To walk through Borough Market is to experience 1000 years of culinary history told in meat and carrots and pies and puddings. You’re following the footsteps of Shakespeare grabbing a pasty on his way to work at the Globe, or the young Charles Dickens, filling his pockets with two-a-penny hot cross buns—or so I like to imagine.
So, yes, it’s full of tourists. And yes, there are a lot of maps and guides to it. But hear me out: This is not a tourist's guide. It’s a resident’s guide.
The resident is my sister, Sarah, whose top floor flat overlooks the market's entrance on Southwark Street—just like Bridget Jones, if Bridget Jones were a buyer for the Wine Society (best job ever, right?) and a certified Master of Wine. So when I tell you that Sarah throws a mean dinner party, it's no wild claim. On this Spring morning in particular, she is a woman with a plan: head to the market to find a leg of lamb to roast, and see whether ramp season is still happening—it is!
As we navigate Redcross Way in the dappled sun, the day shines with possibility and promise… especially the promise of good things to eat. First up, early breakfast (espresso and bread and jam with unlimited refills) at one of Monmouth Coffee’s little wooden tables. Next, a stroll around the stalls to forage for free samples—looking at you, sourdough, olives and burrata. Then to work: selecting the perfect joint of meat at Ginger Pig, and home to cook—with a bottle of Prosecco and a bag of doughnuts from Bread Ahead to keep us company.
It’s pretty much my perfect day. And if that sounds good to you too, welcome to this curated round-up of Borough Market's many delights.
Go hungry—and early. There are over 100 stalls and shops in Borough Market, and most of them offer free samples. The Market gets busy, especially on Saturday; if you’re there before 11, you’ll have a much more relaxed experience.
Don’t go on Sunday. Though most of the surrounding shops and restaurants are open on Sunday, the market itself is officially closed (though there are special Sunday opening hours in December). The official hours of operation are: Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5p.m.; Friday, 10a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The wholesale market is open every weekday morning from 2 a.m. to 8a.m.
Think beyond the Market Proper. The streets surrounding the official Borough Market are home to amazing cheesemongers, butchers, bakers, bars, cafes, and restaurants that real, live Londoners frequent (just as much as tourists).
Ask questions. For the most part, these businesses are founded on passion, and vendors are usually only too happy to chat and tell their stories.
Take a class. If you’ve always wanted to make sourdough, decorate a cake, or fancied trying your hand at butchery or pie-making or hand-pulling your own mozzarella, someone at Borough will be happy to pass on their passion and skills. Many of the shops offer a comprehensive range of classes. Ask in person if there’s a class or check vendors' websites.
Take cash. Sure, people have Tiles and iPads, but cold hard cash is the way to go. There are banks on Borough High Street (between the London Bridge Tube exit and the Market) and also on Southwark Street. There’s also an ATM in the market itself, hidden inside a red telephone box. If you need to spend a different kind of penny (quaint old-fashioned phrase for it), the toilets in the Market Hall won a Loo Of The Year award in 2016.
Brindisa specializes in Spanish charcuterie, including hand-carved Ibérico and Serrano hams, but we’re here for the chorizo sandwich, which has a cult following. Spicy sausage, fresh and sizzling off the grill, is squodged into fresh ciabatta, topped with tangy piquillo peppers and a handful of rocket (arugula). Secret insider tip? Nope. Well worth the inevitable line? Absolutely.
Le Marche du Quartier’s twitter handle is @confitducksandwich, and it is not messing around. Fatty duck legs bubble in a giant paella pan, an extravagance of meltingly tender meat with the odd crunchy caramelized edge, waiting to be scooped onto a soft roll, daubed with mustard, and scoffed immediately.
There are plenty of good reasons to stop by Ginger Pig, a butchery that specializes in selling seasonal game and rare-breed pork to some of London’s top restaurants—picking up a leg of lamb for your sister to roast for dinner, for example. But the reason that springs most pressingly to mind is to eat a pork pie. A pork pie is a cold-water pastry shell filled with sweetly spiced pork sausage meat, held together with a deeply savory jelly. An odd Christmas present, for sure, but this was probably the best thing we ever bought my Dad. (A pie, best served cold, ideally with some chutney and cornichons on the side, will last around a week. Ha! As if a pie would last a week.)
Scotchtails makes arguably the best Scotch Egg you’ll find anywhere, with a flavors sure to please the traditionalist (sausage), the experimentalist (chorizo! squid!) and the vegetarian (beetroot and lentil—perhaps the most Insta-fabulous egg of all). Founders Dominic Hamdy and Oliver Ham use Burford Brown eggs, which are known for their vibrant yolks, and all the meat is organic. Warning: you may find yourself sorely tempted by the sweet potato fries. Give in to that.
Konditor and Cook is slim glass-countered bakery that’s famous for its rich, fudgy chocolate brownies, which pretty much landmarked brownies as a thing that could be gourmet all those years ago. Feeling adventurous? Check out the Curly Wurly flavor brownie, a take on the classic twisted chocolate caramel bar that’s been sticking British children’s teeth together since the 70’s. Also worth noting: I had a selection of Magic Cakes (square cupcakes with emoji-esque decorations) for my birthday last year, and they were emphatically not a bad idea at all.
Bread Ahead, the passion project of Matthew Jones and Justin Gellatly (formerly Head Baker at St John Bakery), is known for its delectably tangy sourdough, but there’s no point denying it; we’re all lining up for the doughnuts. Specifically the butterscotch doughnuts, which are light like bomboloni, and overstuffed with creamy, nutty caramel. If you’re only getting one doughnut, get that one. But who says you can only get one? Now you’re at the front of the line you might as well take advantage. Check out whatever seasonal special is on offer; always a creative trip. My sister and I just had hot cross bun doughnuts, packed with candied fruit and peel. I am still dreaming of them. And if you see a rhubarb and custard—a quintessentially British combination—you’ve got to try it.
Best Places for Free Samples
If you’re compiling a picnic to eat by the river, Borough Olives is the ideal stop. First off, it has one of the most generous free-sample policies in the market. Taste and compare olives from around the world in a variety of different marinades and preparations—sun-dried, lemon-soused, harissa-spiced, anchovy-stuffed—then scoop up a pot-full to add to your lunch. The juicy, vibrant green Nocerella olives are a great choice.
“Damp and cool” are not necessarily qualities you want to find in a shop. Unless that shop sells cheese. Neal's Yard Dairy takes its cheese extremely seriously. You can expect to meet a cheese maker or two presenting their produce; there’s a busy program of classes in the upstairs room; and an abundance of free samples so you can be sure that you’re buying something special. Focus on traditional British cheeses such as cheddar (try the Lincolnshire Poacher) or Stilton (check out the Colston Basset).
Looking for an unusual gift to take home with you? Check out Spice Mountain, which is famous for selling over 45 varieties of chilies. Surprise the friend who has everything with a couple of rare Carolina Reapers, the world’s hottest peppers. You can taste a sample, if you’re feeling brave enough.
Essential Beverages, aka Coffee and Wine
Caffeine up at Monmouth Coffee Company, which has been sourcing and roasting so-called “interesting beans” since 1978. The taste is well worth the (sometimes long) line. Insider tip: Pick up a bag of beans (whole or ground) to take home (or to an Airbnb), and avoid the queue by heading straight to the front counter where a second, shorter queue exists for non-beverage purchases. So thoroughly British.
You’ll probably want some wine to pair with all that cheese, and luckily, Bedales Wine Bar is just the place. A shrine to old-ish, esoteric, and interesting wine, bottles are stacked to the ceiling of the jewel box emporium, accessed by ladders on rails, library-style. Seduced by the old-world atmosphere and reluctant to leave? Pull up a chair and settle in for a glass from their constantly changing pour menu. Or toast to a good day’s shopping with a glass of the house champagne.
Wait, Where Should I to Eat All This Food?
Borough Market gets busy. There are benches, and a covered glass conservatory with tables (and a green wall featuring hops) at the London Bridge end, but you’ll be in for a scramble to get a seat. Try it if you’re feeling feisty.
Honestly, it’s probably busy too, but the wall of Southwark Cathedral should yield a spot eventually. And as you eat you can reflect that Chaucer probably did something similar with the band of pilgrims before setting out to Canterbury and making poetic ballad history. Shakespeare fans will find a memorial statue and a stained glass window depicting characters from some of the most famous plays inside the church. Or, and this is a more solid plan, really, walk away from London Bridge to the west end of the market, and head down to the riverbank. The further west you go along South Bank (towards the Globe and the Tate) the thinner the crowds will get, and you’ll soon be able to find a bench or a river wall to perch on while you watch the boats.
Enough of These Crowds. Indoor Options?
If you’re open to browsing the market, going easy on the free samples, then sitting down, tucking a napkin under your collar and eating like a Dickensian nobleman, Elliots Cafe is the place for you. The roast pork and proper crackling, made in the wood-fired grill, is always a treat, and the shoulder of mutton, enlivened with a minty gremolata, is the ideal dish for sharing family style.
Roast, a restaurant specializing in traditional British dinners, stands out literally from the market, situated as it is within the listed glass façade of what used to be Covent Garden’s Floral Hall (the market bought the façade for a pound during renovations). Watch the world go by as you tuck into rib of beef and Yorkshire puddings. Even though the market is closed on Sundays, the lunch at Roast is worth the trip alone (reservation in advance highly recommended).
The Boot And Flogger tucked over Southwark Street down Redcross Way, is a candlelit warren of wood-paneled dining rooms and leather wingback chairs. Since it’s across the street from the market, it’s much quieter, and you can usually find a seat. Relax by the fire with a perfectly poured pint or a glass of wine, or, in the summer, head out to the cobbled courtyard scattered with patio tables.
At the entrance to the market on Middle Road, you’ll find a brass bell and a blue plaque explaining that it’s there by public order. It was cast by the Whitechapel Foundry, which also made Big Ben.
The Globe Tavern is famed for three things: pouring an excellent pint, a gourmet bar menu, and being below the fictional home of London’s most infamous self-proclaimed spinster, Bridget Jones.
Across Southwark Street from the market you’ll find Cross Bones Graveyard, the final resting place of over 15,000 paupers, many of them “Winchester Geese,” prostitutes who worked in the area outside the City of London. After the land was excavated in the 90’s as part of the Jubilee Line Extension, local community groups petitioned for the creation of a memorial garden, open most days (when volunteers are available). A sign on the gate, which is highly decorated with ribbons and other tokens, commemorates “the outcast dead.”
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