ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Borough market that isn't Borough Market

Every time I walk through it, there seems to be one or two fewer stalls than there were the previous week...

When it first appeared a couple of months ago, there was an intriguing array of vendors tempting me with ripe melons, hot meat sandwiches and chocolatey muffins, but many seem to have given up already.

And I think I have a pretty good idea why.

If you're not familiar with the area and haven't yet twigged what the flying buggery I'm banging on about, I'm talking London Bridge Farmers' Market, which runs every Tuesday between 9 AM and 2 PM. For the time being at least.

It's a relatively new cog in a larger wheel that rolls more or less all over London, operating farmers' markets in different areas on different days of the week. So far, so organic wholesome goodness.

But who the fuck chose this site?!?

Now, in principle, an inner-city Farmers' Market is a great concept: Bring fresh, tasty organic produce to the heart of London. Tempt local office workers with hearty lunches far superior to a boring Pret Sandwich or Costa Coffee. Fucking brilliant idea, that.

Anyone around?
I'd go there. I know you would too.

And it delivers what you'd expect, pretty much.

You can buy fresh 'artisan' bread, cheeses, meats, cakes, and there are different stalls doing ready-to-eat street food... but there's just one tiny problem. And by 'tiny' I mean a small box room that can scarcely contain the pregnant elephant within.

See, it's only about five minutes walk away from Borough Market. You know, the big, established, brilliantly-located and world-famous market that's open all day every day? Where you can buy a vast range of artisan produce and fantastic quality street food?


The thing is, even if Borough Market didn't exist, the Farmers' Market really hasn't achieved a podium finish at the Location Olympics.

It's on the grassy campus bit between the King's College buildings and Guy's Hospital, which provides their primary footfall of medical students and outpatients, not groups particularly known for an interest in farm-veared venison or organic wholefoods.

For a casual passer-by to even find the place, they'd need to make a conscious decision to walk through the backstreets, and while it's a slightly more scenic route from London Bridge station to the lower end of Borough High Street, it's not a shortcut and it's not a pedestrian stampede, even during the worst excesses of the rush hour.

And Heaven help anybody who is thirsty, as I frequently am.

Borough Market, or 'Goliath' as we might as well call it, happens to be bang in the middle of several great pubs. Since the juice bar stopped coming back, I'm not even sure there is anywhere at the Farmer's Market where you can get a drink to go with your lunch.

Little Jack Horner's Sausage Rolls
The odds are well and truly stacked against this lil' critter, it seems.

Why did the sausage roll?

So, fearing that diminishing returns might bring about its early demise, I've spent the last couple of Tuesdays visiting the market and checking out as many vendors as possible.
From what I've tasted, it's very much a mixed bag, which simply isn't good enough - if this place is going to survive, it either needs to offer something unique to the area, undercut Borough Market on price, or, err, overcut them on quality.

Little Jack Horner's sausage rolls seem to be doing a reasonable trade because they offer a distinctive and tasty product.

It's segments of giant sausage roll, which you can buy hot to eat now or cold to take away and have later. These are usually £3 apiece but I negotiated four for a tenner and got to try all the different flavours apart from the vegetarian option.

As well as a sagey traditional pork variety, they do a black pudding and apple roll (proper, coarse black pudding and slightly peppery), a pork and chilli (not really to my taste) and a chicken and mushroom version which was perhaps the surprise package when I heated up all four and served them that evening with Village Fish Bar chips and beans.

The pastry is flaky, the fillings are hearty. These are definitely winners, if a little on the pricey side for their size.

Disappearing acts

Next door was a cake and biscuit stall that looked very tempting, but the triple chocolate brownie I tried was pasty and uninspiring. That was last week. The stall wasn't there this week, possibly having joined the juice bar in calling the whole thing off.

(I wonder if the stallholders place wagers amongst themselves on who will be next to bail out? Or maybe they're all part of some secret reality show and one poor fucker is being voted off every week?!?)

Mix and match
What I did find this week - and I think he's been there since it started, so he must be doing OK - was a guy selling seafood paella and chilli crab noodles. He did me a 'half and half' portion for £4.50 (it's usually a fiver) and apologised that there wasn't much seafood left in the paella.

He was right, and the rest of the paella was a touch bland compared to the stuff you can get down the road in a certain other market. However, the thick udon-style noodles came in a nice tangy sauce with bits of crabmeat and fresh coriander on top.

It wasn't bad, but on a fairly brisk afternoon I'd have preferred it to be a bit hotter than lukewarm.

One of the more prominent pitches on the market (a good bet to be the last man standing?) is the meat-oriented Pick's Farm, offering gourmet sausages and various packaged cuts of meat to take home, plus meaty sandwiches to eat on the spot.

I tried their 'meat feast', consisting of a burger, two sausages and two rashers of bacon, literally bursting out of a smallish roll, with a little bit of optional Siltton thrown in for cheesy good measure.

I was wary.

The feast of meat
At £5, this jaw-challenging sandwich was good value, even though the cheese was probably the tastiest part, followed by the herby sausage and then the bacon. You can also have an egg if you like, but for me the combination was already a bit too higgledy-piggledy.

Sausage and bacon? Yep. Burger, cheese and bacon? Damn right. All four together? I'm just not convinced that they will ever get along.

You guys are farmers, not chefs

This is probably going to sound a bit harsh. Mean, even, but it damn well needs saying:

The meat reared on farms like this one might well be pretty decent, but unfortunately it's actually fairly hard to tell because they're not showcasing it very well. At all.

They're not chefs. And it shows. And I've seen this so many times before.

Paying little attention to bun-detail and putting hot meat into pappy fridge-temperature baps is one reason, but that's only part of the story.

An even more fundamental problem is that the meat is left on the griddle pan to keep warm for a long time after cooking. With bacon and sausages they can get away with this, but in the case of a burger it results in fairly extreme overcooking, and thus most of the benefits of fashioning your burgers from superior quality meat are irreversibly lost.

Bloody good beef should be served bloody. It's that simple.

Go beyond medium-rare, the texture and flavour of a good burger begins to change, and by the time you reach 'well done', the difference between prime 28-day aged chuck'n'rump and a cheap, nasty burger made from abbatoir floor sweepings are far less marked.

Another overdone burger... nice condiments though
I'm tempted to buy some of the Pick's Farm sausages to take away and cook myself, though on this tasting I'm not convinced they're better than the 'club class' supermarket offerings or what you can pick up from a good local butcher, and they're more expensive.

There's another burger place immediately opposite which just did a (strangely square-ish) cheeseburger for £4.50.

Again, the overcooked, pre-seasoned patty probably didn't do their beef justice, and nor did the square of American-style cheese, but I liked how you could top your burger with salad and condiments of your choice. The mustard, relish and spicy gherkins made it for me, improving a very average burger.

Healthy fruit goodness'n'shit

OK, so what else...

I bought a couple of cakey things from a raw fruit/vegan/wholefood-type place and wished I hadn't bothered.

There was a banana and chocolate chip muffin that tasted of mashed-up banana with some tasteless dark choc chips and mixed spice, and a flapjack that also seemed to be mostly mashed-up banana, with the odd morsel of oat and date thrown in.

Yes, that's a dried up bit of banana on top
Given that I don't like mashed-up banana, the three quid spent on these things, both of which I threw in the bin after a couple of bites, wasn't my favourite investment of all time.

A bag of seven Evita apples from the Brambletye fruit farm cost me £2, and I was rather happier with that fruity purchase. A rare, 'biodynamic' variety, these apples are sharp, crisp and juicy and I'd imagine they'd be good for cooking as well as eating.

So... while it's not worth going out of your way to visit, I'd recommend going along to the old Farmers' Market while it's still there - and bear in mind that some traders reduce their prices on unsold stuff as 2 PM approaches, and you might be able to bargain with them to negotiate further discounts.

Every time I walk through it, there seems to be one or two fewer stalls than there were the previous week...

I give it six months.

The London Bridge Farmers Market can be found at the Guys campus and operates every Tuesday from 9AM to 2PMhttp://www.ljhorners.com/

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