Olympics 2012: Best Markets And Shops For Food Lovers

public marketsJust because you’re in London for the Olympics and watching world-class athletes torch calories, doesn’t mean you should be deprived of saturated fats and carbs. Despite its former reputation as a culinary wasteland, 21st century London has become one of the world’s great food cities, renowned for its fine dining and ethnic eateries, markets, specialty shops, and food artisans.

Take one for the team and pay a visit to the following for a taste of today’s London.

The city has its share of farmers and public markets, but if your time is short, the Borough Market is, in my opinion, one of the world’s great food markets. I discovered it on my day off from working at a restaurant in Marylebone in 2001, and I’ve found few other markets that offer comparable delights with regard to quality and diversity.

Located in Southwark along the Thames, Borough Market was established in 1755 and is London’s oldest produce market. Today, you’ll also find baked goods, meat and poultry, seafood, charcuterie, cheese and other English artisan foods, as well as international specialty products: argan oil from Morocco; spices, pickles, fruit pastes and preserves from the Eastern Mediterranean, India and Grenada; Croatian patés, French goose fat and fresh Perigord truffles; and Calabrian licorice root.

The Borough Market is open Thursday through Saturday; click here for times and bus and Underground directions.

Maltby Street is a selection of “breakaway vendors” from Borough Market, including Neal’s Yard Dairy, Monmouth Coffee and St. JOHN Bakery (owned by chef Fergus Henderson he of the much-loved St. JOHN Restaurant, a champion of offal and author of “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating”). Unlike the market vendors, these are permanent shops that primarily wholesale during the week, and open to the public on Saturday mornings. Psst: Go early to get the custard or jam doughnuts at St. JOHN.cheeseWorld-famous Neal’s Yard Dairy has two shops (the other is in Covent Garden). If you love – or would like to learn about – handcrafted cheeses from the UK, be sure to stop by for a taste.

London’s other great cheese shop is La Fromagerie, with locations in Marlyebone and Highbury. Next door is The Ginger Pig, “butchers and farmers of rare breeds raised on the North York Moors.” Opt for a butchery class, farm tour, or some meat pies in lieu of purchasing fresh product. There’s also a location at the Borough Market.

Marylebone has a lively farmers market, held every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Spitalfields, in the East End, started out as a traders’ market in 1666, and today is a fashionable complex with food, fine dining, boutiques, community events and public art. For non-edible souvenirs, check out Divermenti, a kitchenware store and cooking school in Marlyebone.

[Photo credits: vendor, Flickr user nakedsky; cheese, Flickr user Stepheye]

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Is the British pub an endangered species?

British pubThe figures are in for 2011 and it’s more bad news for the British pub. An average of 14 a week shut down, and Oxfordshire alone lost 35 this past year.

The pub is an institution. More than just a place to drink real ale, it’s a place to see friends, get out of the house, do the pub quiz, and watch football.

My family and I spend every Easter and summer in Oxford, and while we aren’t big drinkers, the pub is one of our regular destinations. Our local is The Fir Tree, which has a great Sunday roast and friendly atmosphere. They even allow well-behaved children like my son.

When I’m in Oxford I’m usually researching in the Bodleian Library. After a few hours of poring over old manuscripts I need a break, so I head across the street to The White Horse, familiar to Inspector Morse fans as Morse’s favorite watering hole. Usually I bump into several other researchers there and The White Horse has been unofficially designated the Bodleian Library slack-off pub!

British pubs are an institution, now under threat from a number of factors. High beer taxes make a night out expensive, and cut-rate supermarket booze is drawing many drinkers away. Also, the demographic of many neighborhoods is changing, with some areas filling up with immigrants who don’t drink, or who at least don’t drink in public.

It’s a shame so many pubs are disappearing but I don’t really see how that trend is going to be reversed. The government isn’t about the lower taxes, and the economic crisis is making more people stay home. If you’re coming to this part of the world, however, make sure to visit some pubs. You’ll find a genial atmosphere, good drinks, historic buildings, and interesting local tales. The White Horse is more than 300 years old and during renovations a “witch’s broom” was found in the rafters. Nobody would touch it so it was boarded up and is still there. Other pubs have stories too, including ghosts, visits by royalty, and of course acting as backdrops to movies and TV.

So go drink at a pub. Saving a cultural icon has never been so much fun.

Photo courtesy flickr user calflier001.