This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
It was Friday evening and my meetings had overrun. I reached Dulles airport 10 minutes after departure time. The gate was deserted, apart from a lone ground-staffer counting boarding cards. In the background the 777 stood, sealed and ready to fly. Distraught, I pleaded that, with no flight to London for another three hours, I would miss the Pimlico farmers’ market if not allowed on board. Compassion filled the eyes of my airport Samaritan. After a brief call with the captain, the jetway was extended and door L1 opened. I boarded, my heart overflowing with a loyalty to British Airways that no frequent-flyer scheme could ever achieve.
From Virginia to Belgravia, farmers’ markets have a visceral appeal. They re-establish connections to the sources of our sustenance, remind us that seasons exist and create a sense of community in even the most cosmopolitan and transient of neighbourhoods.
Regular visits to farmers’ markets make me appreciate and look forward to each coming season. I enjoy my breakfast pears in winter as much as my berries in summer. Spring is announced by the aroma of wild garlic rising from numerous stalls. The six weeks in May and June when Mr Thorogood sells his Southminster asparagus are some of the happiest in the year, and the short overlap between his visits to the market and the gulls’ eggs season are a highlight of late spring. In September, tomatoes keep the summer holidays alive and then, as our tans fade and the days shorten, we rejoice in the declension of game birds, from grouse to snipe, pheasant and mallard.
There are at least 17 farmers’ markets across London. Let me show you round the three closest to where I live, which I know best and which also happen to be the three most central.
Pimlico Road Farmers’ Market, Saturdays 9am — 2pm
orange square, Pimlico Road, London SW1
The Pimlico Road Farmers’ Market takes place on the triangular Orange Square, at the feet of the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote his first symphony while staying just opposite at 180 Ebury Street. If you were arriving from far away, you might think that the weekly laying of food before the maestro was a religious ritual.
Orange Square lies at the intersection of several neighbourhoods: the grandeur of Belgravia extends to the north; the textured charm of Pimlico lies just across Ebury Bridge to the south; to the east, the urban churn of Victoria Coach Station and, to the west, intimate Chelsea. This social mix is nowhere more evident than in the market’s clientele: from the former FTSE 100 chairman choosing chard to the famous pop artist with a penchant for partridge, colourful Goyard totes jostling with the red and black uniforms of Chelsea pensioners. The Princess and the Peabody.
After more than 10 years of Saturday visits, I count many of the traders as friends. There is the ebullient David, once in the City and now happily selling the delicious game he has shot that week near Petworth (South Downs Venison) — nothing equals his saddle of doe. Renée, the genial co-owner of Windrush Valley Goat Dairy, produces extraordinary yoghurts and cheeses and a memorable cheesecake. Phil, aka Lord Pesto, displays all manner of natty noodles and confects the best harissa this side of Carthage. Marta (North Sea Seafood) comes laden with beautiful sea creatures from North Norfolk, from alabaster slabs of halibut to plump bream, perfect shrimp and silky scallops. Tilly’s Traditionals’ polychrome eggs scramble perfectly with Charlie’s Trout next door.
The vegetable and fruit stands are exceptional — what a relief to be able to buy a huge, fresh bunch of parsley picked that morning rather than having to make do with the little box of jet-lagged leaves offered by the local supermarket.
The market is as good for treats as it is for staples. Polenta cake from Honeypie Bakery, caviar and smoked sturgeon from Exmoor Caviar, pancetta and salamis from the Salt Pig Curing Co and salty pretzel for my German mother from Sam at Artisan Foods. And in summer, Rosebie Moreton’s roses are among the most fragrant I have encountered.
And once you have shopped, you can retire to Daylesford Organic for a well-deserved brunch or visit Soane Britain, Tower of Shadows or Hemisphere Gallery — three particular favourites among the many wonderful art and design shops along this stretch of the Pimlico Road.
Marylebone Farmers’ Market, Sundays 10am — 2pm
Aybrook Street, London W1
The scene on Sunday morning in Marylebone is quite different: we are after all in Monocle country — less Gucci, more Connolly. Illy, the exuberant mistress of ceremonies-cum-market manager, welcomes the regulars: among them, a leading antitrust lawyer foraging en famille, a famous interior designer craving Dover sole in between trips to the Middle East, a critically acclaimed historian with an eye for hispi cabbage and plenty of ancien régime Marylebone mink.
In addition to some of the favourites also found at Pimlico (Windrush Valley Goat Dairy, Lord Pesto, South Downs Venison, Exmoor Caviar, Chegworth Valley, Wild Country Organics), noteworthy stalls include: Longshore (sea bass, lobster and other dazzling seafood from Blakeney, Norfolk); South Coast Seafayre (majestic turbot, brill and sole from Rye Bay); and The Potato Shop, where Steve Whitehead will provide you with the perfect potato for every occasion, from a Ratte to a Shetland Black or Mayan Gold, among 34 varieties grown by him in Tenterden, Kent. At Karaway, you will find Borodinsky bread and other eastern European panine delights.
South Kensington Farmers’ Market, Saturdays 9am-2 pm
Bute Street, London SW7
Bute Street, just behind the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, has always been in the centre of French London, a place where you can pick up the latest BD to have made it through the red tapes of Dover and stock up on Petit-Beurres. It is no surprise, therefore, that the farmers’ market here caters for a very comme il faut French set, Hermès-afluttering.
Though relatively modest in size, this is a charming and high-quality neighbourhood market, with a handful of very good fruit and veg dealers and a terrific fishmonger, Dorset Fish, which is particularly strong on Portland crab and lobster. Favourites such as Windrush Valley Goat Dairy, Lord Pesto and Exmoor Caviar can also be found here.
And at the southern end of the street, tasty sustainably-reared sausages fried before you at The Parson’s Nose (also at Marylebone) provide the perfect remontant after the red-eye from Washington.
Pimlico Road, Marylebone and South Kensington Farmers’ Markets are members of London Farmers’ Markets, an association of 17 farmers’ markets across London.
Photography by Laura Hodgson
Andrew Jones’ book about his wanderings around Mayfair and St James’s, The Buildings of Green Park, is published by ACC Art Books
Do you have a favourite London farmers’ market? Tell us about it in the comments below