Why you should care
This mecca of British and international cuisine is the place for all things food, despite the number of times it’s almost been shut down.
City leaders tried to shut Borough Market down 800 years ago, when it was already enticing shoppers away from London with bread at bargain prices. But the market, which has seen centuries of controversy and closures, survived to celebrate its millennium with an uneasy new role as a top tourist attraction.
“We’re getting half a million visitors through a year now, and on Saturdays we hear a lot of foreign accents,” says market development director David Matchett. But on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, the market on the south side of London Bridge, once the only way in or out of the English capital, remains the province of British foodies in search of rare delicacies for their dinner tables.
The market, where historic features have been preserved alongside additions like an eat-in seating area, is divided into two distinct zones.
It’s quite an evolution for the random collection of stalls, tucked behind a grimy high street with trains rattling overhead, which has been on its current site since 1756. The market fell into near-fatal decline 30 years ago as shoppers gravitated to supermarkets. But it found a new lease on life when farmers markets and celebrity chefs started waving the flag for artisanal produce, and Shakespeare’s Globe theater and the Tate Modern gallery put grungy Southwark on the tourist map.
But you don’t want to look like a tourist when you go; out-of-towners are not the market’s favorite visitors, given their tendency to photograph the produce rather than buy it. Rather, pick up a map in the information office, which, like the shiny new glass-paneled facade, is a 21st century innovation, and navigate the stalls with all the insouciance of a local.
There was once chaos: Some long-term stallholders were evicted three years ago in a row with organizers, while others seemed to continually move location while a long redevelopment took place. The reorganized market, where historic features have been preserved alongside new additions like an eat-in seating area, is divided into two distinct zones.
As you enter from Borough High Street, the left side is all about fresh ingredients: Visitors can put together picnic components, including bread baked on the premises, cheese and honey made in London’s industrial heartland, and award-winning English vintages from the Wine Pantry. But it’s not all about buying British — there are unpasteurized olives from Greece, nutmeg jelly from Grenada and loose-leaf Darjeeling tea sold by the plantation owner himself.
The right-hand side of the market is home to an increasing number of caterers like Rainha Santa, with its Tuscan-inspired hog roast; Scotchtails, specializing in that very British pub treat, the Scotch egg; and Portena, offering Argentine street food. Lactose intolerant? You can still enjoy ice cream from Greedy Goat.
For those who don’t fancy eating on their laps, the market restaurants are worth investigating, notably Roast, which serves British food sourced in part from market traders; Rabot 1745, serving cocoa grown on its own St. Lucia plantation in every dish, savory as well as sweet; and Wright Brothers, which has brought the market full circle by piling counters high with oysters, once poor men’s market fare.
Choice and quality are now the main draws, with bargain prices long gone. But some less-prosperous traders on the north side of the river may be secretly hoping for a revival of the 13th century law that made it illegal for Londoners to cross the bridge to do their food shopping!