Wednesday, 21 December 2011
Christmas at Borough Market by Imogen Robertson
I admit it. I live a double life. Most of the time I am a mild-mannered writer of historical crime fiction, but sometimes the mask slips, and I am a cheesemonger.
My betrothed, Ned, runs the Gorwydd Caerphilly Stall at Borough Market and at Christmas when things get busy I find myself dragged out of the nice warm flat and shivering in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral selling cheese. I’m not complaining, in doing so, I am taking part in a great tradition, and at least this year the cheese hasn’t been snowed on. There has been a market here for the best part of a thousand years. It was recorded as causing trouble by extending onto London Bridge itself in the 13th century, (this being the period when the bridge was covered in houses and shops), then it was settled further down the High Street until it caused such congestion there that Parliament closed it down in the mid-18th century. Luckily though the parishioners of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral) got together to set up the market again in Rochester Yard. That area is still the heart of the market, though it and lots of the other street names have changed since my 1740s map was made. Seems a shame, I would love it if London foodies were now saying to each other ‘you must try this fantastic dried ham I found in Foul Lane!’, ‘But have you tried the Eccles Cakes from Dead Man’s Place?’ Funnily enough in the early days of the new incarnation of Borough, stall holders would head up onto the bridge again, samples in hand, to persuade commuters to come and see what was on offer. Plus ça change... It's a great place for a history lover to hang out. Layers upon layers of the city's growth, evidence of its pleasures and pains are all around here and the Globe is a couple of strides up the river - just turn left at the Golden Hind. I wanted Ned to hang a sign up saying 'Shakespeare shopped here', but he told me that was going too far. I bet he did though. His brother is buried in the Cathedral after all.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the nineteenth century the Borough became a wholesale market, but over the last twenty years things have changed again and the whole placed is thronged now with specialised stalls and small producers selling gorgeous foods straight to customers. In a way this new version of Borough Market is closer to the 18th century than the 20th. Let me explain that. Something bad happened to British food in the 19th and 20th century. The processes became industrial and food ceased to be an individual pleasure for maker and consumer. Old artisanal methods of food making got lost somewhere, and it’s only recently we’ve begun to get those skills back and learn to value them. When Todd Trethowan decided he wanted to learn how to make a traditional unpasteurised Caerphilly he had to go to Somerset to learn how to do it. He did, and now Ned and I get to boast about it. The stall next door to ours on Saturdays sells mustards made by Noel Fitzjohn in his home. He goes foraging for the wild garlic. When Burnt Sugar started out, the fudge was made on Justine’s kitchen table. Peter Gott raises boar and will sometimes hand out the resulting pies and sausages to you himself. So we’ve sort of come full circle at Borough; you can have the experience of shopping in an 18th century style, only with 21st century hygiene standards and more fragrant sounding street names. God bless us every one.