Christmas shopping at a food market somehow always feels like being in a Richard Curtis film. The colours, the sounds, the bustle, the cold… I think that feeling doubles at Borough Market. Head there anytime in December and suddenly you’re Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Keira Knightley all rolled into one.
It is my favourite time to indulge in some market shopping. Or it probably is. There are too many other times to choose from. But with the festivities looming I can say that with what feels like certainty. And perhaps that’s why the book I’ve just written with the market is crammed with things that fit the season. On a remind-myself quick flick through I can see that the book charts just how “my” market, and all food markets, offer up so much December joy.
Gifts first. What to get for the “foodie” in your life, or rather the person who you want to impress with gifting them something just the right amount off the beaten track? Maybe something comes from somewhere special, is made in a particular way, has a great story behind it, and moreover is fabulously delicious. Ticking all those boxes for me would be a stack of tinned fish from the cunningly named Tinned Fish Market. Any serious cook or food-lover will swoon at the beauty of the bright, colourful boxes and know that whether it’s mussels in escabeche, stuffed squid, or one of so many other fishy options crammed into these tiny tins, they are a prize.
Or perhaps gifting a bottle of good olive oil? Ideally one which has a distinctive flavour – be that citrussy or peppery – and with proud provenance of its olives and their pressing. An intriguing vinegar would make a good partner for it.
If in the build-up to Christmas I am planning to have people round at all, the market is my saviour for ease of hosting. When it’s just festive drinks I’m doing then really spending hours in the kitchen beforehand – or, worse, when friends or family are actually there – feels like not the best use of the time I surely want to spend with them or else why were they invited? Instead I’ll do a market shop of things that I can just canape up or plate out easily.
Sometimes that means the freshest of oysters that need just a shuck. If you want to know how, either ask the guys on the stall or there’s a how-to for it in Borough Market: The Knowledge. I might go so far as to deep fry them using the recipe in the book that then layers them up with horseradish sauce, quick-pickled ginger and spring onion.
Some lovely charcuterie or salume with its gorgeous salty fattiness is always a good shout to go with drinks. Esther at the Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand talks so interestingly about the pigs and the producers that their meats come from. I’d go for the coppa myself.
And then lastly, I’ll put out a plate of sweetness. Cakes cut into smaller bites. Chocolates. Candied fruit. And always some of the Turkish delight from The Turkish Deli. I officially don’t even really like Turkish delight, but this is something else.
OK, so that’s the build-up hosting/small plates taken care of. Meaning that by around 15 December my thoughts are turning seriously to market trips for food for the Big Week. And this year I’m hosting Christmas Day so it is all very extra.
One thing I always do is make my own gravadlax. The recipe is in the book.
And the key to its success is buying the best quality, freshest salmon or trout for it. The fishmonger will steer you right. It gets a cure of salt, sugar and dill with extra depth of flavour from bourbon, coriander seeds and orange zest. Bundled up it takes just two or three days to cure. It will happily keep in the fridge for up to a week, freezes brilliantly, and any leftovers do great service in fishcakes, linguine, or adding to the kind of wintry warming fish pie you will want to come home to after a new year walk (there’s a fish pie recipe in The Knowledge too…)
In the week before Christmas I try to stock up on breads which, again, I know I can freeze to see me through. Same for milk and butter. I’ll start thinking about cheeses, too. So long as the cheesemonger knows when you are looking to cut into them they will steer you towards choices that will not only keep until then but keep on maturing to be at their best when you want them. This is also my time for stocking up on the bits and bobs that go with the cheese board. Accompaniments such as From Field and Flower’s honeycomb, Neal’s Yard Dairy’s damson paste, and Food and Forest walnuts and pecans.
I try to pre-buy (and pre-do) as much as I can because when Christmas Eve wheels round there will be plenty enough to carry and do. If Christmas generally is my favourite time to shop at food markets, then Christmas Eve is the holly sprig on top of the Christmas pudding.
Trust me: you won’t top the festive feeling induced by a Christmas eve morning spent at Borough Market. The warm glow that comes not just from the glass of mulled whatever that it seems churlish to walk past despite the hour, but from the love and excitement that bounces around every stall.
These traders are by now in the season probably very, very tired. They are certainly cold. Being a market trader is tough. None of that will you get an inkling of as they cheerily help you make your final festive choices or pick up your orders. There is much wisdom in ordering ahead for big buys like turkey or the bone-in gammon that has long been non-negotiable for my family at Christmas. It makes me very happy that my recipe for boiling, baking and glazing it is in The Knowledge and so immortalised forever as a small piece of Borough Market history.
The trick for Christmas Eve at the market is to go early and be strategic. Don’t weigh yourself down too soon. And most of all – take the time to soak it all in. Look around at the hustle and bustle. See the glories of the foods on the stalls. And appreciate that behind them lie the skills, time, heritage and, yes, knowledge that make market shopping so special.
‘Borough Market: The Knowledge’ by Angela Clutton (published by Hodder & Stoughton; photography by Kim Lightbody) is available here.