Sunday, March 25, 2007
London (Markets) Calling
I wrote this a few months ago and no one will publish it. So I will. Ha.
Growing up, I used to dream about visiting London the way other kids dreamt about being Superman. Fortunately for me, my dream was actually plausible. So much so in fact, I had the opportunity to spend three months studying there this past summer. (And by ‘opportunity’ I mean I paid a ‘prestigious university’ a lot of money to join their study abroad program.)
Since my idea of London was mostly based on Masterpiece Theatre and Lonely Planet, I went there with certain expectations:
1.) It would rain a lot
2.) I would ‘take tea’ every afternoon
3.) The pubs close at 11 p.m. (!)
Sadly, number 2 didn’t happen as often as I would have liked, and number 1 was quickly replaced by ‘Heat waves will be a weekly occurrence.’ I also hadn’t counted on falling head over heels for London’s markets.
When one thinks of traveling to the land of crumpets and quiet desperation, the usual tourist spots quickly jump to mind: Big Ben, The Tower, London Bridge, Buckingham Palace, etc. A visit to one of London’s markets is usually low on the list of activities. I myself assumed I’d be too busy staring at the Elgin marbles to squeeze in a visit to Borough Market. However, London’s market scene is bustling with activity and can be a great place to find deals in a city that is devastatingly expensive, especially for Americans.
During my three-month stay, the ritual of going to the markets quickly became one of my favorite activities, rising far above staring at slabs of rock in a Museum. Not only does it fit into the poor American college student’s budget of $0, it is a great way to experience a very unstuffy aspect of English culture while exploring areas that are usually off the main tourist track.
Portobello Market however, is not in one of those areas. Started up around the late 1860s, this Saturday market is famous for antiques, but has become even more popular because of its Notting Hill address (See Notting Hill). It’s also known for being pretty pricey. So with an exchange rate of $.50 for every GBP, I did what most people would do in this situation—I held off going until my mom came for a visit.
The nicest thing about Portobello Market is its outdoor setting. It stretches down a long, sometimes narrow road in one of the prettiest neighborhoods in London. We picked our way through the bustling market, a mixture of stalls and shops, while stopping briefly to peruse the offerings: Incredibly expensive dishware? Check. Dusty box cameras? Check. Yellowed lace? Double check. Again, if you are an antiques aficionado this section would probably interest you much more and there is certainly plenty to see. As for me, I kept walking until we reached the food.
Normally, I would have bought half a grape and called it a day. But since I was with my mother, it was much more fun. Fresh cherries, avocadoes, chocolate croissants, goat cheese tarts—nothing was off limits.
Everything was delicious and reasonably priced, but the produce/food section of Portobello isn’t very large and I wouldn’t recommend going there solely for that purpose—more on excellent food markets later.
On a clear day Portobello Market is the perfect setting for taking an afternoon stroll. But claustrophobes take note: it gets very crowded within a very small area, especially in the height of tourist season. You can thank Julia Roberts for that.
Friday or Saturday is the time to check out Borough Market. Located under the southern head of London Bridge, it has been around in one form or another since the 1200s. In 1756 it became a wholesale fruit and veg market, but recently a wonderful gourmet food section has sprung up. You could spend all day wandering around the different stalls trying specialty cheeses, olives, chocolates and even smoothies.
Hot food stalls can be found throughout the market, offering an eclectic mix of dishes that reflect the international tastes of London including Greek, Japanese, Spanish and Indian specialties. A favorite is the barbequed chorizo and rocket (arugula) rolls from Bardisa, a Spanish foods importer. Just look for the long line.
Borough market is also an excellent place to find organic produce, diary and meats. My mission was to get as much fruit and veg as I could carry for under a tenner. Local farmers as well as larger distributors like Turnip are present, so prices are competitive and much cheaper than at stores like Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. I got a delicious bounty of organic nectarines, strawberries, avocadoes and green peppers for half what I would have paid in the grocery store.
Sundays should be spent at Spitalfields Market in East London near Liverpool Street. It has been a market site since 1638, but has grown in popularity over the past decade. To say that I was obsessed with Spitalfields is a bit of an understatement. It is the perfect mix of fashion, food and bric-a-brac.
Not as well known as Portobello Market, but bigger than Brick Lane’s Sunday Market, Spitalfields attracts a variety of different sellers hawking everything from vintage cowboy boots to handmade truffles. However, the best stalls are the ones owned by independent designers and fashion students.
My girlfriends and I would torture ourselves wandering through the market oo-ing and ahh-ing over the impossibly hip streetwear. Prices run the gamut, but it is relatively easy to find a cute dress for around 20 GBP. I bought an awesome robot t-shirt for 9 GBP, which is a great deal no matter what the exchange rate.
An assortment of small restaurants and food stands are set up in the older part of the market. It resembles the midway of a fair, minus the carneys and ring toss games, with a seating area that is usually packed. Prices are cheap, especially compared to the rest of London, so you can fill yourself up on jacket potatoes and Thai noodles for around 5 GBPs.
Towards the middle of Sunday afternoon Spitalfields can resemble a human traffic jam with visitors clogging up certain sections, but the market’s big enough to avoid these areas, for the most part. Even so, it’s best to head out early to beat the crowds.
Honorable Mention: Brick Lane’s Sunday Market is a great stop while exploring the area. The indoor market’s food stalls are the best part: fresh hand-rolled sushi, homemade paella and savory Belgian waffles are among the offerings. An assortment of clothing stalls are present, but many are operated by larger brands that also have stalls at Spitalfields.