Friday, 4 November 2016

Whitecross St Market

Go there
"... because who knows what they put in it, it's dirty and it's dear", said an older-generation in-the-good-ol'-days Londoner colleague when I asked him why he never gets his lunch from Whitecross St market, down the road from us. I knew there's no point arguing, the man is blinkered by his own conviction and that's that... but I know otherwise.

The prep
My greatest pleasure walking into work each day is passing through the still dormant market street. The stalls are only just being set up, some not even fully erected yet. The earlier birds already prepping their wares. And this is where the magic lies for me - mounds of fresh, crunchy vegetables being chopped, later to be made into curries, stir-fries, pies, nestled into sandwiches, wraps and salad boxes; falafel batter assembled, dotted with coriander and glistening like gritty wet mud; rice fluffing gently in pots, its musky aroma wafting enticingly;
Chicken and kimchee, a creative process at work, #Bibento
Pots of rice left to silently steam
Eerie calm before the storm
meat browned and braised, pit-roasted and grilled; a row of women stretching Turkish gözleme dough on large round metal plates, preparing to fill them with cheese, sausage, spinach; a long table groaning under the weight of an odd assembly of homemade cakes, imaginatively married with chocolate bars and cereals; coffee beans ground and a display of fresh pastries laid out. And men and women pushing heavy carts loaded with steel bars, canopies and wooden boards, warming trays and containers of water to boil for the heated display units. Everyone knows each other, talks to each other, collaborates, there's laughing, singing. Some days you'll see the chorizo sandwich woman working on the Bulgogi stall, others the Italian ciabatta guy is chopping veg with the vegan curry team, mixing and helping out. A true community.
What are our lunch alternatives? Mass produced Pret, Eat, Abokado (it's spelled avocado, fools) and their ilk, or worse - supermarket ready meals? Factory prepared and distributed from miles away? Low to mid-range chain restaurants such as Haz, Thai Square, Chilango et al? With their off-site precooked low-cost high-revenue menu items, lifeless and joyless?

Gaby's Ravello
THE spot for... well... ANY pasta you fancy!
Whitecross at full throttle

Ideally, of course, lunch is sensibly brought from home - economic, healthy and exactly to your taste. But what of those days where you weren't organised, got up late, simply empty-fridged before shopping day? You could enjoy some of the best and most varied cuisines in London, all in one place. And yes, street food markets are not exactly rare these days. But this market's edge is that it's very much on a residential street, small enough not to overwhelm, obscure enough not to be flooded with tourists, substantial enough not to be irritatingly hipsterish, old enough to still have something for everyone, even those who resent the prices - my grumpy colleague can't resist Holmesbake, the pie and mash stall once in a while... made from scratch daily, with heaps of fluffy potato mash, slathered with gravy from the generous portion of meaty pie, nestled within it. It's enough to make one seek an empty office for an afternoon nap!

What better than being familiar with the trial and tribulations of Bibento, the bulgogi stall, its many incarnations and its owner's Bogna's negotiation of its journey to its eventual direction. From Swedish soups, then Korean soups, to bibimbap, to tea, and finally here we are, a fusion Korean creation which has stuck and succeeded.

Veggie sushi wrap from #Bibento

Or salivating at Big John's cake stall, where his sweet creations can tempt anyone away from an aspirationally sugar-free existence. And where else would you find the kind of trader who is encouraging about your succeeding in staying away from his wares - 'good for you!', he would tell me, 'I wish I had the willpower!'. The man is purely in it for the love of baking.

These babies speak for themselves

Yes, this is a tray of cream egg brownies!
Or how about having a chat with Joe, the extremely successful owner of Chao, and him picking your brain for development ideas, to keep his thumb firmly on the pulse of public tastes! Joe reveals he arrived in the UK as an infant, as one of the "boat-people" at the end of the Vietnam war. We smile sadly at the thought of current affairs bringing a sombre reminder from the past... Joe had a restaurant on the Shoreditch Viet-strip, then decided to keep it simple - a no-frills, but always authentically soul-satisfying, takeaway. The main branch has all the basics - Phở , Huế, banh mi and bún thịt nướng (yeah alright I'm showing off a bit) are on the menu. His enterprise has now diversified to include another shop, and three stalls, selling tom yum soup, chicken satay, and addictively decadent crispy pork! 
Crispy nomnomness
That is one mo-pho

Or talk politics and psychology with Stéphan of Whitecross Coffee, (pka Pitch 42), over a freshly ground, fastidiously prepared cup of flat white and a croissant, me ensuring I allow the testy office bods, gasping in the early morning queue for their first hit, to be served as we chat. A warm spot in my heart remains for long-standing servers - Harriet, who is finally a full time partner in the venture, embarking on its artistic redesign and branding; and still pining for Doug to come back - oh Doug, your effervescent charm could pierce any cynicism, and no grump could remain so in your presence! This is how you want your coffee - strong, flavourful and warming. Doug took care of the warming, even on the coldest days.

The ceremonial apportioning - an 11 hour affair
Or one cannot fail to mention Sawadee, probably the best Thai in London and the most worth-the-wait, slowest queue since Soviet Russia. The couple running it disappear on holiday for a whole summer month, to the distress of the surrounding office workers, and on their return raise the cost by a teeny-tiny margin, still managing to remain the best value meal on the market. Ladled out with careful, loving deliberation, the curries on offer are never less than an aromatic journey for the palate, with a decent heat upgrade option for the chilli enthusiasts. The experienced, will slyly turn up at 12:00 on the dot, as the man pulls the blind up on the van front, revealing the trays of steaming coconuty sauces, in order to at least be in the running for a relatively short wait.

There are always new stalls popping up. Some make it, some don't. When one-item menu stall, The Shack Food Co, started out, I wouldn't have placed any bets on it lasting. Coming up the rear of hipsterish pulled pork revilval, Yan and his partner set up, with their facial hair and 80s semi-ironic retro tunes playing. They did fairly well - ethically sourced meat, freshly made sauces and salads, and just on the high end of Whitecross prices, but not overly so; they quickly sussed the foodie market had tired of the product, and managed to cunningly turn it around, with a fresh spin on Japanese chicken katsu curry with smacked cucumber, pickled chilli and rice. Beautiful, moreish, and they even do a double-meat portion for an additional £1.50. Dangerous.

It would be impossible mention all the traders here. They are all fantastic and popular. Hoxton Beach is truly the best falafel I've had in London. They appear in several other markets, including the atmospheric Maltby St on weekends. Say yes to the aubergine and the pickles. The queue at Luardo, the burrito stall is ALWAYS long, as is the queue at Maison Crepes, the gluten-free galette stall. The chicken tikka wraps and the salads and the game burgers, Spanish paella, Italian ciabattas, more Thai, Brazilian stews, German wurst...

Just beware of the belt and/or wallet unbuckling.

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