a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The freshest food in town - London's farmers' markets

I first encountered farmers' markets in New York City, maybe ten years ago.  As the rebuild of the World Trade Center began, one of the first acts of resilience within the city was the return of the WTC greenmarket (as such markets are called in the States) to the site, and the continuation of life as New Yorkers knew it.  When I revisited this particular market I found something slightly surreal, yet wonderfully defiant, about the greenmarket existing right next to the high metal fence that surrounded the world's most famous building site.  Fat, shiny capiscum peppers lay in mounds next to heaps of radishes, carrots and apples, and behind them tourists from all over the world peered through the chain-link and stared up at the boards bearing the names of those who lost their lives on 11th September 2001.
Over the last few years, London too has witnessed the mushrooming of its own crop of farmers' markets, from Alexandra Palace to Oval, and Pimlico to Islington.  Available playgrounds, carparks or squares - pretty much any flat, spare space - are now abloom with gazebos and stalls.  (For a handy map of London's farmers' markets have a look here.)  There is even a wonderfully tiny one outside my local pub in Tufnell Park on a Saturday, which valiantly persists in selling ice cream even in the depths of winter.  Most farmers' markets in the city are weekend phenomena, when the average Londoner has time for more than a frantic dash around the nearest soul-less Tesco Metro.  And they sell all that the epicurean  food shopper could desire; fresh bread, homemade pies, fruit, cheese, glorious cakes and biscuits, fish lounging on piles of chipped ice, fat bunches of herbs, and even gyoza dumplings to nibble as you wander between the stalls.  Neat labels declare products as 'organic', 'home-made' or 'gluten-free'.  But don't let that put you off.  Visiting these markets is as much about eating then and there as it is stocking up one's kitchen.  Alongside the odd individual shopper, farmers' markets are usually full of couples and families, meeting up with each other for hot sausage rolls and freshly-ground coffee, and a peruse of the wares on sale.  Small children hurtle from stall to stall, snaffling free samples of chutney blobbed on top of oatcakes, and dogs on leads strain desperately in the direction of the van selling bacon sandwiches.
Oval farmers' market, held in the grounds of St Mark's Church, just across the road from Oval tube station, is particularly wonderful.  Aside from the stall that sells the best (read 'highest calorie content') cookies and another peddling excellent sausage rolls, the true fun to be had at this particular market is to be found when you come to sit down to munch on your purchases, and find that there is a wedding taking place at the church.  Guests arrive in their fancy frocks and hats, groomsmen mill about savouring a last cigarette, and bridesmaids wobble from cars bedecked with ribbons to the church in heels and floor-length gowns.  Dinner - well, usually more like lunch - and a show!

Farmers' markets are not exactly a cheap way to shop in the city however.  Catering for the monied folks of North London, the market held beneath Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath is the most eye-watering in terms of price that I have discovered.  And it's not much fun if you're a dog either, as this particular market has a designated dog-creche, where the canines of Hampstead are tethered whilst their owners peruse over-priced spelt loaves.  But a mid-morning potter around a farmers' market is certainly more pleasurable than the average weekend slog around Morrisons or Sainsbury's, doing battle with thousands of other shoppers and their screaming children.  The process of browsing open-air stalls, groaning under mounds of reassuringly muddy potatoes and shiny tomatoes, sure is a lot more pleasurable than shoving a wonky-wheeled trolley around a dozen aisles of freezer cabinets and misery.      At least as long as the sun shines...

6 comments:

  1. One of my favourite markets is the Borough Market. It's huge, and has a dizzying array of regional specialities. It's packed at the weekend. There's food stalls that are perfect for buying lunch, and hopping over the railings to the church grounds next door.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's certainly another one to add to the list, Roving Jay. But Borough is on such an enormous scale I'm not sure I think of it in the same way as many other small, less formal markets across the city. Unless one gets there early you have to do battle with much of the rest of the city too! Granted the array of food is seriously impressive but I find it a little overwhelming, so if you're brave enough to shop there you're a better market-shopper than I...

      Delete
  2. Yes, farmers markets are great, and I'm disappointed that our local one in Swiss Cottage is a bit lack lustre. I used to go often but got a bit tired of the same old stalls and some of the veg was no different from a regular stall. I know other markets are better, there's a super one in a car [park in Marylebone which distracted me one Sunday. And I will check out Oval. There's also a nice one near the Tate Modern in a little shopping street which has a regular market and we have found farmers stalls on certain days. There are also wonderful local shops there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If a farmers' market is really good the stalls and wares should change as the seasons do; I'm sad to here the Swiss Cottage market doesn't, Jenny. Thanks for the tip about Tate Modern...will have to check that area out.

      Delete
  3. Look no further than Tachbrook street on Pimlico! It is lovely and open every day of the week. You can find fresh bread, fish, meat, cheese...Everything! You can even buy a falafel for £3 and it is a delicious meal.
    It is small and quite confidential. I am not even sure that it is a farmers' market. But it is great!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, I've heard many wonderful things about Tachbrook Street's market, and although I've wandered past it a couple of times I've never shopped there. How nice to have it right on your doorstep, Muriel!

      Delete

Pin It button on image hover