The English have traditionally taken a lot of grief about their cooking. Too bland, soft, mooshy, overcooked and pretty much just meat and potatoes are the usual criticisms. I mean really, with dishes named bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, mushy peas and baps, how can anyone take such a cuisine seriously?
I’m not going to argue the virtues or curses of English cooking here. But I will attest in no uncertain terms that the solid foundations of good cooking can be easily found; just head off to the Borough Market, a stone’s throw away from the famous Tower Bridge in London. Even after eight years surrounded by my Parisian open air markets, the Borough Market is still a wonder. All the ingredients of good cooking — and all styles — can be found under this huge glass roof.
I try to plan every trip to London to include a Saturday. That’s when the market is humming at its best. The sounds of sizzling grills and the aromas of cooking sausages and game streaks fill the crisp morning air. The fresh fall harvest is stacked high with their seasonal blazing colors drawing you closer. Piles of mushrooms of all kinds line the display tables. Even in Paris, it’s rare to see such a diverse display of fungi.
After a few years and many visits, I’ve slipped into a routine for my Saturday visits to the market, what I call my Perfect London Morning. I first wander over to the organic juice bar (there are two now at the market) where I’ll order either a fresh made-right-there-in-front-of-you combo of apple and carrot juice with a zinger of fresh ginger. If I’m feeling particularly wild I’ll add a shot of wheat grass (yes, I DO live on the edge at times). Then, depending on how I feel, I’ll either order up a venison sausage sandwich with grilled onions and English mustard or I’ll wander over to chat with Ian at Mrs. Kings Pies, where I’ll choose a pork and Stilton pie or a mixed game pie.
As I munch, I’ll meander through the aisles and look at all the food stands. There are vendors offering ostrich steaks, hand-made olive oils, fresh breads and pastries, chocolates, truffles and truffle oil, haggis and black pudding, French cheeses, sea salts, falafels, fresh spices, beers and wines from around the world, fresh fish, and of course refrigerated cases of fresh game and the ubiquitous English sausages. Many of the meat stands have grills already fired up so you can sample a sandwich of, say, a wild boar sausage, piled with onions and lettuce. This is not your everyday sausage McMuffin.
Just across from the market is the famous Neal’s Yard shop of English cheeses where wheels of Stilton and cheddars are stacked high on shelves. I defy anyone who walks into the shop with its heady, tangy aroma of aging cheese to walk out empty-handed.
My breakfast ends with a cup of fresh filtered coffee at Monmouth next to Neal’s Yard. They have beans from around the world that can be bought to take home as well.
As with any art form, the hands of a real artist can make something from almost anything. But it’s good to start with the best materials, whether it’s carefully ground paints, a good piece of marble, a finely crafted guitar or, in this case, fresh vegetables and good meats and fish. The Borough Market offers everything a good cook needs as a starting point to create memorable meals.
In the hands of the right chef, even bangers and mash can be haute cuisine. Blimey!
Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist and author who lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield,Ohio,and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. Since 1978, he has illustrated and/or written more than 100 books for children and collected a number of honors, including a Reuben Award for Book Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society, New York Times Children’s Books Best Sellers, and the New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books of 2000. He enjoys hiking, kayaking and cooking (and eating!). Learn more at his website, doug-cushman.com.