It was a sunny day in London in the not-too-distant past, and Diane and I were enjoying a long walk to the Portobello Market in London’s Notting Hill district.
Our journey to London hadn’t exactly been planned. We both reached a benchmark birthday last year and hadn’t celebrated. So when friends called at year’s end to announce they’d found an incredible airline deal on British Airways, and had a flat lined up, and we’d never been to London, what do you say?
I was quite curious to see a Saturday produce market, London-style. I think we all know that Londoners care a bit these days about climate change, eating healthy and recycling.
Moreover, London’s restaurants are much better than in the past, in part because of the great number of immigrants in recent times. But it’s more than that.
Viewers of the wildly popular “Downton Abbey,” the PBS offering that just concluded its season, feasted their eyes on seemingly endless scenes of Daisy at work in the downstairs kitchen and the aristocrats dining exquisitely upstairs by candlelight. Such cuisine collapsed in World War I, never to return, according to a culinary blog recently posted on NPR titled, “Why British Food Was So Bad For So Long.” The economic crash of 1929 stepped on their wallets, as did fascism, World War II and a 14-year period of rationing that ended in 1954.
Fresh off my British Airways flight, what would I find at well-known Portobello Market, which appears on many tourists’ checklists, right up there with the Tower of London, the British Museum and theater in the West End?
The entire Portobello Saturday Market stretches for sixth-tenths of a mile on a winding urban street, considerably more than the two minutes it takes to traverse the Davis Farmers Market. This I had to see.
What’s more, the fruit and vegetable stalls at the Portobello Market came into business in the late 1800s. (Antiques dealers began to concentrate there as well, but that was in the 1940s, and the market now claims to offer the largest concentration of antiques vendors in Britain.) That’s 170 years of history, compared to our Davis Farmers Market, founded in 1975. They’ve had time to get it right.
My expectations were high. My expectations, however, were soon dashed.
What I found were stalls selling produce imported from distant parts, little different from the agricultural distribution system that we know so well from our supermarkets.
A kilo of peppers here, a small bag of potatoes there, bananas and carrots laid out colorfully beside each other — many of the stalls were visually enticing, with broader choices than one finds in any stall at the Davis Farmers Market.
Yet the boxes made clear that virtually nothing was local or from the type of small farms that make up artisanal markets in the United States. The boxes revealed, for example, that the cherries came from Chile, the bananas from the Americas and the grapefruit from Cyprus. Indeed, for local or regional fare, one does much better at the Davis Food Co-op and Nugget Markets.
But shouldn’t I account for the fact that by early winter, a lot of produce that might be grown locally is simply out of season? Of course. But winter squash, various root crops, greens made of sterner stuff — these might have been present.
I left empty-handed.
Disheartened, we took the Tube a few days later to the Borough Market in southeast London, close to London Bridge. We’d read that the offerings here were both artisanal and “local” in the sense that most everything sourced within England or Ireland. It’s open only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
This time we were not disappointed. Quite to the contrary. The sprawling Borough Market beneath railway viaducts was awash with booths that astonished.
Just to speak of seafood, for example, there was Applebees Fish, much of their offerings line-caught. Mureen Smokehouse offered salmon, eel, sea trout and more, smoked in the traditional way from Western Ireland. Richard Haward’s Oysters looked impeccable, as one would expect from a seventh-generation oysterman. Surely Mrs. Patmore, the cook on “Downton Abbey,” would have appreciated the variety available to please His Lordship.
Shall I mention Chegworth Valley’s bottled fruit juices, pressed from fruit grown in their orchards? I guess I just did. And what about the numerous stalls selling artisanal meats, meat pies and the like — even a vendor from an ostrich farm!
The variety and sophistication here, the long pedigree of many vendors, the ready-to-eat products, exceeded anything we know from the Davis Farmers Market, one of America’s best. But that’s as it should be, really. We’re talking about London, a leading world city, compared to the small population of our university town.
Prices, alas, were almost eye-popping. I failed to jot down any specifics, as I was too busy sussing out the market: Many booths were already starting to shut down. You’ll have to trust me on this. One would eat lightly, or infrequently, if sourcing one’s food from the Borough Market.
Happily, one of our party managed to convince a poultry vendor who had his stall’s gate almost down, and his birds packed up, to part with the capon that still hung in lonely fashion from a display hook. From this and other things we fashioned a dinner worthy of the servants’ table at Downton Abbey, where the staff ate real food.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]