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5 December 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 11:49am

At 2am, Britain’s largest wholesale market buzzes with thoughts of Brexit and purple Brussels sprouts

Hit hard by nouvelle cuisine and the financial crash, seasonal trade here isn’t what it once was.

By Felicity Cloake

At the height of the heatwave the Metro screamed “Cancel Christmas, a Brussels sprout shortage is looming!”, blaming three months of dry weather for the delay in planting. But on a dark, damp night in late November, Matt Mole of P&I Fruits – veg department – doesn’t look too worried. “Just supermarket scaremongering,” he sniffs. “We’ll have them, I promise.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by other traders at New Covent Garden, the UK’s largest wholesale fruit, veg and flower market, in business since 1670, and here in Vauxhall (a “lousy location” according to Donald Trump) since 1974. “It’ll all be fine,” they tell me again. “It always is.”

The Brexit question meets much the same response: it might take a bit longer to get here but at the end of the day, the EU has stuff to sell, and Britain is a good customer. This last point is undeniable: British spuds and sprouts are outnumbered at Covent Garden by Valencian pomegranates, Sicilian aubergines and punnets of cranberries the size of grapes that apparently hail from Belarus. (How do they compare to the American variety? I ask the seller. “Once you cook ’em up with a load of sugar, they’re exactly the same, darling.”)

Walking round, as anyone is free to do as long as they’re prepared to buy by the boxful, I meet at least one trader specialising in produce from Rungis, the market’s Parisian counterpart. Does anything go the other way? “Well, sometimes the French want parsnips. But to be honest, no.”

At 2am, as the city sleeps, the strip-lit Buyers’ Walk is buzzing with life: porters pushing trolleys full of celery, pairs of padded jackets haggling over pallets of citrus. I’m hoping for a sneak preview of festive trends: the market boasts that it supplies all of London’s top 20 restaurants, and indeed, chefs were the saviour of the wholesale trade once supermarkets started dealing directly with producers in the 1980s; nouvelle cuisine came in, and they all suddenly wanted stuff from Europe.

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Seasonal trade isn’t what it was, they tell me, since the crash. But those attending a Christmas do this year are unlikely to find any surprises by their turkey, according to Rob Hurren of County Supplies: “We tried purple sprouts,” he says. “They didn’t take off.”

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Yet thanks to Instagram, technicolour veg seems to be the story of the season as a whole. “Candy beetroot, golden beetroot, they’re selling like you wouldn’t believe,” reports Simon Snowdon of the French Garden. “We used to be lucky to shift a box of purple or green cauliflower a fortnight. Now it’s a few a day. Purple and yellow carrots, too.”

On the sweet side, the kaki, a cultivated variety of the persimmon, is getting “bigger and bigger” each winter, as are pomegranates, though no one seems quite sure why.

One thing that can hardly get much bigger, though, is the avocado: there’s now an entire room dedicated to ripening the things, which proves a rather pleasant place to hang out when the sleet is coming down outside. Back on the sales floor, Justin Denyer of Covent Garden Supply Imports, posing in front of a coroneted “Avo King” display stand, tells me he didn’t even sell avocados four years ago; now they make up a third of his business.

Do people eat avocados at Christmas, though? He laughs uproariously: “Well, I bloody hope so!”

May we all be so optimistic this Christmas. 

Felicity Cloake’s “Completely Perfect: 120 Essential Recipes for Every Cook” is published by Fig Tree

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special