For a taste of London, one couldn’t do better than visiting these two shrines to culinary excellence: the stalls of Borough Market and an old-fashioned department store called Fortnum & Mason.
I’m always looking for unusual food products—something to expand my taste horizons—so this item at Fortnum & Mason caught my eye: the store’s own strawberry and rose petal preserves. The words on the label drew me in—“eloquently aromatic, evoking a perfect English summer.”
Like a bee to flowers, I recently found myself making a beeline to Fortnum & Mason—one of my favorite London haunts— less than two hours after my flight from Chicago had landed at Heathrow International Airport. After taking the Underground to the Green Park station, I didn’t waste any time walking to the Chesterfield Mayfair, checking in to the boutique hotel and then trotting over to the “queen’s grocer” on Piccadilly, a stately department store best known for its fancy foods emporium.
I had only two days in London and wanted to make the most of my time. Besides Fortnum & Mason, I had another foodie’s dream on my to-do list—Borough Market.
Fortnum & Mason, founded in 1707, is one of many high-end stores in London that holds a royal warrant, certifying it does business with Queen Elizabeth II or other members of the British royal family. The gold crest in the store window is inscribed with the words “By Appointment to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Grocers and Provisions Merchants.” The same crest is stamped on packaged foods, heightening their souvenir value.
A box of biscuits (cookies) or tin of tea from Fortnum & Mason makes a perfect memento of a London visit or gift for someone at home. These are affordable luxuries that make an impression, and many are packaged in the store’s trademark color, a soft blue-green.
While casing out F&M’s lower-level Food Hall, I was tempted by the Stilton and other English cheeses. The freshly baked scones seemed to be calling my name, and I thought the jars of foie gras and pheasant terrine would make for a good picnic lunch in nearby Green Park.
For my park-bench lunch, though, I ended up buying one of my favorite British indulgences—a pork pie—in the bakery section. This was a gourmet version made with “outdoor bred,” hand-raised Lincolnshire pork. Eaten cold, sometimes with pickles, a pork pie is chopped pork encased in a heavy pastry of wheat flour and pork lard. This one was as dense as a hockey puck. It was flavored with black and white pepper, encased in a jelly made with pork gelatin and glazed with “egg-water.” I can’t believe I ate the whole thing, but I just love the combination of meat and pastry. Fortnum & Mason’s lamb and chorizo pie with chickpeas also looked good, as did its ham pie and sausage roll.
In this below-ground Food Hall you’ll also find the butcher, fishmonger, cheesemonger, wine department and “floristry.” On the day of my visit there were several outside vendors dispensing free samples of meat, bread and wine.
Shoppers entering the store start at the ground-floor Food Hall, a room appointed with crystal chandeliers and carved wooden selves. The staff, formally attired in black tailcoats, vests, blue-green ties and pinstripe pants, is friendly and chatty, not at all snobby. The atmosphere is almost festive, and tourists snap pictures.
Those with a sweet tooth will find all kinds of chocolates, petit fours and fruit preserves. Or how about prunes stuffed with prune puree?
A line of organic products is marketed under the banner of Highgrove Estate, the country home of Prince Charles. Highgrove products, “made in accordance with the Princes of Wales’s principles,” include Earl Grey tea bags, honey, jams, chocolates, biscuits and a range of spirits, from malt whiskey to wine. A sign says the ingredients are grown on the estate “when possible.”
The ground floor also has F&M’s famous picnic hampers filled with gourmet foods. Other specialties are coffees, loose-leaf teas and tea accessories.
For a traditional afternoon tea experience, head to the fourth floor’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, one of five restaurants in the store. Indulge in finger sandwiches, pastries and scones with clotted cream.
Borough Market, a showplace for the bounty from English farms, is a much more earthy experience. More than a farmers’ market, though, it is a wonderland for the aficionado of artisan foods, especially from Thursday to Saturday, when more than 100 vendors man the stalls under the arches and railway tracks leading to London Bridge Station. The rumble of trains mixes in with the shouts of food purveyors.
Located on the south side of the Thames, the market nestles next to historic Southwark Cathedral and is just a few blocks from the Shard, London’s most distinctive skyscraper.
Everyone walking around Borough Market seems to be eating. I found a number of places with free samples, but my first purchase was a square of moist, dense bread pudding from Bread Ahead, a bakery and school with a permanent location under the tracks. The huge brownies and gingerbread loaf also were tempting. So were the olive-and-cheese sticks made with Red Leicester cheese and green olives.
The menu at Northfield Farm Butchers lists pork-and-Stilton burgers, lamb-and-mint burgers, bacon, sausage and steak rolls, and a salt beef sandwich with gherkins and English mustard. At Scottish Highland Wild Boar you can pick up haggis, wild hare and rabbit. It also sells jars of pure British Goose Fat, “perfect for roast potatoes.” Sillfield Farm has Lancashire pork pies and more exotic meat pies like the wild boar with cranberries and game pie (venison, wild boar, guinea fowl and duck) with apricots. The butchers at Exotic Meat Co. offer ostrich burger patties and kangaroo sausage seasoned in an “herby breaded mixture.”
At Taste of Croatia, I sampled the honey, salami, fig jam and fig cake with almonds and walnuts. I tried the creamy white buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto at the Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand. One vendor was giving out generous forkfuls of paella cooked up in a huge skillet—the symphony of saffron rice, chicken, chorizo, squid, mussels and prawns was outstanding.
It was fun dipping bits of bread in the various olive oils (including wild saffron and white truffle) at Oliveology, whose olives come from Sparta, Greece. The young Greek female merchants also have vinegars, honey, sun-dried figs and olive leaf tea.
I’m so glad I learned about Borough Market while reading Frommer’s Easy Guide to London. As author Jason Cochran writes, “Go when you’re hungry and once you’re back home, you will dream about it for months.”
It’s been two months now, and I am still dreaming about Borough Market. It’s on my foodie list for next time.
Story and photos by Randy Mink, Managing Editor, Leisure Group Travel