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Finding freshness at London's Borough Market

| Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008

Napoleon Bonaparte once described England as "a nation of shopkeepers."

Nowhere does this British characteristic reveal itself more vibrantly than at London's historic Borough Market. While boasting ancient roots -- records suggest that a market in this vicinity existed as early as 43 A.D. -- this unique emporium recently faced demolition. But tenacious traders and enlightened trustees saved it from demise and rebuilt its glory. Today the popular market bustles with more than 100 vendors and lively, munching crowds of local and visiting shoppers.

Hidden away beneath viaducts and trains near the south end of London Bridge, the rambling covered structure is not strictly a farmers' market but a worldly cornucopia of food in the European market tradition -- the best olive oils from Italy, cheeses from France, hams from Spain and premier products from across the UK. Its hallmark is quality -- along with diversity, energy and an eccentricity that draws vivid personalities as vendors, along with a food-centric/people-centric clientele.

At The Wild Mushroom Company, brothers Tony and Harry Booth sell dozens of exotic fungi, plus hard-to-get fruits and produce. Harry leads a second life as a movie extra and regales with stories about his encounters with stars such as Mickey Rourke. Mushrooms have been good for him, he explains. His profits buy land around Barcelona, where he plans to retire. Gentle and generous, Tony confirms that business continues to boom.

For years, across the other side of the market, the powerful, slightly off-key baritone Kevin Loe belted out arias -- a love of opera music enhancing his market occupation of selling produce and eggs. "The Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver, a strong market supporter, frequently films TV segments here, including one with Loe. Other celebrity chefs regularly meander through the stalls. The market has appeal as a film set, with credits including "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban."

Market activist Henrietta Green, author of "The Food Lover's Guide to Britain," organized the 1998 Food Lover's Fair, a pivotal event in the market's renaissance. Responding to her invitation, Peter Gott of Sillfield Farms in Cumbria joined in. Gott and his crew are a colorful lot, wearing bowler hats, striped aprons, red socks and plus-four "britches." Their old-world charm bolsters the butchering and selling of products from heirloom pigs and wild boars.

Other meat vendors offer: lamb and mutton -- yes, mutton -- from Herdwick Farms, Label Anglais free-range chicken, wild beef from Devon, rabbits, venison, game birds and ostrich products from meat to eggs to feather dusters.

For seafood, top chefs and home cooks prowl the tempting displays of treasures gathered from local waters. There are giant Dublin Bay prawns, crabs, oysters, sea scallops and an amazing variety of fresh fish. Lines are long at Shellseekers, where proprietor Darren Brown sells his glistening still-live scallops, hand-dived in Dorset. Or he'll cook them to order.

A market gastro-tour should also include: The Ginger Pig, for sausages and bacons; Mrs. King's, for Melton Mowbray pork pies; Richard Haward, for Colchester Native and rock oysters; Brindisa, for Spanish foods; and The Total Organic Shop, for shots of wheatgrass juice. And there are breads, cakes, chocolates, cider, beer and wine, butter, honey, nuts, preserves and pickles, row after row of fruits and vegetables, olives, spices, coffee, teas -- and more.

The Floral Hall is a 19th-century addition to the market. During a recent reconstruction, it was fronted by a magnificent cast-iron and glass facade that previously graced the more famous, now demolished, Covent Garden market. Architects working on the Borough redesign found the stunning relic and bought it for just 1 pound sterling ($1.75 in U.S. currency). Now huge, multi-shaped panes of glass flood the Hall's interior with beautiful natural light, even on rainy days.

On the Hall's upper level roosts Roast (www.roast-restaurant.com). Owner Iqbal Wahhab and Head Cook Lawrence Keogh are committed to the market and to serving dishes inspired by and incorporating its rich resources. The excellent restaurant -- open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Mondays through Saturdays, and lunch on Sundays -- is a busy place, so do make a reservation.

The whole area is a gastronome's dream. Many of the market stalls and nearby shops offer take-out. "Permanent" food shops in the neighborhood -- not part of the market but booming because of it -- offer samples from whole pigs and huge beef roasts. On a side street, fans of British cheeses will find Neal's Yard, initially warehouse storage for a Covent Garden cheese shop, now a thriving retail outlet in its own right. And, of course, there are Pubs on every corner. No going hungry here.

These recipes come from Chef Lawrence Keogh of Roost restaurant in London's Borough Market.

Slow Roast Pork Belly

• 1 bone-in pork belly, about 9 pounds

• 1 lemon

• Halen Mowan or Cornish sea salt

• 3 large potatoes, peeled and sliced

• 2 pounds, 3 ounces of cooking apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped

• 3 1/2 ounces butter, unsalted

• 1 cinnamon stick

Select a pork belly with fresh, elastic skin. Score it, drizzle with lemon juice and cover with a generous amount of salt. Let it set for 10 minutes. Pat it dry to remove the lemon juice. Re-salt it. The salt will absorb into the pork skin and create crackling. Set the pork belly over a bed of the potatoes. Place in a 475-degree oven until golden brown and crackled, for about 20 minutes.

Reduce oven to 275 degrees and cook for 3 hours or until the rib bones pull out easily and the flesh is juicy and tender. Let it cool a bit, then carve.

Place apples into a large pot with the butter and cinnamon stick and gently stew until soft, then put through a food mill. Spoon apples and sauce onto plates. Center a serving of pork on the mixture and garnish with a serving of mashed potatoes.

Makes 10-12 servings.

Roast Rib of Beef with Yorkshire Pudding and Creamed Horseradish

• Whole fore rib of beef (18-pound), on the bone

• 7 ounces Coleman's English mustard powder

• Halen Mowan Salt or sea salt

• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1 1/2 cups milk

• 1 1/2 cups flour

• 6 medium eggs

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1 cup beef drippings

• 1 stick of horseradish freshly grated

• 1 cup creme fraiche

• 4 bunches of washed watercress

• Coleman's English prepared (not dry) mustard

The Roast

Set the rib on the counter for about 1 hour before roasting.

Dust the whole piece of meat with mustard powder, salt and pepper, and place in a 325-degree oven for about 2 1/2 hours.

Roast until a temperature probe, inserted into the middle of the rib, reaches 110 degrees. Remove from oven and place in foil (shiny side on the inside). Leave to rest for a minimum 45 minutes before carving.

Yorkshire Pudding

Heat oven to 450 degrees.

Mix together the eggs and milk and season with salt and pepper. Slowly incorporate the flour to achieve a smooth silky consistency.

Melt the beef drippings in a small pan and pour into a cast-iron skillet or square roasting pan. The fat should fill the pan up to one-quarter's depth. Return to the oven until it's smoking hot. Remove carefully and pour in pudding mixture, then place back in the oven for about 20 minutes. Halfway through cooking, check to see whether the puddings are rising. Cook until they are puffy, brown and fully risen. Lift individually and turn on their sides to cook the base and prevent collapsing.

Creamed Horseradish

Mix grated horseradish with creme fraich in equal quantities. Season to taste and serve on the side, with mustard. Garnish with watercress.

Makes 10-12 servings.

Additional Information:

If you go

Getting there: The most interesting route follows the Jubilee Walk from the south end of Westminster Bridge. Take in great views across the River Thames of the City of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) and City of London (St Paul's Cathedral). Along the way, spot The London Eye, Globe Theatre and Tate Modern.

Most direct is the London Underground to London Bridge. Next to the market, Southwark Cathedral has a plinth commemorating William Shakespeare that incorporates a small but interesting tribute to American department store magnate Sam Wanamaker, for his work supporting the Globe restoration. Also, stained-glass windows honor native son John Harvard, who ventured to Cambridge, Mass., to found a namesake college.

When to go: The retail market is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 6 p.m. Fridays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. The wholesale market is open weekday mornings from 2 to 8 a.m. Noon on Saturday sets the stage for marveling at the crowds. But to stroll and sample more easily, Thursday or Friday, shortly after opening time, is best.

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