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London's new buy ways

Urbanites want foods that are diverse and in season, so vendors are eager to meet the demand. Even the bangers and mash are fresher.

April 22, 2007|Beth Gardiner | Special to The Times

London — Ahunk of butter, a little garlic and a handful of mushrooms -- Sporeboys owners David Robinson and Andrew Gellatly toss fresh chanterelles, portobellos and cepes in a saute pan, sprinkle a bit of pecorino cheese and parsley on top and throw it all between two slices of fresh-baked bread.

Eager lunchtime crowds line up for their sandwiches at the London markets where the two set up their stall. Their odd but delectable creation is typical of the diverse offerings at the outdoor markets, which have become magnets for office workers and shoppers looking for a taste of something different.

London has always been a hub for commerce, its street markets central to city dwellers' lives. But something is changing lately in these long-established shopping spots, a shift that reflects the capital's new dynamism and diversity.

The city is booming, brimming with a new confidence as real estate prices spiral upward, financiers seek to snatch New York's mantle as the premier global trading hub and London becomes the favored destination of increasingly mobile young Europeans. Its street markets are some of the best places to see the rapid evolution up close.

Markets that grew up along the "drovers' paths" where herders once led livestock to slaughter are now filled with fabulous foods, stylish clothes and ingredients that demonstrate the international flavor of a city where more than a quarter of the inhabitants were born overseas.

As London grows wealthier, its markets provide evidence of residents' increasingly tony tastes. With immigrants streaming into the city, the markets have become places to snack on fried plantains from the Caribbean and watch women in vividly colored African robes shop for beans and dried fish from home. And they're among the best spots to sample the great foods that Britons have recently begun discovering after centuries of culinary mediocrity. Goodbye boiled vegetables, hello gastro-pubs and the organic revolution. Even bangers and mash have gone upscale.

London "has got 10 million people, it's cosmopolitan, people are looking for something new," said Rob Athill, who hopes the stall he and his wife have opened at Exmouth Market in the hip Clerkenwell neighborhood will kick-start their new Vietnamese coffee business. "This is the place to get noticed."

Also driving the markets' growth are Britons' growing dissatisfaction with mass-produced food in supermarkets.

A nation once happy to subsist on pub grub and crisps (potato chips) is learning to love fresh food that's produced nearby and eaten in season. The outdoor markets are full of small businesses such as Two Fishwives, which sells gourmet fishcakes and pies, and a cider enterprise run by owner Barry Topp, who presses his own hard cider.

Portobello Road's antiques fair and the crafts and fashions of Camden Town have long been stops on the London tourist trail. But the real treasures are lesser known, the shopping spots where at-home cooks fill canvas bags with fresh vegetables and bread, and locals chat with their neighbors and sip pints of beer.

These markets are the places where Londoners bring their kids to hang out on a sunny Saturday, stop for lunch and schmooze with whomever happens to stroll by. They're perfect spots for visitors to catch a glimpse of everyday community life in a fast-changing city that's still holding tight to its history. And be sure to stay for a bite while you're there.

Borough Market is the scrumptious granddaddy of London's food destinations, first established when the Romans occupied the city and settled in its current location -- just south of the Thames River, near London Bridge -- for 250 years. It's a favorite stop for foodies hunting down that perfect French salami or Scottish sausage, and it's often packed on Saturdays with Londoners getting ready for weekend dinner parties.

Some complain prices are inflated, but the market's range and quality are incomparable, and an hour spent browsing can easily make lunch unnecessary: Many stalls offer samples to passersby, who gorge happily on cheeses, sweets and much more. More than 125 vendors in the enormous, covered complex offer a dizzying number of choices: buffalo Parmesan, lamb from Scotland's remote Orkney Islands, traditional English pork pies, organic fruit smoothies, 1,700 kinds of beer in one shop alone.

"It's my economic salvation," said Topp, the cider maker. Shoppers, he said, value the market's fresh goods. "There are so many stalls that are cooking their own products, you can taste them -- there's somebody on hand who's quite happy to talk to you."

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