A Borough life: the first time

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In a new series, chef, food writer and Borough Market blogger Luke Mackay talks about his life-long relationship with food, cooking and the Market

Words: Luke Mackay
Image: John Holdship

I ‘discovered’ Borough Market at the end of the last century, in my very early twenties when I made mostly terrible decisions involving paisley shirts, chunky brogues, bad relationships and worse booze. I thought vaguely at that point that I might be a journalist or a park ranger. Maybe join the marines if I could somehow shed the incredible laziness and debilitating procrastination.

I lost the (then) love of my life in Bristol, lay crying in a Malawian hammock for six months and then, like a rubbish Dick Whittington, turned up in London Town bereft of booted cats, gold paved streets and any ideas.

I’m not sure exactly when I found Borough Market; it might have been as the nineties blurred into the noughties: when kimchi and cereal cafes weren’t a thing and Gordon Ramsay still cooked food. The London Food Revolution hadn’t happened yet, but in one slightly grimy corner of Southwark, surrounded by aged comte, opera-singing green grocers and hanging game, mine did.

I had always liked cooking, mainly because it made people (girls) like me more and meant that in a grotty university house I never had to wash up, but I wasn’t what you would call a ‘foodie’. As an illustration of how the food scene in this country has changed, I’d never eaten pesto. Never heard of it. I had lost my virginity, attained an average degree, crashed a car and had my heart broken but I’d never seen a jar of pesto.

Dark times
My three-year-old son, by comparison, has the bloody stuff flowing through his veins. A glass of orange juice was still considered a ‘starter’ on certain restaurant menus and I gagged on a friend’s Parma ham because I thought it was raw bacon. These were dark times.

That first Saturday morning at Borough was a catalyst for the rest of my life. From then on, every decision that I made would be based around food. I wanted to live in a world of rare breed sausage rolls, of Essex oysters, shucked in front of your eyes, of tomatoes the like of which I had never seen before and cheese. All of the cheese. I wanted this life. I did not want to join the marines. I wanted to immerse myself in these smells, these accents. The shouting, the sizzling, the smoke.

I began to read voraciously—food writing from Elizabeth David to Jeffrey Steingarten, cookbooks from Escoffier to Oliver. I booked holidays because of the food and bored my friends to tears with cheese and charcuterie based diatribes. I cooked and cooked and cooked.

The Borough Market of my memory is always in deep, dark winter. It is cold—frosty, even—mist swirling with the smoke around the foreboding wrought iron arches. I love the dank, almost Dickensian atmosphere.

Fanning the flames
This could only be London—buses and taxis rumble past, metres away from Maria’s Market Café and her famous bubble and squeak. I walk around for hours, touching produce, talking to the most animated of suppliers. I see myself in my mind’s eye, almost 20 years ago, fanning the flames of a new passion that would define the rest of my life.