“This was London, in all its filth and glory. Nostalgic for the past, while yearning to cast off the chains of bygone ages and step forward into the bright utopia of the future.” – Marie Brennan, With Fate Conspire
It’s bitterly cold. I’m wearing double socks, double jumpers, gloves, a scarf, a hat and a thick coat. My feet are numb, my hands frozen. I feel fantastic.
Holding a fresh baguette to go with my recently purchased mushroom paté, I’m trudging through Borough Markets with my godmother Nicola and soaking up the smells. Giant fry pans filled to the brim with Spanish paella bubble before me. A few steps over is a vat of Thai chicken curry, bright orange like the sunset. The oil has risen to the top and formed a glossy red film. It looks delicious.
Around the corner and I stumble across a saucisson vendor slicing thin pieces of cured meat with extraordinary care. “Made with local ingredients!” says the seller in a thick French accent. “Three for ten pounds! A bargain!” I can’t justify the purchase but I try a slice. Rich and flavoursome, it melts in my mouth and takes me right back to France. A few stalls over and there’s five different cheesemongers. The smell is so thick I can almost taste the cheese. Comté, blue vein, emmental. Then there are the butchers, exchanging game for cash as pheasants hanging over their stalls, feathers still fresh. Slabs of meat resting in chillers. Fat roast chickens glistening on spits.
Then meat is replaced with chickpeas, raw vege salads, the bright colours of beetroots, courgettes, carrots. At a fruit and vege stall Nicola picks up a bulb of garlic so huge it’ll cost her more than a cup of excellent coffee; she chooses coffee. Around another corner and you have stacks of brownies waiting to be devoured, artisan handmade chocolate sold by the ‘chunk’, moist gluten-free fig and orange cake, marshmallows, fudge, ice cream, sweets galore.
Whatever you feel like eating, you can find it here. Vendors battle for customers by trying to make their food look and smell as appetising as possible. You can try before you buy. But what you see is usually what you get – no walking away feeling bitterly disappointed with your purchase, the food really is as good as it looks. A stall selling melted Raclette and potatoes wins my six pounds. A new market assistant is being trained. A man in his early fifties, his hands are shaking slightly as he places half a giant wheel of Raclette directly under the grill. The inside of the wheel – where the knife sliced the circle in half – faces the heat, resting in a special metal holder. Slowly it melts and once the top is golden brown and bubbling, he takes it out. Carefully, holding the entire semi-circle of cheese, he scrapes the melted layer over potatoes under the careful guidance of his manager. It’s an intricate process and he needs a few tries. The end result is pale yellow slop on a white paper plate, topped with a few gherkins and a sprinkle of salt. Simple, unpretentious and utterly divine.
Nicola orders a roast duck wrap and chicken gyozas topped with chilli oil and we sit in the sun outside Southwark Church enjoying every last bite. The sun is warm but the air is cold; our bums go numb against the concrete bench. In weather like this, the hot food feels nourishing and fulfilling – not just for our bellies, but for our soul. I’m not a Londoner. Yet. I’m homesick most days, yearning for views of Rangitoto Island and the sight of the sea. The beauty of New Zealand cannot compete with London’s mish mash of historic buildings and littered streets, grand walkways and dark alleys. Much of the city is dirty and brown and brick. But it’s full of life.
And in places like Borough Markets, where people don hats and gloves and brave the winter to banter with local shopkeepers and devour delightful food, you can’t help but see beauty everywhere you look. It’s in the faces of those who turn up in the cold, day after day, to urge people to taste their fresh goat’s cheese or to sell just one more stick of chorizo. It’s in the faces of the visitors, the tourists snapping photos with their big SLR cameras, and in the locals who purchase the same thing from the same vendor every week. But mostly it’s in the food – the bright colours, the smells, the presentation. It’s in the way food brings people together. No matter how cold it is outside, how bitter the wind or grey the sky, there doesn’t seem to be anything a hot meal can’t cure.
After finishing our food we pop into Southwark Church for a quick reprieve. One minute we are in the thick of the markets surrounded by people; the next we are in a breathtakingly beautiful building with walls dating back to the 12th century. This is London – the contrast between now and then, the coexistence of the modern with the ancient, the hustle and bustle alongside the serious. Eventually we leave and wander back through the markets.
Satiated after our meals we manage to resist further temptation and instead find ourselves admiring a stall selling aprons and bags. Out from behind the counter comes a large, balding man with reddish skin and a faint scar on his right cheek. He has cheerful eyes and a cheeky presence. I couldn’t understand the words that tumbled out of his mouth at first, his accent was so thick. But Nicola was hooting with laughter. He smiled at my confused face and asked where I was from. New Zealand. He chuckles. “Ahh, London owns you now,” he said. “Yer never gonna leave. I’m from Liverpool, I came to London for a little while, I thought. I’ve been living in London for 25 years.”
Before I can protest that Liverpool is not quite New Zealand, he continues. “Soon from now, maybe in 12 months, yer gonna go back home to New Zealand, and yer gonna be in a lovely cafe and yer gonna be talking to someone. And all they’re gonna want to talk abou’ is their sister’s leg operation. And yer gonna start thinking about London, and it’s music, it’s theatre, it’s food. And yer gonna be back. London owns you now.” He goes on for a bit and I enjoy listening to him talk, seeing London through his eyes. This red-faced market man with a gruff exterior and a cheeky spirit, addicted to the life and energy of the city. And of course I’m sceptical – the thought of a place owning me is ridiculous. I own me.
But then a small part of me can see how it could happen. How the buzz and energy of London could pull you in and never spit you back out. I know I’ll never give up the blue sea and beaches of back home, the luxury of never living more than a short drive from the water. But maybe I’ll let the lure of London reel me in for now; in a city like this, the only way to enjoy the grit and brick is to fully surrender to its charms.