Let's be honest. Travel is really about food. We might dress it up with delusions of culture, that great quest for the obscure and the novel, but really we are looking for new things to eat. We are a bit like crows, leaving our comfortable nests only to scavenge others' tasty treats. And isn't that a wonderful thing?
It is marvellous to experience the authentic taste of bouillabaisse in a Marseille bistro. Or to slowly sip single malt in a Scottish pub, feeling swollenly contented with a belly full of local fish and chips.
But, that said, there is a time in everyone's travels when restaurant meals become too much, be they meticulous and Michelin-starred or fast and folksy. Too prepared, too constructed, too much someone else's idea of what you should be eating. And then, you need to strip things down -you need to get food at its most fundamental. You need to hit the market.
And for visitors to London ever since Roman times, that meant the Borough Market.
Now, I know. That sounds like an exaggeration. And, in a way, it is. It wasn't the Borough Market then. But it was the market beside the bridge. And the bridge wasn't London Bridge as it is now, though it did plant its feet in the same stretch of the Thames. There is direct evidence that the market dates back to the ninth century and it isn't extrapolation to trace its roots back much, much farther. It was here that Thomas Becket walked on his way to preach at Southwark Cathedral before departing to Canterbury. And this was the local market for Shakespeare and company during those heady days at the Globe. This is London's larder.
Today, the market sprawls beneath railway bridges between the river Thames and Borough High Street in South London. Over the last decade, the market has enjoyed a renaissance as Britain's culinary reputation shifts from bland to grand.
Celebrity chefs have touted the market's charms in their effort to get people to move away from processed foodstuffs and into their kitchens to cook real food. There are almost 100 stalls offering absolutely everything -Spanish sausages, French cheeses, perfect baklava and Turkish delight, fresh fish, aged game, piles of seasonal produce, beer, wine and cider, and a selection of traditional British pies tempting enough to turn anyone carnivore. Or, if you like, you can aim for the mushroom and stilton ones. They are also fantastic.
There is no end of choice. Far more than any traveller could consume for a picnic lunch or share in a hostel kitchen, but browsing is always worth your while. Especially when there are samples galore to be had. (And cooking demonstrations, too. A fantastic addition to any ingredients mission, I think. Check out www.boroughmarket.org.uk for times and inspiration.)
I first explored the Borough Market towing little ones in my wake. We arrived by bus -a lowly "single decker" as described by Child No. 1. The way was well-sign-posted. Two giant hands point toward each other, like something out of a Victorian anatomical guide book: Borough Market this way!
We made our way down the narrow alley to the market itself. I say market, but really the plural would be more appropriate. There is the Jubilee Market -the largest section and fully roofed -and the Green Market where most of the bakery and patisserie stalls can be found. There is also the wholesale market -open all night long and supplying delicacies to delicatessens, cafes and restaurants all over the city.
The surrounding streets extend the markets and are lined with still more culinary destinations such as Monmouth Coffee, where each cup is theatrically dripped through a single-cone filter and Neal's Yard Dairy, which is a cheese fan's fantasy in full aromatic splendour.
One of the great advantages of marketing is that at a market you can't avoid the reality of food. There is still soil clinging to the carrots. Fish come scaly and whole, and they seem to look back at you from their icy beds. At Furness Fish & Game, whole animals hang suspended from hooks, still in their skins, reminding all who will look that meat really is animal.
The children were both fascinated and they wanted a closer look. I hesitated. I felt they needed more explanation before being confronted with congealing gore. So I got down to stroller level and crouchingly explained that these animals were dead and that these were just their bodies. The butcher would take off the skins, and cut them into pieces of meat so that people can take them home and make stew. And we like stew, remember?
Child No. 1, big eyed: "Mummy, I have a question."
"Can we buy one?" She was practically oozing hope. "I really want to take one home."
I can see her point -and it wasn't culinary. The rabbits looked remarkably soft and cuddly, their inert eyes, creased and squinting as if in soft, deep sleep.
The headless roe not so much. Ah well, perhaps rabbit stew then.
But, in the end, Child No. 1 chose a baguette for her treat, and Child No. 2 an oh-so-English sausage roll. I selected a seductive wedge of cheese. Comte, 14 month, French Jura. Gorgeous. And a bag of Turkish delight for Daddy at home.
The food, both ingredients and immediately edibles, are utterly international at the Borough Market. And that's what makes London what it is. London has always been a city of immigrants. Since the Romans, the immigrants haven't stopped arriving and each new wave brings with it the tastes of home, contributing to the taste that is today's Britain.
At the end of our marketing, we crossed back over London Bridge, full and happy with heavy bags. Ahead of us, three elegantly suited Indian businessmen walked together and, mid-bridge, one of them broke into the inevitable nursery song. My own children chimed with vigour, surprising the singer who spun towards them and then grinned conspiratorially.
And we all walked across to catch a red double-decker bus on the far side.
Katie Munnik is an Ottawa writer, currently living in London. Check out her blog, The Messy Table, at www. presbyterianrecord.ca
IF YOU GO
• Getting there: In London, it is always best to take public transport. Buses, trains and the tube all stop at the London Bridge Station, right beside the Borough Market. Consult the Transport for London website at www.tfl.gov.uk for maps and schedules. If you would prefer to walk to the Market, you can find it from the Thames Path on the Southbank or by heading south across London Bridge and watching for signs.
• When: The Borough Market is open on Thursdays (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.), Fridays (noon to 6 p.m.) and Saturdays (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). As with most markets, aim to get there early to find the best selection and thinnest crowds. If you are travelling with children, avoid Saturdays at all cost as the place gets mobbed with crowds. You will see more if you go at a quieter time. (And there will be more samples to go around.)
• More information: Check www.boroughmarket.org.uk for cooking demonstration times, special events, recipes and other market news.