cloying sentimentality, cliche-ridden pretentiousness), is it possible to evoke the market's excellence? The pitfalls of attempting to do so were brought home to me the other day by Dan, a young American colleague, who, upon sampling a chorizo and red pepper sandwich he'd just purchased from Brindisa, the market's Spanish stall, contrasted the tanginess of the chorizo with the sweetness of the pepper as follows: "It's like when you do vigorous exercise and then jump into a cool pool afterwards. Only here you're doing both at the same time." To be fair to Dan, I'm sure this was not the most pretentious comment uttered that day but, as I wasn't privy to any of the others, his is the one that will be recorded for posterity.
Borough is an unconventional market in two senses. First, there is little replication across the various stalls: every trader (more or less) sells something distinct from the others. Second, the products on offer at the market don't originate from only one locality. In both respects, this distinguishes it from the other great markets of Europe - the Rialto in Venice, say, or the BoquerIa in Barcelona - where, typically, you find row upon row of nearly identical foodstuffs, all of which have been sourced locally.
Perhaps because space is limited at Borough Market, the managers have decided to give priority to variety - along with quality - above all else. As a result, alongside stalls selling traditional British products such as Melton Mowbray pork pies, one encounters others specialising in French and Italian cheeses, Scandinavian pickled fish, German wurst and Indian relishes. The market, one could say, is emblematic of the openness and versatility that characterise modern British cooking; the practitioners of this style move easily between domestic traditions and those of other countries.
Visiting the market, I have often found my culinary horizons expanded in new and unexpected ways. Before I started shopping there, for example, I had never realised just how delicious a joint of roast meat could be. True, I'd munched my way through numerous Sunday dinners but, for the most part, my experiences had led me to believe that meat, unless handled by an expert, is always liable to revert to a state of abject gristliness. The rare breeds of organic meat sold at Borough Market, however, convinced me this was not necessarily the case. Here is meat that you can simply place in an oven and forget about, and which will none the less emerge tender, succulent and utterly delicious.
With such variety on offer, it hardly seems right to single out my favourite stalls. Borough Market is best experienced haphazardly; you should simply wander between the various stands, gazing at the produce and plundering liberally from the free sample plates that many of the traders place before their stalls. But, if you do pay a visit, make sure you have a taste of the Joselito ham available from Brindisa. This five-year aged ham comes from Iberian black pigs that have been raised on acorns in dappled sunlight. At £15 a pound, it certainly isn't cheap, but it raises the potential of raw ham to new levels. With devotion like that, it seems only appropriate to wax lyrical.