Borough Market is one of the UK’s longest running food markets and is loved as much by locals as it is by the throngs of visiting tourists keen to soak up a little piece of London’s gastronomic history. It has evolved over the centuries from a wholesale marketplace supplying the greengrocers of south London into its current incarnation as a heaving retail hub providing sustainably sourced and ethically produced British and international produce. What was once a heaving, chaotic mass of higgledy-piggledy market stalls interspersed with live cattle and sheep is now an orderly exchange of goods where hungry Londoners peruse artfully adorned stalls brimming with artisanal cheeses and sourdough breads.
Conveniently placed in the heart of the city, Borough Market is a buzzing hive of activity that rarely seems to slow down. During the weekend the market is bombarded with shoppers and die-hard foodies who come as much for the lively atmosphere and people watching as they do for the delectable gourmet offerings and tasty free samples doled out by knowledgeable vendors. You could quite easily wander from one cheese monger to another tasting an abundance of local and international cheeses, from creamy Stilton with its gorgeous blue mould-streaked interior to tangy, ash covered goat’s cheeses from the Loire Valley in central France. The market is also flanked by a huge variety of tempting eateries offering everything from comforting Asian style street foods to perfectly cooked hand made pasta and almost everything in between. You can even try one of the city’s most highly rated Sunday roasts at the aptly named Roast, a swanky London establishment situated in The Floral Hall perched high above the market floor.
As with most bustling market scenes it can be difficult to know where to start. Dan and I often enter from the east after the quick four-minute walk from London Bridge station. This convenient entry point from the station allows us to pass by and marvel at the 13th century architecture of Southwark Cathedral and its 800 year old façade of honey coloured stone and gothic spired clock tower. Descending the stairs adjacent to the cathedral you become instantly immersed in the bustling vibrancy of the market as hungry crowds jostle in front of busy food stalls while their friends scramble for a coveted place at one of the few outdoor seating spaces. The market can be a little overwhelming with its constant stream of sensory stimulation. We therefor prefer to make a reservation for lunch away from the hustle and bustle of the market in one of the many excellent eateries in the nearby village neighbourhood of Bermondsey.
However, if you want to indulge in a well-earned leisurely lunch then first a thorough exploration of the market is a must. It is easy to become swept up in the wave of gastronomic pleasure that unfurls before you here and as your appetite increases so too may your funds diminish; parting with your hard-earned cash here is relatively easy and you can soon find yourself laden with goodies you never knew you needed and barely know what to do with. My advice, and that which I rarely heed myself: be sure to do at least one lap around the market before you begin piling your basket high with enough food to feed three large families. There are plenty of goodies for everyone – you won’t starve here!
With enough sourdough and pastry options to feed half of the city you would be foolish for not grabbing a plump, seed encrusted loaf to take home or a golden flaky pastry stuffed with custard cream and laced with seasonal stone fruits. There are olives swimming in herbs and olive oil next to barrels of crispy wafer-thin crackers to accompany the plethora of gooey, smelly cheeses that practically beg you to put them in your mouth. Mammoth wheels of sharp, crumbly Comte and Pecorino sit atop old wooden tabletops looking as though they have been rolled straight down the hillside from some ancient Mediterranean village.
The glass fronted cabinet at the fish monger always attracts my attention with its mass of iridescent seafood piled high on shiny silver platters. Stunned fish with their glassy eyes gaze out at me with lifeless expressions while slippery octopi drape languidly against fire red lobsters like two old chums staggering home after a long, boozy night at the pub. The entire scene transports me to some weathered dock in one of England’s oldest and whiffiest fishing ports down on the rugged Cornish coast. With nostrils full of the scent of the sea I promptly order two translucent squid and a fish monger’s fistful of king prawns and place them in my cooler bag crammed with ice for the long journey home. As much as I love fresh seafood, I do not feel the need to take the smell with me to lunch.
British Bramley apples and common root vegetables sit nestled between profusions of pungent fresh herbs while twists of wild mushrooms with their dirt covered roots remain a proud testament to their humble earthy origins. Clustered together like the ruffled tail feathers of a sitting hen these spongy, fleshy fungi appear as though beamed down from an alien planet or trudged up from the depths of the ocean floor like prehistoric pieces of bleached out coral. Every bit as delicious as they are strange looking, these exotic mushrooms are a wonderful alternative to the hum drum monotony of those store-bought varieties such as chestnut and button. With suitably quirky names such as Hen-of-the -woods, Chantarelle, Morel, Trompette, and Maitake these wild counterparts have delicate, nutty flavours which can elevate even the simplest of dishes and expand your culinary palette.
The wild mushroom selection is one of the main reasons for my visit this time. The cooler winter months will soon become a distant memory and I want to take advantage of the last of the foraged fungi before they make way for bunches of bright green asparagus and mounds of crunchy sweet peas. Like a warm hug on a cold day a comforting plate of wild mushroom risotto warms you right through to the core. Simple and easy to make for a mid-week meal for two as well as cheeky excuse to enjoy a glass of wine on a school night, this impressive dish is also perfect to serve to friends on the weekend. A mushroom risotto is my go-to for perfect winter comfort food. If you cannot find wild mushrooms you can make this dish just as easily with chestnut mushrooms or preferably shitake for their rich umami taste.
For this recipe I have used what was readily available at Borough Market, where I found some beautiful black trompettes, chantrelles, maitake, shitake, king oysters, and oysters. You only need very small amounts of each as these are cooked separately from the risotto in butter and fresh thyme and sprinkled on top at the end.
Wild Mushroom Risotto
Ingredients – yields 2 generous portions
30g dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups boiling water
3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock if vegetarian)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small shallot, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup carnaroli (or arborio rice)
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon mascarpone
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (approx 80g)
300g fresh wild mushrooms such as chantrelles, tromettes, oyster, shitake
2 sprigs thyme
In a heatproof bowl, soak the dried porcini in the boiling water until softened, 10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the soaking liquid; rinse the mushrooms to remove any grit. Finely chop the porcini and reserve in a small bowl. Pour the soaking liquid into a medium saucepan, stopping before you reach the sediment at the bottom. Stir in the chicken stock. Warm the stock over low heat.
In a large saucepan over a moderate heat add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Once shimmering add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring until softened for 4 minutes. Add the rice and dried porcini and stir to coat. Add the wine and bay leaf and cook until the wine has evaporated. Add about a ladle full of the warm stock and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until nearly absorbed. Continue adding the stock in batches, stirring constantly until the rice is al dente and suspended in a creamy sauce, about 20 minutes. Discard the bay leaf. Stir in the butter, mascarpone, and Parmigiano and season to taste and keep warm.
In a frypan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the fresh wild mushrooms and thyme and cook over high heat, stirring until softened and golden for about 8 minutes. Discard the thyme. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper, spoon over the risotto and serve with a touch of extra grated parmigiano and a sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves.