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At the Table at Borough Market

Categories: News and previews

In a special edition of Voices at the Table, hosted by the Market at the pop up space at 1 Cathedral Street, writers, poets and performers from across the food spectrum came together in support of the trader fund. Here’s how it went

Words: Ellie Costigan

It was an evening as eclectic as the Market itself. Memories were shared, stories told, and poems recited, all anchored by a resounding love and appreciation of food. What’s clear from the At the Table event at 1 Cathedral Street, which took place 2nd August in support of the trader fund following the June attacks, is food’s ability to connect people—not only to one another, but to the past; be it our own, the history of a place, or a culinary tradition.

Kicking off the evening was Grace Dent—author, presenter and renowned food critic at the London Evening Standard—with a piece that was at once hilarious and heartfelt. She spoke of the stark contrast between being weaned on creamy tea, Weetabix and Mother’s Pride in the depths of Cumbria as a child in the eighties—“a monocultural protestant landscape, largely untroubled by spice or herb or anything foreign”—and her present day brunches at Borough, in which she dallies at Spice Mountain buying pots of pink Himalayan salt before indulging in warm, sweet pastries and excellent Monmouth coffee. She spoke of Borough as somewhere she’s always felt welcomed and never judged—even when begging for cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy at the crack of dawn, stilettos in hand, on the way home from a night out. Something we can all relate to.

Grace spoke of Borough Market as her safe space—a theme which came up time and again as the evening went on, along with the Market’s sense of community, tradition, and its evocation of feelings of comfort. For none is it truer than for food writer, author and regular Market Life columnist Ed Smith, who left the grey and silent corporate city life to work in wholesale at the Market’s Cannon & Cannon. He said: “It took being aware of my surroundings in the Market to realise that the muffled soundtrack of the City was strange. At Borough, the sensory experience is the exact opposite… there’s a buzz. There are conversations and exclamations and the noise grows throughout the day. In fact, if you make the most of the atmosphere when you shop, your time at the Market gets better and better.”

1 Cathedral Street exterior

Bright colours and pungent smells
For this and many reasons, Borough Market is at once unique and part of a rich history of markets globally, as places that bring people together to laugh and drink and eat and exchange knowledge and opinions. The fabulous Claudia Roden described the bright colours and pungent smells of the Marrakech souks, whose traders sell everything from tagines, to letter-writing services, to magic. We heard about the markets of Hong Kong, and Gabby Wong’s memories of watching a stallholder rattle pots and hypnotically stir rice to make firewood dried fish and peanut congee, and how this simple dish and the tradition of eating it with her family every Saturday was all she longed for when she moved to England.

We heard poetry from actor Elizabeth Chan, who read Strawberries by Edwin Morgan and Poem With a Cucumber in It by Robert Hass—and no, as the poet assures us, there’s no innuendo to be found in the latter, though it was a surprising feature of the rest of the evening, what with Claudia Roden’s lamb’s testicles and Grace’s mention of the erection of the Lord Admiral pub. We heard poetry from Judy O’ Kane—her award-winning The Fig Tree, a melancholy verse themed around feelings of belonging, inspired by the sense of loss she felt when she left Ballymaloe cookery school in Cork—and a recital from actor Judith Amsenga, who recounted a trader’s emotive reflection of his many years at the Market, and the characters he’s met along the way.

Food as a trigger of memories—particularly those connected with heritage—was another theme of the night, and one that’s wholly pertinent to Borough. Indeed, many of Borough’s traders started their stalls as a way of bringing the food of their homeland to England. Food and markets are what reconnected chef and food writer Olia Hercules to her upbringing and ancestors in Ukraine. “When I left the Ukraine to go to Warwick University, it was the first time I was away from my family and I was really homesick. I decided I wanted to cook something to make me feel better,” she told us. The small supermarket on campus, however, meant she was unable to find the ingredients to recreate the flavours she was so used to at home. “I wanted to make this simple dish my mother used to make, comprising layers of pasta, chicken and onions. At home it was the most incredible thing but when I went to make it at uni, it was disgusting. It put me off cooking the food I grew up with.”

Reconnect with my roots
It was only much later, after becoming a chef and discovering food markets, that Olia was able to properly recreate the dishes of her childhood. “It finally dawned on me: this is the food I grew up with, there are amazing ingredients here. Just as my grandmother adapted the dishes she learned while living in Uzbekistan to what she had available when she returned to the Ukraine, that is what I started doing. I am so thankful to Borough Market and to all the markets that have helped reconnect me with my roots.” 

Markets inspire people—to reconnect with the past, to cook, to try new things and to be curious. For Sam Bompas, Borough Market inspired him to follow through on his dream of creating the British Museum of Food, which came to fruition in the form of a pop up at 1 Cathedral Street. “When everyone said it wasn’t possible to have a museum of food, Borough Market was the one that said, ‘this sounds wonderful, let’s make it happen, let’s get it out there. Let’s get people to think about their food in unusual ways’”—and get people to think about food in unusual ways he (and partner Harry Parr) most certainly did, in the form of a multi-sensory journey through an intestine tract in a massage chair; a butterfly room; a “sonic wonderland focused on chocolate”; and a gallery showcasing food as art.

His talk was somewhat the sensory experience itself, with scratch-n’-sniff-along cards the likes of which you’d only expect from the wondrous, mad-cap culinary architects that are Bompas and Par.

Simply carry on dining
The Market inspired Suley Mehudin’s poem, Keeping Tradition Alive, which talks about (as the title might suggest) the tradition of trade, and the importance of maintaining it—which the Market, its traders, and all those that have offered their generous support over the months since the attack, have done with gusto. Grace couldn’t have hit the nail on the head harder, when she aptly concluded: “London may have lost its appetite temporarily, but we will always pick ourselves up and take a deep breath and we will re-lay the table and we will, quite simply, carry on dining.”

We left with good food in our bellies (a spread of salads, dips and flat breads washed down with a floral vodka cocktail, courtesy of Crumble and Our/London) and smiles on our faces, as we spilled out of Cathedral Street to the melodic harmonies of the Borough Market choir: “Good night, sweetheart” indeed.