Down a dreary lane and past a jumble of dumpsters you might find a surprising scene. Incongruous against the concrete backdrop of a paved parking lot, something has blossomed. Several dozen stalls—blue and white awnings, chalkboards, and tables groaning with wares—have sprung up this morning like the myriad crocuses now gracing our spring gardens. It is Sunday, and those Londoners who aren’t at home recovering from the excesses of Saturday night are performing a weekly ritual.
When I left the bright air and evergreens of my home in the Pacific Northwest for the teeming metropolis of London, I thought I would have to say farewell to fresh, local produce. I shuffled regretfully around my local farmers market for the last time, savoring the sights and smells, and thinking glumly of a life limited to supermarket shopping. Surely this would be my fate in the cramped confines of a city of more than 7.5 million people.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find my fears were unfounded when, shortly after moving to London, I stumbled across the Notting Hill farmers market one drizzling Saturday morning. Tucked back from the bustle of Notting Hill Gate, in the unglamorous environs of the loading docks behind the high street shops, this little market is a gem. Even when I first found it, in mid-winter, there was a fine array of stalls selling cheeses, meats, produces and preserves from all over the region. Perusing crates of butternut squash and muddy potatoes, sampling ancient, peppery cheddar and chatting with the stall holders was a heartening experience in the gloom of an English winter.
After some research, I realized that London is positively packed with weekly markets. From prosperous Marylebone to trendy Brixton, you’ve never far from one of these neighborhood institutions. The trouble is that they tend to be hidden in unexpected nooks; they materialize in forgotten crannies of the urban jungle and disappear without a trace save for some trodden apple cores and the faint whiff of something delicious lingering in the air. Fortunately the London Farmers Market Website has compiled a comprehensive list of locations, hours of operation, and available stalls.
For the traveler, farmers markets are an ideal way to get inside the skin of a city and London is no exception. Even if you are kitchen-less and just passing through, there are more to markets than meat and potatoes: many stalls specialize in prepared foods and there’s always a good selection of sizzling sausages, cauldrons of soup, cold meat pies, and mounds of decadent cakes and pastries. In fact markets are an ideal place to sample the best of local cuisine. On arrival my favorite treat is a couple of oysters, shucked to order and glowing like milky pearls in their shells. Next I might sidle up to one of the bakery stalls, buy a hunk of rosemary flecked focaccia, and wander around tearing off chunks as I soak up the morning light and indulge in another absorbing market activity: people watching.
Early in the day the market is crowded with young couples, bleary eyed from the pressures of parenthood, being dragged along at breakneck speed by energetic offspring. There are elderly ladies with capacious shopping bags on wheels, scrutinizing prices and examining each piece of fruit with a critical eye. There are ardent foodies flocking around the cheese stalls, exchanging tips on where to buy the best bacon, and eulogizing over offal. And then there are the farmers and chefs, their husbands, wives, children and employees all weighing and bagging produce, handing it over more often than not with a recipe advice and pairing suggestions.
Wandering around my local market this Sunday, it suddenly dawned on my why I love this weekly ritual so much: beyond the abundance and diversity of local produce, the most amazing thing about markets is that people talk to each other and they talk about food! You can hear them exclaiming over a newfound herb or musing on how a certain cheese might go nicely with the chutney they’ve just bought. All in all it is a scene to warm the food-lover’s soul, a traveller’s Eden, and an altogether delicious way to pass a lazy weekend morning.