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Travel Stories Blog

London's Borough Market

- by Laurel Schmidt

Posted January 20, 2014

Most Americans live at a double remove from the source of their food. First, we never visit farms, much less slaughter animals or harvest our own crops. Then just to keep the mystery alive, the vittles we do consume are processed and packaged to a point of complete anonymity. Nearly everything we eat is cradled in Styrofoam and generously swathed in cellophane. Tell a young child that she’s eating a dead pig with her morning McMuffin and she’s likely to need therapy.

Which is why Borough Market, nestled on the south end of London Bridge is such a revelation. It a cell-free zone. Not cell phones. Cellophane. That goes for plastic of any kind. What you have here is food — glorious food — in all its naked originality.

Borough Market has been the foodie hub of London since the 13th century. Almost four-hundred years before the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving in America Borough market was serving up fruits and vegetables, bread and cheese to the locals. Today it’s a warren of unique vendors — over 100 — who invite you to wander, ask questions and sample their fare. Whatever you’re looking for from eels to oranges, you’ll find it there under a high glass roof, waiting to seduce your eyes and then your mouth. And if you’re still hungry after all the tasting, have no fear. There are dozens of cafes surrounding the market where you can grab a coffee or enjoy a beer with tapas, roasted meats or curries.

My husband and I arrived in the late afternoon without a shopping list, content to just wander and gawk like provincials. The first stop was a cheese monger who happily provided creamy dollops of his best stock while explaining its origins and characteristic features. He sliced off enough to keep us content for the evening and wrapped it carefully in paper and twine, like a small present. We set off in search of some crusty bread and perhaps a few olives when out of the corner of my eye I spied what appeared to be the barrels of a half-dozen antique muskets pointed upward, poised for a military salute. But no. I had stumbled into Brindisa, purveyor of jamon Iberico. What I took for shiny black gun metal was in fact, the polished hooves of pigs. And not just hooves. Entire legs from toe to hip displayed behind a pane of glass. The young man presiding over the exhibit was a master carver and an encyclopedia of jamon facts. Did I know that the pigs who had given their lives for the cause were fattened on acorns, giving the meat a rich, sweet flavor? I shook my head and confessed to being a jamon-virgin. He insisted that I must try it and passed over a wafer of pork like a priest handing out communion. Then he took a bit for himself and we performed a duet of satisfied sounds.

And this is the thing that struck me. The people here have a deep respect for food — the animals at the source, the work that produces it, and for the nourishment and pure joy it can deliver to an appreciative audience. They make fast-food seem like sin.

Just to prolong the reverential feeling, we walked around the corner to Southwark Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in London. There’s a simple niche on the side aisle with a beautiful sculpture of Will Shakespeare, reclining peacefully in this, his parish church. Then we tucked our groceries under our seats and joined the choir and a scattering of parishioners heading home from work for the ancient ritual of Evensong. Food for the body and the soul.