Local markets seemed not so long ago to be heading towards extinction. Food that is cheap and easy to prepare has come to be seen as a basic right for postwar Britons; and rightly or wrongly, street markets are seen as being unable to provide either bargains or convenience. Often, those markets that still thrive, such as Borough Market in Southwark, have managed to transform themselves into purveyors of fine, rare and often expensive delicacies.
But if street markets and local traders could furnish our basic grocery needs 40 years ago, can they not still do so today? Have supermarkets so cheapened our palates and gratified our purses that we can no longer do what generations of good English cooks have done before us, which is quite simply to serve up tasty and nutritious food made from seasonal produce bought at a reasonable price? The answer, as William Skidelsky and I discovered, depends on your culinary adventurousness as much as on your neighbourhood. My own, around Hackney's Broadway Market-only last year a semi-moribund place with two original independent traders, but now reinvigorated by a weekly street market-responded admirably to the challenge. Here is the itinerary of the resulting meal, a dinner for four adults and two children.
Friday evening, and I'm already pondering tomorrow's menu. I stop off on the way home from work at James Elliott, a butcher's shop in Essex Road (in neighbouring Islington), in search of some interesting offal. Salad of pigs' ears? Always good value, but apparently demand is down: they need to be pre-ordered. Tripe? Not really a summer dish. Then I see a large bowl of lambs' tongues on offer at only £4 a kilo. Pickling them overnight will tenderise the flesh and provide a refreshing and meaty accompaniment to the celeriac I noticed at last week's market and am hoping will be there again.
Rinse eight to ten lambs' tongues, place in a pot with parsley, tarragon, a bayleaf, mixed peppercorns, a sliced onion, two garlic cloves, a pinch of sea salt, and water to cover. Bring to the boil and simmer until the tongues are just tender (about an hour). Drain and peel the tongues when cool enough, slice them in half lengthwise and place in a jar.
In a small saucepan, combine a handful of tarragon, mixed peppercorns, five allspice berries and half and half of water and white wine vinegar (I used Maille walnut vinegar, which has a lovely sherryish aroma, but any good vinegar will do). Boil for a minute, pour over the tongues, cover
and place in the refrigerator overnight.
Serve with a celeriac remoulade (grate the celeriac, parboil for one minute in acidulated water, rinse and mix with a mayonnaise made with extra vinegar and a dollop of mustard).
Saturday morning, and Will and I arrive at Broadway Market. First stop, the fish stall, a tiny table covered with a glistening array caught off the Suffolk coast that morning. We hesitate between the sublimely bug-eyed red gurnard (which I suggest we bake, then serve cold with a mayonnaise) and the slightly more expensive, but finer, red mullet. But mayonnaise is already accompanying the lamb's tongue, so perhaps just a simple pan-fried starter? Will, keeping steadfastly to our brief of culinary economy, notices the mullet is bulging with roe and asks the fishmonger to fillet two, reserving the liver-much prized, he says, by the Romans-and the roe. The fishmonger even gives us extra, foolishly neglected by earlier clients. It all comes to less than a fiver.
Season the fillets, then lightly dust in the flour. Season the roe and liver.
Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and place the fillets skin-side down. Fry for two minutes, then turn over. Add the roe. Continue to cook fillets and roe, turning regularly, until cooked (about one minute). Remove and keep warm.
Add the liver, and cook, turning regularly, for 30 seconds. Add a glass of white wine, and mash the liver into the liquid. Reduce by half. Add diced tomato and chopped parsley and take off the heat. Drizzle in some olive oil, stirring all the time. Pour sauce over mullet fillets and roe, and serve.
On to the main course. Henry Tidiman, whose father had a butcher's stall in the postwar, pre-Tesco days, when the market was a daily occurrence, has good-sized French rabbits in his window for £7.50. Wild English rabbits are available in the market from £3.50 each, but Tidiman's are much larger and still have their heads and innards, which means we have an amuse-gueule of split, grilled rabbit's brains, and pan-fried livers and kidneys on toast. Almost directly in front of the butcher's is Ted's Veg, which not only has the celeriac and the herbs, but beautiful spring carrots, bunches of small dark beets with their leafy tops, mushrooms, tomatoes and freshly-picked oak leaf lettuce (£6.50 for the lot). It is time, we feel, to revive that forgotten 18th-century classic, Salmagundi - a salad of anchovies, eggs and leaves with a heap of roasted and dressed meat in the centre-a sort of northern salade Nicoise. Hannah Glasse (The Art of Cookery, 1747) made hers with chicken, but we used marinated grilled rabbit. We also used roasted beetroot, sliced mushrooms and capers, but the nasturtium flowers called for by the venerable Mrs Glasse were, alas, unavailable. At this point I must confess to using some green beans I found in the fridge (they may even-o tempora, o mores-have come from Sainsbury's). The resulting dish, in any case, was a great success. Served with buttered steamed carrots and Jersey Royal potatoes from John, the original fruit 'n' veg man of Broadway Market, and-so as not to waste anything-a gratin of beet greens (added to a mixture of mushrooms, garlic, ricotta and eggs, topped with breadcrumbs, Parmesan and olive oil before being baked in a hot oven), the meal grew from a few things that caught our eye to nothing short of a feast. All for a little over £20.
Of course, if you want fine imported cheeses, or Continental specialities, all that is on offer too. But as Mrs Glasse warned 260 years ago: "If Gentlemen will have French Cooks, they must pay for French Tricks." A good English cook, however, will find that if he goes "to Market, the Ingredients will not come to above Half a Crown". That's two shillings and sixpence; or, in today's money, the equivalent of roughly £21.
What are you waiting for? Gentle reader, get thee to market!