Shopping at London’s Wholesale Food Markets
Wandering round food markets and lavish grocery stores is a well-trodden weekend pastime for London’s residents and visitors. There are farmers markets all over the city now, and places like Borough Market and Maltby Street are booming. Of course you’ll see mountains of fresh vegetables and fruits, and bounteous displays of meat and fish at all of these places. Yet the majority of people wondering round are more likely to buy hot snacks and drinks, than a side of salmon and a box of plums.
This is fine. It’s what the people want and the markets react to that. They’re very definitely still a good resource for fresh fruit and vegetables, though, and I advocate buying those things from them.
BUT, if you fancy being exposed to old school trading frenzy, the freshest of fresh produce, and bargainous prices, then you need to get up very early, and head down to a wholesale market.
Here are three historic wholesale markets that are relatively central. All are accessible by public transport, though you’ll get more from Billingsgate and New Covent Garden market if you’ve access to a car or use a cab to get home.
Please be aware that the butchers, fishmongers, grocers and buyers are working whilst you wander and wonder. But also be aware that most vendors are happy to take your cash, too. So be bold, ask away, choose and buy some amazing produce. Take cash.
Billingsgate Fish Market
This is probably my favourite of the three. The range, freshness and quantity of fish is spectacular. It’s also very easy to grab a bargain. My suggestion is you aim for about 05:30/06:00, do a quick loop of the market, looking out for fish that take your fancy, and clocking how busy the mongers are, how fresh the fish looks. Then get stuck in.
Address: Billingsgate Market, Trafalgar Way, Poplar, E14 5S
Opening hours: Tues-Sat 04:30-09:30
Get there before: 07:00 – as it starts to wind down from then.
Key tips: take £1 coins for the car park and large cool bags for your purchases.
Guided tours? Yes. Contact Billingsgate Seafood School.
Smithfield Meat Market
Smithfield is very much a working market – and mighty busy – but it’s probably operating on a lower level than in the glory days on account of it being so central (and therefore difficult for delivery lorries). There are about 40 units under the old canopies, though, and we, the public, can walk through, peer and purchase. Shop around for the best price. The butchers on the edge of the market are good for later risers.
Address: East Market Building, EC1A 9PQ
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 03:00-08:00
Get there before: 06:30 for the full range of stalls
Key tips: there’s an underground car park beneath the market. Costs just £1.50. But Farringdon tube is 1 minutes walk away too.
Guided tours? Yes. They run monthly walking tours starting 07:00. Email the market for details.
New Covent Garden Vegetable Market
This place is great. There’s so much beautiful produce and you can get cracking prices – though you need to buy in relative bulk. It’s a surprisingly quiet experience. To shop, look for the salesmen and women standing at the front of each stall. Ask them about the produce and prices. They might not have much time if there a bigger orders coming in, but they’re happy to sell to you – by the box.
It’s a large site. Once you’re in, head for ‘Buyer’s Walk’, which is in the eastern part of the site. This is a useful guide and includes a map.
Address: New Covent Garden Market, SW8 5BH
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 00:00-06:00
Get there before: 04:30
Key tips: Lots of forklifts around, some of which are electric. Watch your back and try not to hold up the porters. Parking is £5. Might be easier to stay awake late and head over at midnight, rather than get up early?!
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Click here to see more articles by Ed...Ed Smith used to be a lawyer but retrained as a chef and now cooks and writes for a living. Based in London, Ed writes for various publications, including his blog, Rocket and Squash, and was shortlisted in the 'Best Online Food Writer' category of the 2013 Fortnum and Mason food awards. Ed eats too much. Click here to see more articles by Ed...