Vittles 3.8 - Borough Market

Palermo, London, Birmingham, by Matt O'Callaghan

“It was that damn chorizo roll” Jack Coleman once told me, when trying to pin-point when exactly Borough Market changed. Brindisa’s roll, which now has to be legally described as *iconic*, was the pivot upon which the whole market turned from being ‘produce only’ to the hot food market and Hieronymus Bosch painting that it is today. Or was, until today. As the cathedral of middle-class British foodie-ism, Borough, often fairly, gets both barrels from those who claim all the produce is far too expensive, and from those other middle class people (myself included) who found everyone getting in on it too irksome and upped sticks to Spa Terminus down the road. “Too many tourists, too much hot food” is what most of these people say when you talk about Borough. Yet since the pandemic there are no tourists, no hot food. Have those foodies who transcended the need for Borough finally got what they wanted?

Reading today’s beautiful newsletter by Matt O’Callaghan, which is an paean to Borough and to community, among many other things, is a reminder of how spoiled Londoners are. Borough is still an incredible resource, right on the doorstep of one of our biggest railway stations. Walking around it recently - without the tourists, without the hot food - it felt a little sad, like a great play with barely anyone in attendance.

Still, it will bounce back. But it feels like somewhat of an end of an era. My somewhat colleague and Borough and Spa Terminus regular, Alex Fraser from East Teas, sadly passed away from COVID-19 last month. Although he had not operated a stall there for a few years it feels like some of old Borough has died with him. He was there pretty much from the start of its modern incarnation, and witnessed all the changes - good and bad - that have happened over the last two decades. He still kept up with all the Borough regulars — the last time I saw him was at the Kernel Brewery party, Table Beer in hand, and he seemed to know everyone, both old and young. In the best of the Borough tradition he was a character, an outsider who had an extraordinary amount of specialist knowledge and made little effort to make any money from it, preferring to share it willingly. I still see that spirit in my favourite stalls at Borough, particularly De Calabria where unprofessionally labelled jars of beautiful pickled aubergines, nuts, figs and preserved turnip tops are sold slightly anarchically by Giuseppe Melo, an artist who owns a cinema perched on a cliff edge somewhere on the Calabrian coast that one day, once this is over, I would love to watch a film at.

Underneath all the sheen of Borough, all the corporatism, all the rules and the political maneuvering, strip it all away and what you are left with are people like Alex and Giuseppe, who live for the close-knit community, the interaction with people, and the love of what they’re selling. Whatever the new era holds, I hope that there’s always a place for them.

Palermo, London, Birmingham, by Matt O’Callaghan

Some fruits have a cast iron grip on me. In Palermo’s botanical garden one January, winter windfall citrus carpeted the ground. We explored those groves of trees like truanting schoolboys and snuck out with a stolen bergamot, wrongly thinking it an underachieving grapefruit. The next day in Ballarò Market, I met my first citron, as big as a butternut squash, all pith and no heart. It came home to Birmingham in my hand luggage and we ate salted slivers of it after dinner. Memories of a different life.

Just as the rumblings of the virus were first hitting Europe, I found myself in London. London was my first trip out in months. I had been, still was, ill. I got washed out to sea by life, and unable to swim back to shore, had withdrawn, shut down and given up. I came down from Birmingham to see friends and to search for citrus: all those fruits that seldom make it up the M40 where we are mostly limited to Easy Peelers and waxed lemons, with only the occasional blood or Seville orange interloper. The citron (which, with the pomelo and mandarin, is one of the original ancestor species of all modern citrus) has mostly lost its place in the UK. In spite of their absence from our culinary knowledge, my love affair with them is strong, outlasting the one that took me to Palermo where I first discovered them. Their size and their strangeness makes them exotic. They are ancestral citrus, full of bitterness and acid; a mythical thing that speaks of sun and otherness. They are difficult, unwieldy, but reward investment.

The friends I stayed with had seen glimpses of citron at Borough Market. Over dinner, we talked about what I would do with them; of secrets held by nuns in Palermo, conserva de cedro and the occult art of candying. Next morning I spilled out of London Bridge station, an empty bag in hand.

In minutes I had citron, I had bergamots, I had a bunch of violet-blushed artichokes to be eaten fresh from the pan, standing in the kitchen, too greedy to sit. There were quinces for cotognata and a pristine head of romanesco to make Pasta coi vruocculi arriminati for lunch the next day. And pecorino, of course. Therapy through shopping, and coming in below £25 (less than the price of my train ticket); things that would provide joy for weeks, months.

I dragged my haul home, and within two weeks, the world was remade.  

A trip to Rome was cancelled 48 hours before the flight. Friends fled Spain to avoid being locked down with toddlers. My sick leave came to an end as work shut down. Then, when perhaps two dozen people in the country were said to have the virus, I went down with the worst flu I have ever experienced. Eight unrelenting days in and after three hours on hold to the NHS helpline, I went to bed and slept for 36 hours.

When I woke, coughing up my lungs, I had only the food in the house to sustain me. I discovered that you think and do strange things when you’re running a fever and have to improvise. I came over all Marguerite Patten, ransacking what I had, unleashing last year’s preserved allotment harvest (bags of frozen beans, raspberries, strawberries and tenerumi, cherries in booze, pickled garlic). I was eggless, so I created experimental buns with custard powder. I made cavatelli pasta. Leeks that were growing at the bottom of the fridge went into a soup that I couldn’t taste. Then, suddenly, my taste buds were working again, and a six month old, perfect squash became a risotto, and then some of that became the best deep fried rice balls I’d ever had. I clung on to my precious pecorino, saving it for something truly special.

Most importantly, those citrons, the prizes of Borough Market, underwent metamorphosis; soaked for a week in a sugar bath of ever increasing concentration, until osmosis, and some magic, drew out all the water replacing it with syrup. Left to dry in the sun, these slabs turned to crystal citrus, translucent, mummified in sugar; a hard cracking crust that hides an interior set like a jelly baby.  The taste is sweet, but bitter and acidic enough to make your tongue tingle and your salivary glands wince.

I started to realise that as I physically recovered, ate more, put weight back on again, the other illness, the one that had crippled me and locked me down since January, was receding. I had rediscovered my joy in cooking and growing. And if I couldn’t eat it all, then I could share it, which required social interaction, conversations, gratitude, pleasure - experiences and emotions that I had until now forgotten. Freezer fruit jam got dropped over fences, the excess of tomato and courgette plants placed in bags for socially distanced collection. My birthday came, and alone, I made a cassatina (the bonsai version of cassata) and my candied citron came into its own, camping up my cake and making me happy. A carrier bag of bread flour was left for me by my oldest friend, and I was challenged to make torta angelica - a giant plaited brioche stuffed with chocolate and crystallised angelica grown on the allotment. Vast and best eaten on the day it is baked, this went as a thank you gift to other neighbours, who take my spaniels out for extra walks, often and gladly. They’ve put in an order for another one. And simultaneously, fruit salad appeared on my doorstep; packets of seed were slipped through my letterbox; my wonderful elderly neighbour left a food parcel for me by the back gate. Small gifts of what we have, shared between ourselves.

When the UK shut itself down, my experience of the previous three months suddenly became many other people’s norm. Isolated, unsure of the immediate and distant future, out of touch with friends and family, winging it, putting on a braver face. We do what we can. And it seems that my new norm is friendlier, warmer; in isolation, we are not isolated, but a community actively supporting each other with small gestures and kindnesses. There are still many days when my cooking doesn’t get any further than cheese and biscuits with pickles and anxiety. But there are increasingly days when I can be creative again, share my enthusiasm, my recipes, my cooking. I look forward to the days when I can come back to London and the markets, with my empty bag. I look forward to the seasonal rhythm of shopping, growing and cooking returning; of making cotognata from scrumped quinces in the autumn, taking orders for Christmas buccellati, painting frutta di martorona; of teaching again in person, instead of via video link. I am really looking forward, but dare not hope just yet, of meeting friends, cooking, eating, making new memories. In the meantime, I have my preserved chunks of Palermo to eke out, my woeful spoken Italian to improve, and a nurturing community to be part of. It is more than enough.

Candied citron

If you find a citron next winter, and want to go down the candying rabbit hole, the process is drawn out, but straightforward. The principles are the same if you want to candy lemon, orange or grapefruit now, but they will not need the week of repeated heating and cooling.  These thinner pithed fruits can be candied with one boil in the syrup, until they turn translucent, and then dried in the same way.

  1. Wash and then prick your citron with a fork all over, around 5mm - 1cm deep.

  2. Fill a large bowl with cold  water and soak the citron for a week, changing the water every day.

  3. After a week, cut the citron into quarters - it is mostly pith, and the flesh, often the size of a golfball, can be removed. Most recipes advise discarding it - it is sour in the extreme, so I abide by that advice.

  4. Make up a syrup of 50% granulated sugar and 50%  water. Bring it to the boil, and make sure all the sugar is dissolved.

  5. Turn off the heat, add your chunks of citron, cover and leave them to steep for 24 hours.

  6. The next day, remove the citron, bring the syrup back up to the boil, allowing it to reduce in volume slightly.  Then turn off the heat, and add the citron back to the pan.  It’s tempting, but don’t try to speed up the process by boiling the citrus in syrup - which can turn to caramel and burn the moment your back is turned.

  7. Repeat this process for a total of seven days.

  8. Finally, take the slabs of now embalmed citron from the very thick syrup and leave them to dry somewhere well aired and ideally sunny for at least two weeks, until there is no stickiness.  

  9. They’ll now store in the fridge in Tupperware (covered in sugar if you want to make doubly sure) for several months. Use in cakes, puddings, anything that requires candied fruit - or be bold, be camp, and make a cassata.

  10. The syrup can be used as a base for citrus cocktails, or just diluted with soda water. It’s got a powerful kick. A little goes a long way.

Matt O'Callaghan is a gardener, cook and writer, turning an allotment in Birmingham into a piece of southern Italy, photographing it as @mangiamangiauk and sharing the recipes at mangiamangiauk.com . Matt was paid for his writing.

The illustrations were done by Marie-Henriette Desmoures. For more commissions she can be contacted at contactertete@gmail.com or on Twitter as @dancing_garlic. Marie-Henriette donated her fee back to Vittles.