For bacon rolls stuffed with seared scallops, acorn-fed ham with tumblers of sherry and insanely good toasted cheese sandwiches, seek out London’s less well-known markets. I was on a bus to Camden recently in search of a new ‘bayou-styled’ restaurant, me and a bus full of Italian tourists, all shrieking ‘Cam-deng-TOWN’ at the top of their excitable voices. How blessed the city is with markets: bustling outlets for everything from niche gourmet produce to hooky phones, from the clamorous multiculturalism of Shepherd’s Bush Market, to the trug- carrying poshness of farmers’ markets in Mayfair and Pimlico. There are, of course, the ones that every tourist heads for: the aforementioned Camden, and Borough which regularly beats more conventional destinations as number one on the tourist itinerary. But I like the lesser visited, the ones not every visitor to London gets to see.
My favourites tend to be quirky and off-piste: a Sunday morning at Chatsworth Road, perhaps, where Deeneys ply a fine Caledonian line in Macbeth toasties (hot haggis, cheddar, caramelised onions and rocket) and bowls of cullen skink while the chaps at Colonel Tom’s ladle duck and oyster gumbo from gleaming steel pans. Worth exploring too are the Turkish grocers and specialty shops: I come away with a fantastic ocakbasi for 9 quid, and whole honey-glazed ham, plus verbena-pickled blackberries and mulberry preserve from Lillie O’Brien’s glittering London Borough of Jam. As the market has flourished, the road has sprouted excellent restaurants and cafes: cute little deli, L’Epicerie, or Swedish-flavoured Cooper & Wolf. Newcomer Eat 17 – an eccentric combination of local Spar, burger joint and first class upstairs restaurant in a former snooker hall – is proving a real draw. One bite of their smoked ham croquettes or buttermilk chicken in a bun and the appeal is obvious.
Maltby Street: crikey – where do I start with this one? Sherry and ham is always the stoutest of kick-offs for the day, so off to ‘jamon bodega’ Tozino, authentically dark and crowded, hams dangling from the ceiling ready for a frenzy of expert jamon- cutting – acorn-fed bellotas, maybe, from Extremadura or Huelva or Guijuelo – and sloshing of sherry or albariño into tumblers. You can buy the hams to take away from the stall outside. Fortified, we go on to share some of London’s finest smoked salmon from Hansen and Lydersen (a side of which is my idea of the perfect gift) and a genuinely heroic Reuben from Monty’s Deli – layer upon layer of rosy, home-cured salt beef, brined for six days in their special cure and then outdoor-smoked for seven hours, tangy sauerkraut and Swiss cheese oozing from chewy rye bread. Our stalls-haul includes fiery peri-peri sauces from chef Grant Hawthorne’s African Volcano, and some fragrant small-batch gin from Little Bird.
This is far more ‘me’ than the sanitised, showy Borough, and it’s full of actual Londoners doing actual shopping. But the hardcore have moved further along the road, disenchanted that those boring ‘real people’ have managed to find Maltby St. So if you want to see the rarefied foodie at play, it has to be Spa Terminus for Italian goodies and pristine produce from Natoora, cheeses from Mons, the most insanely good toasted cheese sandwiches from Kappacasein. You can graze on the hoof, but I like to sit down to something more leisurely: 40 Maltby St – simple, inspired cooking and an all-natural wine list; or a new outlet for legendary St John, focusing on their renowned baking. Their freshly made doughnuts are the reason many Londoners get up early on a Sunday morning.
Broadway and Netil markets operate the same way: Netil being the cool, edgy little brother to Broadway (which is pretty cool and edgy itself). At the former, I’m usually to be found toting a huge wheel of springy sourdough from Levain, banh mi from Banh Mi 11 and lamenting that I’ll never fit into wasp-wasted 50s vintage dresses. I stock up on fragrant coffee from Climpson’s, roasted in-house, and mushrooms from The Sporeboys (yes, ok, maybe a cheesy, garlicky mushroom sandwich while I’m at it). While round the corner, after admiring the indie designer jewellery and ceramics, it’s Fin and Flounder’s seafood shack for the freshest, sparkliest fruits of the sea and crisply-battered fish’n’chips; or Mei Mei for Chinese comfort food, jian bing (delicious savoury pancakes stuffed with roast duck or hoi sin pork). Both Lucky Chip and Yum Bun – now stars of the streetfood scene – kicked off their careers at Netil: it’s the early-adopter, talent-spotter of markets.
It would be impossible – and lengthy – to try to list all the glories of London’s markets: they blossom like mushrooms. This is obviously a personal selection, concentrating on the quirkier side of things. But perhaps I shouldn’t dismiss Camden simply because it’s the city’s Mecca for giant-platformed Goth footwear and gloopy, fluorescent ‘Chinese’ streetfood. It’s still a perfect storm of the perfectly bonkers: Shaka Zulu, for instance, is so gibberingly insane, I’m inclined to suggest everyone should go to this mammoth, subterranean African fantasy once, so overblown it makes Disneyland look positively John Pawson, if nothing else for one of their range of, er, meat cocktails. Or upstairs to low-rent-sleb-magnet Gilgamesh, equally OTT with its dry-ice-belching sashimi bowls and retractable roof.
In amongst the trash and toot, I’ve found a gem, Café Chula, cute and ramshackle and home to some truly authentic-tasting Mexican food from real enthusiasts. Camden might not be as hip as its cousins, but you can marvel at ice-cream from Chin Chin Labs, crafted before your eyes in swirling fog of liquid nitrogen (I love the fluffernutter – marshmallow and home-made peanut butter). And you’ll never run short of a scented candle. Christmas markets may be twinklier and more picturesque in other parts of the world, but London’s are like nowhere else on earth. And I mean that in a good way.
Written by Marina O’Loughlin