Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

Zoe Mulford: Postcards (Blog)

A Day at the Market, 1569 to the Present

Posted on August 18, 2010 with 1 comment

When B and I moved to England, we made much of how easy it would be to get to Continental Europe - but in four years, neither of us has been there except for work. This had to change, so we took an actual vacation and went to Brussels on the Eurostar train, by way of London.

Thursday morning in London, we went to the Borough Market, which we discovered by accident on an earlier trip. Both of us love street markets, and the Borough Market is a very fine one.

They open at two in the morning to sell wholesale to the restaurant trade. Later on they’re ready for the civilians. One can graze from stall to stall, sampling cheeses and daubing cubes of bread with olive oil, rose harissa, or unpasteurized butter with sea salt. Open-air roasteries serve up ostrich-burgers and wild boar to the lunch crowd, garnished with red-stemmed baby greens. The air is filled with amazing smells.

Running a market stall must be the grocer’s equivalent of busking: uncomfortable, chancy, really hard to do well, and eternally at the mercy of the weather. All the normal challenges of selling food - sourcing, transport, hygiene, avoiding spoilage - are complicated by the open-air setting. All sorts of weather can drive off the buyer and/or destroy the product. Add the challenges of running a temporary display that must be set up and broken down in one day. Then, unlike the departments of a supermarket, the individual stalls are in competition with each other - and each product is competing for a piece of the customer’s limited budget, capacity to carry stuff, and patience for waiting in line. Presentation and customer service become really important. So does having one thing in your stall that’s so unique and attractive that the customer will stop to look or taste.

When we bought leek and pine nut focaccia, it meant we didn’t buy the apricot walnut bread, even though that looked just as good. We bought German cheesecake at the place where it was prettiest (the fruit topping moist and jewel-like, the slices generously messy and falling apart a bit at the edges), which meant we then walked past the caramelized banana cake. The huge pyramid of seven varieties of multicolored tomatoes drew us to a particular vegetable stall - but what we bought there was a little tub of romas for £1.95. What a business.

After the market, we went to the National Gallery, where we (appropriately) visited a quartet of paintings that I fell in love with last time we were in London. They’re by 16th-century Belgian master Joachim Beuckelaer, a series called The Four Elements.

In each, the foreground of the painting is taken up by a market display; Earth is represented by fruits and vegetables, Water by fish, Air by fowl (and for some reason rabbits), and Fire by meats being prepared for roasting. In the mid-ground are scenes of daily life and in the far background are scenes from the Bible.

The food is gloriously presented, and the vendors as lovingly rendered as any of the saints and heroes in other canvasses. The religious scenes, by contrast, are vanishingly tiny. Sure, Christ walked on water, but this fish won’t get any fresher and these eggs won’t sell themselves.

Margaret A. Robinson

August 22, 2010

Loved the blog and the pictures! Will foward you a piece about contrasts between East and West with regard to nature.