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The Meat (Pie) Market

Borough Market is London’s larder, a pithy description I thought I had coined only to find that this is how everyone else describes it too. So ignore that and instead think of Borough Market as what’s inside London’s best fridges. On the advice of a Londoner that Aline had once met by chance at a farmer’s market in San Francisco, we took the Tube to Borough Market to buy supplies for dinner. Looking at the South Bank from above, Borough Market is the dinner plate set between the gothic tines of Southwark Cathedral on the left and the long knife of Tower Bridge stabbing across the Thames on the right, an image for which I apologize to more adequate metaphors.

The market has been in business since the 13th Century at least, and is said to have existed as far back as Roman times. I don’t know whether to believe it though; Londoners say that about everything, including Tesco’s and the internet, so it doesn’t count for much. Supposedly Southwark was first mentioned by name when the Saxons in 944 built a defensive military encampment there called a “Suthringagewoerc.” If this part is true, the Saxons may have been large and dangerous, but their spelling was unacceptable, which I can only assume lead to their eventual defeat when they couldn’t create readable pillaging instructions for one another.

On a more positive note, it was also the starting point for Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. According to Chaucer’s grainy Middle English, the pilgrims set out from “Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay/Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage/To Caunterbury” a few hundred feet from where I now stood.

Nowadays, you can enter by the south portico, which is a repurposed piece of Covent Garden, or by the art deco gate on the west side, depending on the initial impression you want to gain of the place. But the market itself is seriously Victorian (though I think that term may be redundant), with most of the buildings having gone up in the 1850s.

We entered under the south portico, where thick green pillars like tree trunks propped up a canopy of railway arches overhead. The view was Dickensian, a Pickwickian adventure in a food depot crammed with stalls jammed with goods—black carts whose gold paint flourished names like Furness Fish & Game Supplies, and Elsey and Bent. Pearly oysters were packed cheek by jowl with, well, pork cheeks and jowls, buckshotted rabbits hung from pegs and were gazed at sadly by pale red mullets brought ashore on the Whitby dayboat, curries and quinces stood ready to top nearby breads and puddings, barrels of olives and barrels of wine smelled of distant ports, artichoke spikes wound round their center like pilgrims at the Hadj, cheeses tumbled over themselves in soft white glaciers, while pyramids of ruby cabbages, neon oranges, Egyptian lemons and limes, blueberries, and violet aubergines tested vegetarians for color-blindness.

Trestles overhead kept the breeze away. Molecules of every kind of food sold there, perhaps every food sold since Emperor Claudius first sent his hungry troops to the South Bank, grew denser the further I wandered, gradually precipitating out of the air to settle in a rich snow on my tongue. I began ranging open-mouthed through the aisles, sieving the air like a Blue Whale sieving for krill.

Fortunately, there were plenty of stalls that served meals as well as the raw ingredients for them, and it was a pleasure to walk among the rows, enjoying my non-stop Pavlovian reaction to bacon-wrapped scallops broiling in seashells; falafel balls bedded down among chopped cucumbers, onions, and parsley, and watered in tahini sauce as if it were a growing thing; curried meats on skewers laying harem-style on pillows of pillau.

Anyone who visits Borough Market has their own favorite food. Mine was Pieminister pies. Americans probably don’t understand what there could be about a meat pie that made my tongue hang like a compass pointing in the direction of the Pieminister stall. A Pieminister pie was my tastebud’s lodestone, its culinary true north, a promise of everything I wanted to eat—pastry, meat, fruits, herbs, vegetables, alcohol, and gravy. They had only a passing exterior resemblance to the pies piled in the frozen food morgues of Safeway. Nothing will resurrect a Swanson meat pie before Judgement Day.

Pieminister meat and veg pies are to a Swanson Chicken Pot Pie what…well actually, let me just tell you the difference. Here is the ingredients list of a Swanson Chicken Pot Pie:

Water, enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), cooked chicken (dark meat chicken, salt, soy protein isolate, carrageenan, modified food starch, sodium phosphate, spice extract), carrots, potatoes with sodium acid pyrophosphate, shortening (lard, hydrogenated lard, partially hydrogenated soybean oil), cooked mechanically separated chicken, modified food starch, chicken base (bleached enriched wheat flour [malted barley flour, potassium bromate, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin], salt, maltodextrin, whey powder, whey protein concentrate, garlic powder, soy lecithin, yeast extract, onion powder, spices, xanthan gum, turmeric extract, annatto), contains 2% or less of: peas, chicken fat, dextrose, natural and artificial chicken flavor (salt, chicken powder, chicken fat, autolyzed yeast extract, water, natural and artificial flavors, invert sugar, chicken broth, onion powder, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and cottonseed oil, grill flavor [from partially hydrogenated soybean oil and cottonseed oil], tocopherols), salt, dough conditioner (sodium aluminosilicate, salt, vital wheat gluten, enzymes, soy protein flour, ammonium sulfate, fumaric acid), caramel color, annatto (for color).

Here are the complete makings of a Pieminister Chicken of Aragon Pie:

West Country chicken, chicken stock, celeriac, Wiltshire smoked bacon, red onions, leeks, double cream, vermouth, potato starch, roasted garlic, tarragon, dijon mustard, salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaf, mixed herbs, wheat flour, butter, milk, vegetable suet, water, corn flour, eggs.

Swanson constructs meat pies the way Microsoft builds operating systems. It’s version 9.3 of a chicken pot pie, with every bell and whistle, edible and otherwise, added to keep Swanson’s pie designers employed and consumers upgrading, a dish bloated by corporate methods of food production for ready-to-be-torpid eaters of pies.

But ah!; but oh! Pieminister pies are fit for an England praised by Milton. They are the English countryside blanketed under pastry crust, and to eat one is to taste every season fresh upon your tongue.

On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, Borough Market could make my stomach happier than anywhere else in Britain.

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