In a new series, Luke Mackay goes behind the scenes with Borough’s traders to find out what makes them tick. First up, Jock Stark
Images: Adrian Pope
If you were to commission an Easter Island statue in the likeness of Pete Postlethwaite, there is every possibility that it will turn out looking just like Jock Stark. He is a massive man with a strong handshake, twinkling eyes and a deep Glaswegian brogue. Everyone in the fruit and veg game knows Jock and he in turn knows them right back.
Even I, as a big bloke with 20 years’ experience in the food business, found it pretty intimidating turning up at New Covent Garden at 3am—these are the hardcore fruit and veg men, and I was conscious of the lack of gnarl in my fingers and the poshness of my west London vowels. I approached some men unloading a truck of oranges and they all turned around: “Umm do you know Jock?” I stuttered. And the ice was broken; respect immediately earned. “Jock? Course we do mate—he’ll be through there, with his boy.”
And so he was, with the ‘and son’ part of the operation, Richard. They couldn’t have been more open, helpful and informative as we passed from supplier to supplier surveying mountains of fruit and veg, while most Londoners slept soundly in their beds.
Unofficial seal of quality
The thing to know about Jock’s stall at Borough is that you won’t ever get a duff bit of fruit because, in the nicest possible way, Jock doesn’t trust anyone. This mistrust is why for the last 50-odd years he has been up at 1am, prodding avocados, popping berries into his mouth and whipping out his pocket knife to sample a sliver of apple or pear. Everybody wants his business; it’s like an unofficial seal of quality—if Jock says it’s good, it’s good. His ethos is all about taste—and only by doing the long hours and hard yards that no one else does can he guarantee that the taste will be right.
We were back at Borough by 5am to set up the stall, long before most of the other traders arrived—except Paul, with his mobile seventies disco (sorry, Sussex Fish stall) next door. I loved watching the Market come to life as the sun rose over the cathedral and the first few sales came in: “Aye, that fella must have a joosin business, the amount of oranges he buys!” and, “Oh, she’s a regular customer—husband’s a Tory MP—lovely lady.”
Richard shows me caverns under the Market I had no idea were there. They used to be cool, just the right temperature for ripening bananas, apparently. Richard knows that he’s the future of Jock Stark and Son and he’s got some great ideas on how to expand the business in the future. His time will come, but when you’ve been successful for 50 years by controlling absolutely everything, it’s pretty hard to stop.
Sweetest blood orange
I could have talked to both Starks for days. Jock has time for everyone and it’s obvious that everyone loves him. You’re not going to find organic wheat grass or morel mushrooms on his stall, but if you want the sweetest blood orange that you’re likely to taste, the juiciest cherry or the most luscious fig, you could do a lot worse than stopping by at Jock Stark and Son.
See my Jock-inspired recipe for Mandared posset with honey & balsamic grilled figs