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What's the point of Borough Market? [London]

I'm a longtime lurker on these boards, and there have been so many posts on Borough Market that I just had to ask this.
I live about 10 minutes away from Borough Market, and that was one of the selling points that the estate agent made when we moved into the neighborhood.
But for a local, it's just a really unpleasant, crowded, downright awful place to do your food shopping. It's so crowded on Saturdays that you can barely move, and even on Thursday or Friday at lunchtime it's a mess. The stalls are overpriced, in my opinion, and the quality is much better at Maltby Street and my local farmer's market.
I even worked at one of the stalls over Christmas to earn a little extra dosh for the holidays, and it was a terrible experience - business was really slow because people wanted to gawp, not to buy.
I don't understand how most traders can make a living there because tourists don't want to buy fresh meat, fish, veg, or bread.
Will Borough Market eventually descend into a tourist trap? Is it even possible to use it like a real market anymore? Am I alone in being a Borough refusenik?

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  1. >I don't understand how most traders can make a living there because tourists don't want to buy fresh meat, fish, veg, or bread.<

    Maybe you answered your own question. If it was just tourists at the market, then the traders would go out of business. I agree that there are a lot of tourists, but it can't be the majority.

    I think the way to use this market is to just buy things I can't find near where I live. So that's why I sometimes go for a fast visit if I'm in London on a Friday before noon. I agree the prices are ridiculous, but I could say that about almost everything in London. A diet Coke in Harrod's food hall is about £4.50. Now that *is* a tourist trap.

    1. I agree with a lot of your sentiments, sunclytie, but I think Borough still has a strong niche, even if it isn't a market for regular shopping. I lived in Bermondsey for about 6 months, and because of a flexible schedule, I could easily go to the market during the less crowded hours. Many of the stalls are open every weekday, and Thursday and Friday mornings are quite do-able. Saturday is for nutters.

      I didn't always go weekly, but as zuriga1 points out, it's a good place to get the things you can't find elsewhere. I also tended to shop there more for occasions when I wanted to make a special meal at home. It was usually a fairly big spend when I went. I'm sure lots of other people use it in a similar way. Once I moved across town, though, I stopped going as often.

      I do find that the market compares to similar markets in other big cities, in terms of the crowds. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco is equally unpleasantly crowded, as is the Union Square Farmers Market in NYC. My only regret about Borough is that it isn't actually a farmers' market. But all the specialty vendors are terrific, and while the tourists definitely get in the way of more serious shoppers, none of the vendors would last more than a few weeks if they weren't actually selling something. I imagine their overhead is quite low, compared to a bricks & mortar shop. What I hope is that the popularity of Borough Market helps to encourage the growth of other, similar markets. It's quite possible that the buzz from tourist crowds helps more than hinders.

      4 Replies
      1. re: gemuse

        I quite agree with Gemuse. Borough Market is really useful if you can go daily or if you need some specialty item. Of course, if you only go once in a while, it will probably be impossible to know if that specialty item is sold in Borough Market, much less find it efficiently.

        I am lucky enough to work nearby. This makes it very easy to shop daily for fresh fish/meats/produce, which winds up being pretty inexpensive, especially when quality is taken into account. Then you get a sense for which stalls have the freshest stuff for the best price. Of course, being a regular also helps, because the vendors are usually generous with repeat customers. I do avoid the market on Saturdays and after 12 on Fridays, because one usually has to wade through gawking tourists to get to anything.

        The market management does seem to be pushing the market towards tourist trap. This is rather irritating as many of the cheaper [less flashy] vendors have been pushed out in favor of fancier stuff [nice packaging for tourists]. Many of them aren't even allowed to serve prepared foods on Saturday; odd, since tourists could at least buy lunch. It doesn't make much sense, as the tourists take lots of photos and clog up the place but they are very unlikely to buy wild beef or line caught fish etc...

        sigh...

        1. re: MonkeyC

          >The market management does seem to be pushing the market towards tourist trap.<

          I recently noticed they're building another food hall, and I suppose it will be fairly large. One wonders who will be selling in there.

        2. re: gemuse

          hi

          just thought I should mention the City and Country Farmers Market section of Borough does have farmers in it and it would be great if everyone could support them - fish, meat and apples at the moment. Their prices are reasonable and they're from local farmers markets around London and outside - although they themselves are travelling in from Kent/Sussex/Essex.

          1. re: browniegirl

            I was there on Thursday and noticed a lot of cake stalls in that section. I also saw a woman selling chilli and roasted garlic sauce who had partnered up with a garlic company from the Isle of Wight. They have many different types of bottled sauces containing garlic. The woman at the stall, who is Malaysian and half Japanese had some delicious homemade gyoza which she was selling for £1.50 a container. She had a choice of chicken or vegetarian. I had one cold and liked it so much I went back for another and then took some home with me. She dollops spoonfuls of her chilli and garlic sauce on tops if you like.

        3. I used to be a Borough market regular, back in the days when it was a monthly affair. I stopped going when I realised I was getting up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday to get to the market before the crowds, and was no longer enjoying the experience. I am lucky to live in an area which is very well served for local shops, so I don't actually need to go there anyway because I can get most things on my doorstep, and if I can't there's an excellent butcher a short drive away.

          1 Reply
          1. re: greedygirl

            I'm the same as greedygirl, used to go to Borough fairly regularly for meat, fish and veges but now find it a bit of a hassle with the crowds. That said, I often wander through in the late afternoon when the main stalls are still open, and pick up a few bits and pieces, and Neal's Dairy is something pretty special that can't really be found at the smaller farmer's markets. As other posters have said, it's also great for specialty items, Brindisa for Spanish ingredients, the mushroom place etc.

            Saying it's pointless is a bit extreme - it has its place, and if that's a tourist trap then it's a pretty good one!

          2. I know it's a regular past time on the boards to whinge about Borough. I'll stand up for it, though my circumstances (I live 5 minutes away) may make my experience better than the one you can get.

            Borough is a hood pretty devoid of any redeaming local food shopping. The local supermarkets are rubbish and they don't care. Borough is the antithesis of this. There is a ton of caring about one's product in the market and it shows in what you get.

            I usually rock into the market at around 10 on a Saturday. There are people about, but not tons. Just enough to make it lively. Though I usually know what I want and who I want to get it from, the crowds are such that I can wander and browse if I choose. At that time the traders still have their full set of wares out (they run out of stuff later) and the selection is great.

            I do find myself at the market at "nightmare hour" 12-1 on a Saturday too. I know it's going to be busy, so I just take my time and get what I need. Is it a quiet, lovely market experience where one can have an animated and long-winded chat with an artisan cheese maker? Not as much. Do I still enjoy going? Damn straight.

            For me, the point of Borough is that it is one of the single best food markets I have had the chance to go to and I love that it is my local. Has it been dumbed down in recent years by the inclusion of touristy crap? Yep! Are there lots of crowds stuffing their faces on free samples and blocking the walkways? Absolutely. Do I still love it for the produce, meats, fish and speciality goods? Always.

            S

            4 Replies
            1. re: CTownFeedR

              I agree with you, CTownFeedR, is that while the supermarkets are rubbish, the markets in the area are really good. Between Bermondsey Farmer's Market and Maltby Street, you can do just as well as you can at Borough, without all the stress.
              But what really worries me is not only do you have the tourist influx, but you also have tons of new residential development, lots of whom are lured by "Borough Market! Steps away!" The current configuration can barely handle the crowds as it is. When the Shard comes in? I don't even want to think about it.

              I like the IDEA of Borough Market a lot, but I think it's going to be killed by its own popularity.

              1. re: sunclytie

                Though the vibe and "newness" of Maltby/Druid is nice (especially when coupled with Bermondsey), it's honestly not the same. Case in point, there are 3 fish mongers at Borough, 1 at Bermondsey. Ginger Pig, Northfield, Windham, etc are such great meat suppliers, again giving choice. I can be more sure to get what I want when I head to Borough. Laziley, it is also 1/4 the walk for me.

                I hear you though. The idea of Borough is great and there are many times when it's popularity is it's own enemy. Worse, the Board is frankly ruining it. Think of Booths being forecd out, what a loss to the market! That said, if you take time to figure it out, get to know the vendors and go at the right times, it is a magical place.

                S

                1. re: CTownFeedR

                  I just have to disagree with you, CTown. The quality of the butchers and fishmongers is the same at Bermondsey as at Borough - and there are two butchers at Bermondsey, giving plenty of choice. The fishmonger at Bermondsey might not be quite as good in terms of selection, but the quality is top-notch, and he's a nice guy (does anybody know what became of the two guys from Lowestoft in the white truck?0 Plus, the butcher at Maltby Street is so nice - and really knowledgeable.
                  I've had horrible service at Ginger Pig butchers - the clerk made me feel like an idiot for asking if he happened to have any bones I could buy.
                  I'd rather have an idle stroll down to the farmer's market at 10 AM rather than rushing, rushing, rushing to beat the crowds, and my work schedule doesn't permit me to go on Thursdays and Fridays - though when I have been on a Friday, it was pretty heaving.
                  I will say Borough is more pleasant earlier in the week when a few of the stalls are open and you can get a roast pork belly sandwich from Roast without too much hassle - yum. But other than that, life is too short to fight the hordes there.

                  1. re: sunclytie

                    Sorry, as you can see I was not commenting on the quality of Maltby/Bermondsey, I was commenting on the choice. I agree that the "lamb lady" in Maltby and the fish monger in Bermondsey have excellent quality, but the choice leaves a bit to be desired.

                    It's sad that you had a bad experience at GP. They had a lot of turnover there when Barbecoa opened and it showed in the service. If you had spoken to Charlie at the shop (or called in to the head office), they would have been disappointed that you felt that way.

                    It's important to note that you CAN stroll at 10:00 (as I did last Saturday) through Borough quite easily and enjoy the experience. All that said, I imagine however that it really depends on what you are looking for. If you want that niche experience of Maltby/Bermondsey, these choices are best for you and we should agree to disagree.

                    S