To Market, To Market
Oh, I love my London Saturday routine. I glance at the ever-changeable sky, judge the need for an umbrella and jacket, roll up the trousers of my jeans to keep them out of the bike’s chains, and off I ride. After a couple of spiritually uplifting and exhausting hours of bell-ringing at my church (that’s another story), I get my reward. A trip to Barnes Farmer’s Market, here on the south side of the river Thames, in west London. Heaven on earth.
Farmers’ markets have suffered a checkered history, both in my native United States and my adopted home of England. On both sides of the Atlantic, farmers have always gathered to sell their wares, from the dawn of time until the second half of the 20th century when supermarkets arrived to irrevocably change our lives. Markets were just called “markets,” because everything was sold there from food to ironware to textiles. In Great Britain, and in much of Europe, there are “villages,” “cities” and “market towns,” which are localities designated by the government as a destination for people to buy and sell things.
Even in modern England, despite the multitude of megastores without souls, you still come across “market day,” with any number of people who have made and grown things, shouting out their wares. “Come on, my love, a pound for a pound, you can’t beat that for my lovely onions,” “Buy a brolly, you know, the skies could open in a mo’”, and as far as the eye can see there are tents set up under the clouds or sun, protecting tea towels, nighties, spatulas, or potatoes.
My particular local market is just food in incredible variety. If you go hungry and don’t want to cook, you can be tempted by such diversity as fresh sushi, organic gluten-free tarts, homemade pizzas, baby food, French gourmet dishes such as celeriac remoulade, roasted chickens and fresh, buttery potato puree. From my family’s point of view, the favorite – and rare! – treat is the ultimate burger, cooked on site and served in napkins and paper bags, by The Barn Bacon Company, hailing from Northumberland to clog our arteries in the most delicious possible way. This sandwich contains – on brown or white roll – a burger made of pork sausage, topped with cheese, English bacon and a fried egg. Standing to one side, yolk mixed with Cheddar dripping down your hand, you feel you have eaten the most savory thing on earth… and then you don’t eat for the rest of the day!
While I admire all the prepared food in its beautiful variety, the reason I come to the farmer’s market is to take advantage of the astounding displays of fresh, raw ingredients, ready for me to carry home and make something superb. Part of the beauty of the market is the specialization. Jamie sells fish; Andy purveys meat, dairy and eggs; Heidi offers an array of fruit and vegetables; and Veronica sells nothing but TOMATOES. They are kings and queens of their chosen domains.
First up in the market, after I park my bike, is Heidi of Perry Court Farm in Kent. Heidi’s stall charts the seasons in the way all fruit and vegetables should be offered. April brings piles of tempting asparagus in all thicknesses. June sees the tables groaning under their beautiful burden of rhubarb and, of course, strawberries. The strawberries are sold in little cardboard baskets called “punnets,” which in a typical idiosyncratic English way, contain an unpredictable quantity or weight. A punnet of blackberries is very small, a punnet of strawberries quite large, a punnet of tomatoes larger indeed. I love the word. Autumn brings its gifts of butternut squash and beetroot. To make her customers happy, Heidi offers these hardier veggies (along with the glorious profusion of potato varieties we have here) year-round. I pick up a round red cabbage and a knobbly head of celeriac, to make into a bright, crunchy slaw. Portobello mushrooms make their way into my bag, along with the red peppers and shallots to make delicious stuffed, baked mushrooms.
From Heidi’s, I turn to The Tomato Stall, purveyors of Isle of Wight Tomatoes. The Isle of Wight, a English county and island off the south coast of England, produces the first, and many say the best, tomatoes in the British Isles. The Romans first discovered the island’s ability to produce tomatoes and the end of May – usually, although this year’s weather meant a harvest nearly a month early – brings Jennifer and her colleagues with their tables of treasures.
I cook with a lot of tomatoes – pasta sauce for meatballs, creamy soup in the winter – but it would never occur to me to apply heat to June and July’s fresh little babies. I buy the little ones, sometimes the round ones still on the vine, sometimes the little juice oval plums, and slice them up to toss with lemon juice, to pile on a platter with roasted beets, hard-boiled eggs and avocado, or to eat straight from the bowl on the counter (never refrigerate a tomato!). But truth to tell, more often than not, the treasures end up married to some rich chunks of mozzarella, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a spritz of lemon zest. Simple and perfect.
Laden with tomatoes (eating a couple as I walk), I amble over to my pal Jamie, up from Cornwall with the Portland Scallop Co. Ltd., and his heavenly burden of fish and shellfish. How tempting it is to fill my basket with langoustine, crevettes, little shrimps, big imposing King Prawns, smoked salmon, and cleaned crabmeat. Sometimes my husband is along as The Voice of Reason, reminding me that even WE can eat only so many meals per day. It’s heartbreaking, but I console myself with a beautiful, huge, feeds-three fillet of red bream, for frying later, and a bag full of scallops still in their shells, to sauté with Heidi’s parsley and toss with spaghetti and chilli flakes.
I bravely pass up the French prepared food stand (someday!) and make my way over to Andy at The Gilcombe Farm Shop. They sell what I think of as “organic things from animals,” which runs the gamut from eggs (the creamiest yolks you have ever tasted) to butter, Cheddar to chicken, sirloin, duck, ham and bacon. Of course their most glamorous offering (to me) is their rich, unpasteurized, raw milk. In America, the FDA considers raw milk a major health risk, and is therefore illegal to sell in most states, but there is a sizable portion of the population whole-heartedly touting the health and lifestyle benefits from consuming what they provocatively call “real milk.” I don’t fall entirely on one side of the issue or the other, but Gilcombe’s milk tastes delicious to me, in my morning coffee or forming the basis for the ultimate macaroni and cheese.
Less controversial, but totally British in its labeling, is a packet of “bacon misshapes.” Quite simply, these are bits of bacon leftovers from Gilcombe’s pretty, perfect packets for people who care. I don’t. I love the name, and there is nothing more savory than British bacon. I have never tasted American bacon to compare. Bacon is the heart and soul of my daughter’s most-requested pasta dish: spaghetti carbonara. Rich and salty, oh, lead me to it.
The quality of raw ingredients is always important – a bad apple can, as they say, rot the whole barrel (or ruin an entire dish). Which is why my weekly visits to the local market is an essential part of my kitchen and life. The fish were swimming this morning, the tomatoes still on the vine, the eggs taken warm hours ago from nests, milk straight from udders. That’s local, and that’s fresh.
With my basket and bags full, it will be slow pedaling home, past my beautiful church, echoing with the sounds of ringing bells. Saturday at the market is over, for another week. But I’ll be back.
What’s the best thing you’re getting at your local farmer’s market right now?
Photo Credit: Avery Curran
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