It’s funny to think it was once illegal for people from the City of London to shop in Borough Market. In the 13th century, too many City-dwellers were scooting across colourful, cacophonous London Bridge to the fun, bawdy pubs and cheaper markets in the town of Southwark, where people set up wherever they wanted and charged what they liked; the London traders had had enough.
Back then, Borough Market was a far more chaotic affair, slap-bang on the high street. Since the best way to keep meat fresh was to keep it alive, farmers would simply walk their produce to market, and the street was permanently clogged with hulking great lowing bullocks. Eventually it was closed down; but by the 19th century – around the time Dickens would have been drinking in the galleried George Inn (you still can today) and skulking around the wonderfully Gothic Southwark Cathedral – the Victorians had reconstructed it with a lofty ironwork roof. The present buildings at Borough Market were built in the 1850s. It remained a wholesale hub until the 1970s when the New Covent Garden Market at Vauxhall was built. This, along with the advent of big supermarkets, slowly put independent greengrocers out of business and Borough Market all but closed.
With the 1990s came a new interest in artisan food, and businesses such as Spanish importer Brindisa and cheesemonger Neal’s Yard Dairy began moving into Borough’s many empty warehouses. They held public events to promote their produce. In 1998 food writer Henrietta Green threw a three-day food lovers’ market here, attracting small producers from all over the UK. It was a rip-roaring success, and it was then decided that a food market should be held here once a month, which gradually morphed into today’s six-day-a-week affair (go between Wednesday and Saturday for the uncut version). What had started as a showcase for UK artisans became an increasingly global affair, with producers from all over the world joining one of the most famous things to do in Southwark.
The best restaurants in Borough
Borough Market often gets a slating for being too gentrified and expensive. And smaller, less commercial markets at nearby Maltby and Druid Streets have cropped up as a direct result. But with street-food vendors from Sri Lanka to South America jostling for space alongside traditional British fruit-and-veg sellers, farm-to-plate butchers, artisan bakers, gin makers and some of the best outdoor restaurants in London, it’s still inimitably wonderful. Week after week, thousands of us turn up to indulge in it all; Londoners, office workers and tourists wandering around with our cups of Monmouth coffee, sampling chutney, cheesecake and steaming spoonfuls of paella within the same crazy five-minute window.
About the same time as this all took off, of course, along came other glorious things nearby that we take for granted today: the working replica of Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre, the ever-expanding Tate Modern, the wonderful Wobbly Bridge. But while the backdrop is constantly evolving – you can see The Shard for blooming miles – those of us who have long loved Borough Market always will. It’s that sort of place.
THE BEST SHOPS AND STALLS AROUND BOROUGH MARKET
Connected to the famed London bakery and cookery school across the road, this stall is known for its sourdough. It also does the most exquisite focaccia and don’t get me started on the salted-caramel doughnuts.
(+44 20 7403 5444; breadahead.com)
As the name suggests, one whole hog, lovingly reared on Blythburgh Farm in Suffolk and marinaded with rosemary, fennel, garlic, salt and pepper, is roasted each day on this stall to make the best pork sandwiches, ever.
(+44 20 8766 9079; roasthog.com)
Cyprus born-and-bred Nadia Stokes re-creates the village dishes of her youth. Expect delicious eastern Mediterranean salads and goat kebabs.
(+44 20 8050 1973; gourmetgoat.co.uk)
Bill Ogglethorpe’s raclette is the stuff of legend. First he makes the cheese in Bermondsey, then he brings it to his tiny shop in the market and melts it over plates of new potatoes, baby gherkins and picked onions. Then we eat it.
(+44 20 7394 5520; kappacasein.com)
HORN OK PLEASE
Go to Gaurav Gautam and Sandhya Aiyar’s excellent Indian-vegetarian street-food stall for fresh, fragrant dishes of moong dal dosa and aloo tikki chaat.
(+44 773 201 0000; hop.st)
RICHARD HAWARD OYSTERS
If your budget doesn’t stretch to Wheelers, these seventh-generation oystermen will knock you out four of their finest, along with a glass of Prosecco, for a tenner.
(+44 7802 244 113; richardhawardsoysters.co.uk)
THE TOMATO STALL
Most tomatoes just aren’t that good, but on this stall, packed with different varieties grown in the Arreton Valley on the Isle of Wight, they are all delicious, as are the accompanying juices and sauces.
(+44 1983 866 907; thetomatostall.co.uk)
This family-run social enterprise specialises in Sri Lankan and Indian pickles and street food and hires disadvantaged women from those parts of the world, who are living in the UK, to make it.
OAK AND SMOKE
These guys make the most amazing smoked salmon – and halibut and mackerel – in their wind-turbine-powered smokery. The smoked pâtés are also well worth a try.
The Borough outpost of this Slow Food-approved farm-to-plate butchers has a vast free-range meat counter, hundreds of different types of sausages and hot sausage rolls, Scotch eggs and pies.
(+44 1751 200 200; thegingerpig.co.uk)
Visit this stall to pick up soft, raw cow’s-milk cheese produced in a small dairy in Brockley. Try the Graceburn, steeped in extra-virgin olive oil and rapeseed oil and based on a Persian feta recipe.
RUBIES IN THE RUBBLE
A social enterprise that employs disadvantaged people and sells homemade jams and chutneys made from waste fruit and vegetable. Genius and delicious.
WILD BEEF WEST COUNTRY FARM SHOP
The lovely, lovely Lizzy Vines runs this stall, stocked with produce from her husband’s sustainable farm on Dartmoor. The ground steak is great for burgers and bolognaises.
(+44 1647 433 433; wildbeef.co.uk)
THE FREE-FROM BAKEHOUSE
We have two weaknesses in our household: one for the red-velvet cupcakes; the other for the parsnip, pear and salted-caramel cake.
(+44 20 3601 6199; sugargrain.com)
This shop-within-the-market sells the very best Spanish ingredients from ibérico and serrano ham sliced on the spot to chorizo – plus all the essentials for the perfect paella.
(+44 20 8772 1600; brindisa.com)
THREE IN A ROW
Across the street from the market is MONMOUTH COFFEE HOUSE (monmouthcoffee.co.uk), which simply does the best coffee in London, and it’s all Fairtrade. Right next door is GELATO3BIS (gelatria3bis.co.uk), an outpost of a shop in Rimini, for mouth-watering gelato. And right next door to that is NEAL’S YARD DAIRY (nealsyarddairy.co.uk), London’s top artisan cheesemaker (2, 4 and 6 Park Street respectively).
WHERE TO STAY NEAR BOROUGH MARKET
SHANGRI-LA AT THE SHARD
A five-minute walk from the market, the towering Shangri-La is the place to go for sensational views of the London skyline through its floor-to-ceiling-windowed bedrooms. It’s also got three good restaurants, Gong on the 52nd floor – the highest bar in London – and a swimming pool on the same level. Alternatively, you could just have one of London’s best afternoon teas at lobby-level Ting, still an eye-watering 35 floors up.
Address: Shangri-La at the Shard, 31 St Thomas Street, London Bridge, London
Telephone: +44 20 7234 8000
A short walk down Tooley Street from London Bridge Station, this new Indian-owned hotel is in a Tudor-inspired red-brick building that once housed St Olave’s Grammar School, where novelist Lawrence Durrell was a student. Its pan-Indian restaurant, The Baluchi, is set in the old assembly hall.
Address: The Lalit, 181 Tooley Street, London Bridge, London
Telephone: +44 20 3765 0000
OTHER THINGS TO DO NEAR BOROUGH MARKET
THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE, MUSEUM AND HERB GARRET
This fabulously spine-tingling little museum of surgical history contains Britain’s oldest operating theatre, housed in the attic of 18th-century St Thomas’ Church just off Borough High Street.
Address: The Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret, 9a St Thomas Street, Southwark, London
Telephone: +44 20 7188 2679
SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE THEATRE
We all know it’s wonderful to see a play here but a half-hour tour of the theatre comes a close second. You will often find rehearsals taking place on stage, so might witness swordfights, entire numbers from the theatre band or a dramatic confession.
Address: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London
Telephone: +44 20 7902 1400
TATE MODERN’S NEW EXTENSION
Check out The Switch House, Tate Modern’s 10-storey wonky pyramid of an extension, slashed all the way up by thin slitty windows, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. It ups Tate Modern’s exhibition space by 60 per cent.
Address: Tate Modern, Bankside, London
Telephone: +44 20 7887 8888
THE CROSS BONES GRAVEYARD
This unconsecrated medieval burial ground was originally the resting place of prostitutes and later paupers – half of them thought to be children – until it closed in 1853. Today, it’s a rather beautiful garden of remembrance for the ‘outcast dead’. Check the website for openings.
Address: The Cross Bones Graveyard, 18-22 Redcross Way, Southwark, London
Telephone:+44 20 7403 3393
This vintage and makers’ market in Flat Iron Square’s new railway arch development takes place on the one day of the week Borough Market doesn’t open – Sunday. You’ll find everything from clothes and furniture to books, vinyl and more.
Address: Flea, 53 Southwark Street, Flat Iron Square, Southwark, London
THE GARDEN MUSEUM
The newly re-opened Garden Museum looks on a map to be quite far from Borough Market, but because of the way the river bends, if you weave your way along the back streets, it only takes about 20 minutes to walk there.
Address: The Garden Museum, 5 Lambeth Palace Road, Lambeth, London
Telephone: +44 20 7401 8865
The best restaurants in Borough