Dawn chorus

Categories: Features

When the curtain closes on a day’s trading at Borough, the Market doesn’t stop. After a quick set change, a different cast of characters arrives: the wholesalers, the bakers, the delivery drivers. Market Life rises early—very, very early—to experience the buzz of Borough Market at dawn

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

“We call you the day walkers. We are the night walkers.” Grinning, the speaker whirs past on a small forklift laden with broccoli. I ask his name, but my words are lost beneath the honks of reversing trucks, the clacking of stacked boxes and the screech of stretched industrial tape as, under the ember glow of streetlights, Borough Market’s wholesale trade starts heating up.

The aroma of baking bread drifts over a patchwork quilt of crates, mingling with the dewy freshness of just-picked parsley, luscious strawberries, dusty potatoes, and tomatoes fresh from the Isle of Wight.

These jewels are delivered by a man who in his spare time sings in amateur musicals. No sooner is he out the van than tales of last night’s concert are being joyfully recounted over palettes shiny with piccolos, one of which wholesale trader Ted Dawson pops in his mouth, grinning.

He might have been working since 11pm yesterday, but as the clock at Southwark Cathedral strikes 3am, Ted is chipper. “I hate getting up. But when I am up, I’m up,” he says proudly, before adding, “though I do depend a bit on being kicked out of bed by the wife.”                                                                      

Enjoy the craic
Her name is Kath, and she runs the daytime side of the stall we know as Ted’s Veg: purveyor of fine, pesticide-free fruit and vegetables. “I enjoy the craic,” Ted shrugs, when I ask him what gets him up in the morning—or rather, at 9pm, which for him is breakfast time. When he first came to the Market, he was “terrified. Shaking, I was, all the way into town. Now you can’t shut me up!” he grins.

Another wholesaler overhears this and fires out a sarcy comment I don’t quite catch, and probably couldn’t have written down if I had, but Ted chuckles appreciatively. “This life isn’t for everyone,” he explains somewhat needlessly as I visibly stifle a yawn, “but once you get the taste for it...”

It is, the consensus seems to be among traders, mildly addictive—as a man called Barry can testify amply. He’s been working night shifts here for “45 years! Only night shifts!” crows his colleague. “Here is the legend. Here is the man that you need.”

Inside Grovers of Borough Market’s cool storage space, Barry looks up from sorting orders, knee deep in strawberries and radishes, and with understandable bashfulness, smiles. Yes, it is a hyperbole, but it does seem the stuff of legend that Barry was here selling vegetables to costermongers in the heyday of London’s wholesale trade.

Ted Dawson

A vibrant and vital affair
Maria of the eponymous cafe aside, there aren’t many people here who remember Borough as it was all that time ago, when wholesale in the heart of London was still a vibrant and vital affair. “It’s changed a lot,” says Barry, with a trace of sadness. “There aren’t many of us left, but we do have a laugh while we’re here.”

Paul Crane, artfully sliding his forklift underneath a leaning tower of peppers and whizzing it off to a waiting buyer, is another wholesale veteran, with a daytime stall on Fridays and Saturdays. He and Barry recall routinely ending a hard night’s work at 5am in one of the Market’s pubs, which opened early to cater for the ‘night walkers’ who wanted a pint after work—“or before. Or in between!” they laugh.

“We’ve had some times in the Market Porter and the Southwark Tavern. But that doesn’t happen so much these days.” Occasionally wholesale traders will pop in at Christmas or Easter for a quick one, the manager at the Market Porter tells me, but it’s a rare sight in ‘term time’, as it were.

Times have changed and there are fewer fruit and veg wholesalers here than once there were, but the enduring camaraderie between the traders and their customers is testament to the timeworn Market values of teamwork, relationships and reciprocity. Negotiations are struck over e-cigarettes and plastic cups of tea.

Yeasty smells
Some buyers have been coming here for many years; groceries and money are exchanged amid a continuous stream of jesting and general chatter. It is, in spite of the chill that seeps through Borough Market at night, a heart-warming vision. But yeasty smells are beckoning, reminding us there’s more to wholesale at Borough Market than greens.

“They are in the middle of it. It is full on. This is the sourdough for tomorrow,” Matt Jones says, proudly gesturing toward his eight-strong bakery team. We are in the Bread Ahead bakery on Cathedral Street and preparation for the morning’s orders are in full swing. The place is a flurry of activity—cutting, shaping, kneading—but the motion is so smooth that the experience of watching it is as mesmeric as the sea.

“It is beautiful,” Matt whispers. Magic Radio plays Bryan Adams in the background, but the bakery feels hushed and peaceful, more like a chapel than a hive of industry. “With a bakery, you don’t want a stressful environment,” explains Matt. “It is a gentle, methodical, tactile process. At all times you have to be aware of your environment. It is like sailing a ship.”

Climate plays a huge role in the baking of sourdough, as much as in charting a schooner. Changes in humidity demand an adjustment to the mixture, as does a small difference in the flour, the movement of the baker, the ingredients, time: “If you miss something out, or leave something too long, hundreds of people will taste it.”

Bakers at Bread Ahead

A fraught chef
It’s the fear of all wholesalers, be they butchers, bakers or fishmongers. No one wants to be on the receiving end of a phone call from a fraught chef whose order is wrong. “A place like Brasserie Zédel has 1,000 covers. It’s bang-bang-bang all day. They don’t have time to deal with bread,” says Matt.

In the adjacent room—a baking school by day—the freshly baked orders are piling up on trolleys. “This is for Fortnum & Mason,” says Matt. “This is for Brindisa. This is for Sky Garden.” Though still “only small; bakery-sized”, Bread Ahead’s customer list reads like a Harden’s guide to eating out in London: Pizarro. Patty & Bun. Fernandez & Wells. The Orangery. Shangri-La, nestled high in the now night-lit, red-winking Shard.

It’s a challenging environment. “It is hard, it is physically difficult. It’s not for everyone”—a refrain I hear repeatedly throughout the night. Quite why it’s hard depends on the activity, of course: baking involves brawn—“young, nimble people are best”—while Gary at Wright Brothers, who wholesales seafood, says his “is not a young single man’s game. You’ve no social life really.”

It is a lonesome business, and bitterly arctic in winter months. “You have to sleep at different times of day, get up at different times of night.” And yet, he “loves it. And if you love it then, well,” he shrugs, the signature shrug of all the night walkers when I ask why they love what they do.

Bleeds fish juice
Since Gary joined Wright Brothers’ wholesale arm, the list of customers has quadrupled. “I hope it’s something to do with me,” he says, “but Ben Wright, the co-founder, is one of the best salespeople I’ve ever met. He probably bleeds fish juice if you cut him. And we have a really great team.” The strength of the team combined with the fact that the popularity of seafood has grown exponentially in recent years has created something of a perfect storm.

“But I would argue we’ve the hardest job of all, because you really have to sell it fresh, and it changes daily”: exactly what’ll be landed that morning is anyone’s guess, and that demands flexible customers.

“The menu in certain hotel restaurants doesn’t change: if they want monkfish, they want monkfish. But a new breed of chef has emerged in London, who if I ring and say the monkfish isn’t great this week, they are happy to take a different fish and do something new.”

The first customer pulls up, his van empty and crying out to be stacked with boxes of oysters and the night’s salty haul. Large polystyrene boxes, packed tight with white shards of ice, reveal a shimmer of sea-fresh skate, the pink frills and brocades of prawns and langoustines, or the glint of silvery gilt-head bream.

Unloading Wright Brothers' van

A prodigious appetite
I’m keen to stay on—we’ve heard tell that one of the drivers has a prodigious appetite for oysters every morning—but we’re conscious of growing activity. The sun is up and the day traders whose stalls require much preparation are arriving. The greengrocers are busy wrapping up—packing crates away, locking excess stock in tall units, parking forklifts out of sight—and before the hour is up, a passerby would never even know they’d been there. Monmouth is opening.

I feel like Cinderella at the prince’s ball, about to be caught holding a pumpkin. Our time is almost up: so in lieu of a Market Porter pint—how we had initially planned to end the night, in a nod to the custom now outmoded—we head to one of Borough’s other great watering holes: Maria’s Market Café.

She’s been here since half past four, chopping and boiling and frying bags—nay, sacks—of floury potatoes for her bubble. Now, as the bells start to toll six, it’s beginning to squeak happily. “There are always people who ask for more crispy bits, so I need to start early. Let it burn a bit,” she grins. There’s still bacon to cook, baps to slice and of course tea to serve to traders and local workers while its colour turns.

We get a couple of large mugs—steaming, strong fuel over which to reflect on the night’s events: the tradition, the colour, the multiple smells and sounds of joviality. Now that we can no longer see the displays of vegetables and fruit, nor the Wright Brothers van or fridges, it’s starting to feel like a dream.

London’s food scene
“Night trading is a way of life,” Paul told me earlier. It is “a laugh” as Barry says—and yet it is absolutely vital to every restaurant, cafe and hotel. Most of us only know Borough Market as a daytime operation, but its contribution to London’s food scene never stops.

As Matt says of the bakery at Bread Ahead, “we may as well take the door off. Twenty-four hours a day, 364 days a year—this place is never closed.”