Setting off into London at 1am isn't something I ordinarily do, but then again this was no ordinary adventure. I was off to New Covent Garden Market to explore their fascinating world of where our food actually comes from.
The market is massive; supplying 40% of all fruit and veg eaten outside the home in London. Getting the required fresh ingredients to all the these restaurants, hotels, cafes and shops is a mammoth task, and with over 200 businesses and 2500 people making it happen it's a logistical masterpiece of supply chain planning.
Eager to understand more about #farm2fork respect, I wanted to explore how this busy market works through the night to link up these passionate growers with their customers.
New Covent Garden Market nestles just south of the Thames overlooked by the mighty Battersea power station in Vauxhall. With roots back to 1670 the emergence of steamer ships and railways for transporting food from great distances gave rise to sizeable growth for the market, and it finally outgrew its 30 acre plot still standing as Covent Garden. 1974 saw the market move to its new more expansive location and the Covent Garden area adopted a more touristic role in the bustling heart of the capital.
Even in June, 2am means warm coats and high-vis jackets are a must as this is no tourist destination; it's a busy place of work with speedy forklifts buzzing around with frenetic urgency and vast delicately piloted lorries line up in ordered rows bringing in produce from the four corners of the globe. And whilst the bananas and mangoes with their tropical boxes may reminisce of sunnier climbs, there a palatable sense of grit with which these cheery faced fellows go about their work. Hard, relentless work for sure and the hours are about as antisocial as you'll get anywhere, but everyone I met greeted me with a positive "Mornin'" and a sense of camaraderie born of spending years in this teamwork driven trade.
Row upon row of succulent polished and ripe fruit and veg are displayed for perusal along what's known as 'Buyers Walk', where sellers show off their prized produce for customers wheeling thin trolleys designed perfectly for this busy aisle. Don't be fooled though, these are not the silver pound in a chain trolleys of your local supermarket, these are workhorses for the restaurant buyers picking up 3 trays of tomatoes, same again for lettuces and more of each than my brain could calculate.
People buy in bulk here, there's no buying one cauliflower, you get 8. Suddenly I start to ponder a scenario I could arrive home with 12 bunches of asparagus and actually end up using them all before they went bad. The garlic here at a stal selling predominently french produce looks stunning, next time I need 26 heads of garlic I'll know where to go!
Still, there are items here worthy of smaller boxes, and my two chosen stalls for my morning adventure led me to 'The Mushroom Man' and Neil Brown and his fabulous salad leaves. The Mushroom Man has supply worthy of kings and I'm not surprised he's the go-to guy for these fascinating fungi; the selection and quality was glorious. Neil Brown seems the master of all the herbs, leaves and edible flowers here - I picked up a few punnets beside the big boys stacking carts full of produce - seriously the effort that goes into this night market, and the early morning prep for restaurants certainly makes me appreciate how much effort goes into running the food business. Mushrooms for breakfast? - Sure let me go get those at 3am for you. It seems restaurants really do work hard for those well deserved prices and tips!
It's not just the abundance of fabulous fruit and veg that impresses as I walk along the bustling corridor, it's the care with which these guys take to display their produce - I've not seen a more beautifully presented bunch of potatoes in, well - forever!
Some items are just super hard to find in normal shops, and these purple broccoli are just the proof, they've not been piled into a squashed box in a supermarket chiller, they are here in their splendour and destined for a fine table somewhere I'm sure.
Looking at this selection of lemons it almost made me pack in the day job and go selling lemons in a market somewhere. Don't tell me these don't look fab, with some G&T too perhaps?
By the time we painfully wake each morning aching for coffee and an easy day, these men and women of the market are winding down, usually taking in breakfast at the greasy spoon caf, within which seemed a surprising lack of vegetables; I guess bacon is universal whether it's for dinner or for breakfast, and it smelled bloody great.
Also on-site is an enormous flower market, again selling in bulk but working equally hard in the flower industry - I will leave that however for another day, it's 3am and I'm exhausted, very ready for my bed.
So next time you sit in a restaurant being served choice ingredients with your busy day-time lives, spare a thought for those who day-in day-out work through the wee small hours to provide all the fruit and veg you could imagine. And now you know!
For more information on the market, and important details should you wish to visit click here
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