For the past few years, in the week before Christmas, I’ve done a big cook up for my friends. Large cuts of meat cooked slowly, sides, desserts, and whatever else I feel like serving those people that I like. While I may be on the other side of the world this year, I felt that the traditional pre-Christmas feast was still worth doing.
I went for a bit of a classic. Roast lamb, potato gratin, honeyed carrots, and sautéed kale, followed by apple and rhubarb crumble with custard. Crowd pleasers seemed the way to go.
There were always going to be some challenges with putting a meal like this together while travelling, of course. Not least being the state of the hostel’s kitchen. While better than what you usually get in a hostel, it certainly lacks some of the sophistication of what I had back home. Lacks quite a lot of the utensils, too.
The larger challenge, though, is ingredient shopping. At the best of times I struggle with shopping for an event like this. Not being one for half measures, I like to get really good quality produce. The meat should be ethically produced and as good as can be found.
Vegetables and fruit, too, need to be of the highest standards, which means I need to be able to look at them myself before choosing.
In any new city it can be hard to find places you trust to sell you food. In a big city like London, caught in the grip of warring supermarkets, it can be even worse. Don’t get me wrong, supermarkets have their place, and with the tiered variety of chains here, some of them are quite good.
But even in the supposedly higher end supermarkets there is an upsetting trend away from choosing your own produce. At the local Waitrose nearly everything is in plastic wrappers. Maybe I’m a bit of a snob, but it all just leaves me a bit cold. Is it so odd to want to feel my leeks before I buy them? I would always prefer a small, local grocers or butchers, but they are increasingly difficult to find.
Through the wonders of the internet I did manage to find a family owned organic butchers a mere two tube stops away. HG Walter’s is a dream of a butcher. Along with the usual cuts there was game and offal of every sort, plus some stunning looking house made sausages. The meat was displayed beautifully, the staff knew what they were talking about, and it was a challenge to choose what to take.
Even with the help of the internet, though, decent greengrocers have been near impossible to find. In desperate need of good veggies I did what I would do in most cities and headed for the markets.
When deciding on which market to visit, it’s good to stick to those that are large, old, and central. Barcelona’s La Boqueria are a good example, as are Melbourne’s own Queen Victoria Markets. In London, this meant Borough Markets. With a very long history, including 160 years in the current location, Borough Markets is one of London’s largest, and located right by London Bridge. It hit the brief on all three counts.
That it seemed so likely to be one of the great markets of the world might explain why I came away feeling so disappointed.
Don’t’get me wrong. There is a lot to be impressed about at Borough Markets. If you’re looking for cured meats and cheeses there is a seriously impressive selection. Some of the meat available looked wonderful, too, especially the game meat. And there looked to be some beautiful seafood, too.
But there was a significant lack of fruit and vegetables. Across the whole market I think I counted 5 fruit and veg stalls, most of which were really rather small. Some did have good produce, for example I got some lovely organic carrots for an absurd 10p a kilo. But there just wasn’t the selection I expect from a great market.
Maybe my expectations are too high, and I’ve been spoilt by some of the Australian markets. In Melbourne alone, not only is there the indomitable Queen Vic, but also Prahran. Adelaide’s Central Markets are equally impressive. Even the Belconnen and Fyshwick markets in Canberra aren’t too bad when it comes to the range and quality of fresh vegetables.
To me, Borough Markets just didn’t live up to expectations. I did manage to get what I required, and my pre-Christmas dinner was a huge success. The lamb shoulder spent 6 hours in the oven and fell off the bone, the potato gratin was rich and creamy, and the crumble was sweet and warming. Everyone was left delighted, but I just want it to be easier next time.
Looking online, farmers markets seem to be the best suggestions for fresh produce, but they’re mostly on the weekend.
In the meantime, perhaps I’m stuck with plastic-wrapped leeks.