Bundled against London’s late December chill, the woman staffing Kappacasein’s cheese stall at the Stoney Street entrance to Borough Market, London’s oldest food market, assembles our order of two toasted cheese sandwiches.
For each, she begins with two thin, rectangular-shaped slices of rustic Parisian sourdough bread from Poilâne bakery. With imperfect aim, she deposits two generous fistfuls of shredded cheese – a mixture of Montgomery’s cheddar, Ogleshield, comté, and raclette – onto the slices, unconcerned about the scattering wayward bits.
She tops them off with the remaining bread, placing the creations in a hot panini press. Lifting the lid and the top layer of bread, she checks the state of the softening cheese, spoons on a mixture of chopped leeks, onions, and garlic, replaces the tops, and moves all to an adjacent press for a final sear. She wraps the sandwiches in rough brown paper, and hands them over.
This aromatic combination of rich, savory filling enveloped within a lightly crunchy, crusty exterior is sublime – the best grilled cheese I’ve ever eaten and probably ever will eat.
It’s Christmas time in London, and Bill and I are celebrating abroad for the first time.
Borough Market, a rush of sights, smells, and activity, has existed in some form or another near London Bridge in the Southwark borough for more than 1,000 years. Shopping at the richly historic Borough Market on any day certainly must be special. Joining the merry throng purchasing all manner of foodstuffs and beverages to prepare their holiday feasts is particularly exhilarating. In keeping with the spirit of the season, I regard my melty, cheesy perfection from Kappacasein with the same heightened anticipation, joy, and appreciation I experience when opening presents under the tree on Christmas morning.
The market’s setting on one side of the bridge spanning the Thames River was and remains pivotal. For centuries, London Bridge was the only route across the river into the capital. Traders wishing to sell their goods to travelers recognized and capitalized on the bridge’s commercial potential.
While no record of an official start date exists, the market observes 1014 as its origin, and recently commemorated its millennium. The institution honors that year based on a passage in a medieval Scandinavian writer’s epic account of Anglo-Saxon king Ethelred the Unready’s recapture of London from Vikings in 1014:
“First they made their way to London, and so up into the Thames, but the Danes held the city. On the other side of the river is a great market town called Southwark…”
Strolling through Borough Market
Venturing further inside, we pass stalls and shops where traders and artisan producers display a colorful, eclectic, and enticing assortment of fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, cheese, eggs, prepared foods, and specialty items. Their goods, so enticingly displayed, come from England and around the world, a testament to London’s prominence as a global city.
The market’s layout is a warren of winding passageways spilling into open spaces that invites exploration. At each bend and turn I thrill at new surprises and discoveries, the emotional equivalent of tearing into more brightly wrapped and beribboned Christmas gifts strewn before me.
We could stop for a seated lunch at one of the cafés or restaurants, but the lingering appeal of our walkaway toasted cheese sandwiches convinces us to continue grazing.
Many of Borough Market’s stallholders are themselves food producers. One such trader is Northfield Farm, whose slogan reads, “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.”
The primal aroma of sizzling, fat-spattering beef emanating from their grill where they serve “slowly grown fast food” stops us in our tracks. A sign on their counter politely acknowledges the visual appeal of neighboring produce stalls while hyping the alchemy created when red meat meets heat – “If only vegies smelt as good as bacon.” Bill stands in line to order their award-winning Original Borough Market burger for sharing, a beef patty with green salad and fried onions on a handmade roll.
Meanwhile, I peruse their adjacent butchery and meat counter, brimming with a variety of fresh cuts of beef, mutton, lamb, hogget, pork, free-range chicken, sausages, burgers, and, of course, bacon.
We wash down our burger with hot mulled wine ladled into a paper cup from a cauldron at the Cartwright Brothers stall. The pourer, understandingly unwilling to divulge the specifics of his secret recipe when I inquire about the ingredients, does allow the steaming ruby liquid is a mix of red wine, juices, cinnamon, and other spices.
Over a cup of creamy salted caramel ice cream from The Bath Soft Cheese Company, the proprietor convinces me that scamorza, an Italian cow’s milk cheese, is heads above its counterpart mozzarella for pizza.
Despite being serenaded by an acapella quartet warbling the Beatles’ “All My Loving” at the McLaren’s classic English Christmas pudding stall, I debate whether to pick up one of their plated samples of the dark brown dessert. I know Christmas pudding batter traditionally includes suet, which is raw hard beef fat, and I find that unappetizing. My resistance mirrors my distaste of Christmas fruitcake with its dense mix of chopped candied fruit, nuts, and spices macerated in rum. Bill’s protest toward Christmas pudding is in full, yet silent, swing, for he’s nowhere to be seen.
Given the table top sign with its tongue-in-cheek exclamation, “God, I hate Xmas pud!”, the server bows to the tough sell on his hands. Facing the task with humor is the surest strategy for success. He cajoles me forward, trying to tempt me with the fact that his version is soaked in brandy and Guinness, aged for six months, and, most importantly, made with butter instead of suet for a creamier, lighter texture.
Resolve withering, I try a forkful and am surprised at its spongy consistency and depth of flavor. Color me amazed. I’m now a Christmas pudding convert.
Night is approaching, so we depart Borough Market. We board the tube (aka Underground) to begin our return home to the one-bedroom flat we’ve rented in Chelsea, unaware of the spectacle about to unfold when we exit the station at street level.
During the Christmas season, London pulls out all the decorating stops, festooning roadways, parks, light poles, and buildings with a splendorous display of celestial-bright lights, ornamented trees, and shiny garlands. The effect is magical.
Another unexpected holiday gift.