For those of you in London, feeling trapped indoors by the gloomy weather, have I got a treat for you! Get out of the house and head south to Brixton, come out of the Tube station and you’re right in the heart of an interesting and ever-changing market/bazaar. A friend encouraged me to visit her in her new neighborhood, telling me I wouldn’t believe how fantastic this market was and that there were a slew of new vendors opening hip little spots between the old standbys that was creating an of-the-moment vibe. Must catch it while you can, she warned. And I’m glad I did.
For those of you not in London and enjoying armchair marketing, a little history is in order. A largely African-Caribbean neighborhood, Brixton is probably most famous for race riots in April 1981, triggered by the death of a young man at the hands of police, that involved an estimated 5,000 people (sound familiar London riots circa 2011?). Apparently, this was quite the bohemian enclave back in the 1920s, with a late night tram serving the area directly from SOHO where many of the residents worked in the music halls of that era (and as a side note, David Bowie was born here). The market that still stands today was built back then, with covered vaulted arcades making this a particularly lovely spot to visit during the less-than-perfect weather that seems to plague this city much of the year.
Nowdays the market is undergoing a renaissance, but sadly, many of the more traditional vendors are getting priced out of their stalls in the process. According to an article in the Evening Standard Magazine from a couple of weeks ago, rents have just been raised by 10 to 28%. A campaign to save the local shops has swung to action, but only time will tell who is able to make a go of it among the new sleek, concrete, steel, natural wood and exposed lightbulb chic of the outside invaders. Even my tour guide marvelled at how many new shops had opened since her last visit two weeks before. Time to adapt or falter.
My friend led me through the narrow pedestrian streets crowded with stalls selling handbag knock-offs, all variety of stockings, bathroom towels, you know, the usual market tat. Then we entered the older bazaar-like space and was immediately held up by a buggy jam in the aisle. Many were lining up for what’s been called the best pizza in London, Franco Manca (it’s too doughy, my friend said, urging me onwards). Riotous colors spilled from the market fruit and veg displays. Many of the items were unknown to me as Caribbean and African food has to be among the few I am very unfamiliar with. Some of the best fish I’ve ever seen here in London were lined up beautifully, scales gleaming, at stall after stall. Four whole sea bass for £10. A bargain. A man with a lilting Jamaican accent arranged smoked pigs’ feet in his display case. I asked him if he had beef short ribs and he laughed saying I had to arrive before 9am to snatch those up. They were long gone! Long gone?? Most butchers in London look at me quizzically when I ask for these!
When it came time to eat I didn’t know where to start. The aromas from Thai, Mexican,dumplings, cakes, pizza, burgers all mingled together in the aisles. There was one spot that looked interesting and had open tables, so we sat. The service was far from solicitous and the food just about as bad. When I envisaged a cold duck salad with watercress and blood orange I thought I’d get some shredded duck confit with a bed of watercress, some blood orange (maybe a few other goodies thrown in to bring it together) and certainly a dressing of some sort. Instead, I was presented with a cold duck breast of limited flavor and when served cold like this the rare meat just tastes raw, on a sparse bed of watercress (not even picked properly) with a couple of blood orange segments tossed on the side. No sauce, nothing. It was inedible. But it wasn’t terribly expensive and so we just moved onto the next little restaurant, Agile Rabbit Pizza, and got a slice of crunchy, warming pizza. I could have gone on like this all afternoon, eating my way through from one spot to the next as I think you’re meant to do. All the while chatting to vendors and checking out their merchandise before deciding what I need to take home with me to play with.
So, go! I’m heading back very soon (and apparently the stalls are open all week with a farmers market setting up on Sundays between 10am-2pm) and exploring more. There were wooden bowls and baskets and African fabrics that need to be investigated and now I know exactly where to go when I need some mundane gadget for my kitchen. I do better on my own at these things, taking time to talk and wander and not worry about boring the person I’m with to tears! No one else I know seems to find a fresh yellowtail or a huge wooden meat mallet as glorious as I do.