London’s Best Affordable Food
The culinary energy in London has shifted from celebrity-chef restaurants to fun, funky street markets. Writer Anya von Bremzen picks her three favorites and lines up for griddled Japanese pancakes and chorizo sandwiches.
Plus: London Market Must-Haves
Although it was founded in AD 1014, Borough Market has only been at its present location south of the Thames for 250 years. Packed with stalls, shops, pubs and small restaurants, the market helped spark London’s food renaissance almost a decade ago and remains a prime destination for snacking, and for buying ingredients like buffalo Parmesan cheese or Scottish venison sausage. “Insiders always start at Monmouth Coffee Company for Europe’s best beans,” says my friend and guide to the market Jérôme Henry. We’ve met at Monmouth’s haute shed, to drink coffee made with esoteric single-estate beans and eat rustic fruit tarts at the rough-hewn communal table. Jérôme is the produce-mad Swiss chef at the trendy Les Trois Garçons restaurant in East London (Madonna frequents it); he worked in some top Chicago kitchens, like NoMI, before coming to London. “The Borough is my restaurant larder and my spiritual home,” Jérôme says, sipping his favorite Monmouth roast, the ultra rich Grupo Asociativo Quebradon from Colombia. “If it weren’t for the Borough, I’d be back in Chicago,” he adds.
Jérôme is eager for me to meet Andrew Sharp (a.k.a. Farmer Sharp), the Borough’s celebrity butcher and its most colorful character. With his professorial glasses and truly frightening command of sheep genetics, Sharp seems more like an Oxford don than a meat guy. He sources the heritage lamb at his shop from some 50 small farmers in Cumbria, who, he says, “know their sheep better than they know their wives.” Sharp can trace his own family’s sheep-herding lineage back 400 years, and his great-uncle was Beatrix Potter’s shepherd. “Fancy some prosciutto crudo di pecora?” he asks, using an Italian name for his awesome air-dried Herdwick mutton.
Next we meet the equally erudite Tony Booth at his shop, L. Booth Ltd., crammed with impossibly aromatic Burgundian vineyard peaches, Egyptian mini lemons and fresh green Thai peppercorns. Asked about his museum-worthy assembly of produce, Booth delivers an impromptu lecture on the British penchant for collecting exotica. By the time he’s finished talking, a huge line has formed at the chorizo sandwich stall at Brindisa, the boutique Spanish grocer nearby. The wait seems eternal, but it’s worth it for one of the coveted chorizo sandwiches: a minimalist masterpiece of crusty-edged smoky chorizo tucked into a Portuguese roll alongside baby arugula leaves and silken piquillo peppers.
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Afterward, we wind down with a pint at The Rake around the corner. This minuscule pub was opened three years ago by the owners of Utobeer, the famous beer shop in the market that’s stocked with more than 600 global microbrews. Fittingly, it’s a connoisseurs’ pub, the sort of place that offers such rarefied beers as organic Lambic from Belgium’s cult Cantillon brewery.
While weekend farmers’ markets are appearing all over the city, the ones with the best new energy are concentrated in East London. In this part of Hackney, just north of the hip Hoxton neighborhood, streets are a welter of concrete buildings and ornate Victorians. Before hitting Broadway Market—which is a requirement on Saturday mornings—I stop at the nearby Hackney City Farm, an actual working farm off the roaring Hackney Road. Parents bring children here to gawk at the goats and truck-size pigs, then eat at the farm’s Frizzante Café. The place has the ramshackle hippie vibe of a progressive school cafeteria and serves an epic Big Farm breakfast centered on free-range eggs. Trimmings include rashers of meaty bacon, pork sausage and roasted vine-ripened tomatoes.
Set on a street between Regent’s Canal and the bucolic London Fields Park, Broadway Market has an authentic neighborhood feel and an array of snacks as heterogeneous as its vendors. I pause by the elegant cupcake stand Violet, owned by Claire Ptak, an adorable thirtysomething California girl. Ptak has been baking since she was four years old. In her twenties, and with no formal training, she walked into Chez Panisse. Her huckleberry tartlets with rose-geranium pastry cream so impressed Alice Waters that Ptak was offered a job. After moving to London in 2005 with her British husband, she became the city’s cupcake queen. Her luscious creations with organic frostings—in such flavors as elderflower, violet essence and salted caramel—have a cult following from local kids to Stella McCartney, Keira Knightley and superchef Jamie Oliver.
As a study in contrasts, almost right next to Ptak’s stand is F. Cooke, a relic that’s specialized in indigenous East End foods since the 19th century. The café’s jellied eels and suet-crusted mince pie with mash are as authentically Cockney as the old-timers crowding the worn marble tables.
Strolling the market, I stop to get thick, sweet Vietnamese coffee at Ca Phe VN. In addition to the rich coffee blends from Vietnam’s top small producers, this makeshift café sells such unusual delicacies as artichoke tea that can apparently cure all sorts of ailments.
At the northern end of the market, fungi fans always huddle around Sporeboys mushroom stall for the specialty of the house: a slab of dense sourdough bread piled with a garlicky sauté of whatever mushrooms they have that day. When I was there, it was fresh porcini, chanterelles and black trumpets garnished with shaved Pecorino cheese. Sporeboys was started in 2005 by two mushroom-picking fanatics, David Robinson and Andrew Gellatly, who like to refer to themselves as London’s “hipster mycologists.” On a nice day the lush, pastoral London Fields a few steps away is a perfect place to eat their scrumptious sandwiches.
Sunday is the busiest market day in east London, and the ultimate destination is UpMarket in Brick Lane. The trick is to get there before the food runs out. Located in a vast former brewery building in an area thick with Bangladeshi curry joints, the market is packed with stalls selling everything from nifty handbags by emerging designers to vintage rock albums. The food section represents London at its most mind-bogglingly multicultural. Like everyone else, I prowl the aisles paralyzed by indecision. Should I have a Thai curry, or the springy injera pancakes folded around spicy stews that are sold by sweet Ethiopian grandmas?
I’m inevitably drawn to a stand manned by Japanese art students who look like music-video escapees. After pressing a round of shredded cabbage and gooey cheese onto a griddle, they flip it, douse it with a tangy Japanese mayo and hand it to me on a paper plate. The pancake is called o-konomiyaki, which means “Whatever you like, grilled.” It’s totally messy to eat, absolutely delicious and, by all accounts, London’s best new comfort food.
Stall space is cheap, and vendors are here for all sorts of reasons. The Spanish psychology student presiding over a giant paella pan says he needs extra cash. The Japanese scenesters, well, they just love being photographed. Piotr, a blond, earnest-looking Polish translator with a background in political science, is also a part-time sausage impresario and an aspiring caterer. Exemplifying the wave of young entrepreneurial immigrants who flock to London from all over Europe in search of a break, Piotr tells me he comes to the market seeking exposure. “Restaurant owners prowl London markets in search of new talent,” he says. “So do fashion scouts on the lookout for rising design stars.” Piotr reckons he’s about to land a big gig, but for now, he’s happy his addictive, handmade grilled kielbasa from northern Poland is selling so briskly.
As for me, I’m already plotting a trip to the West Indian Brixton Market, because—improbably—it harbors Franco Manca, the greatest wood-burning-pizza joint this side of Naples. Oh, and the pizza is organic.
Anya von Bremzen, a New York City–based food and travel writer, is the author of The New Spanish Table.