The transformative power of good food markets to touch lives – offering food producers a livelihood, connecting shoppers to great ingredients, creating a space in which food shopping involves social interaction and human contact, – is something which often strikes me. There is a wonderful buzz about a good market, filled with food one wants to buy, bustling with people, alive with conversation, chat and banter.
I first met Toby Allen in 2012 at Brockley Market, the food market he had recently set up himself while researching my book Food Lovers’ London. Toby’s motivation for setting up Brockley Market in 2011 was out of “frustration” at not being able to source good ingredients near where he lived. Having spotted an empty car park at Lewisham Collage (now re-named LeSoCo), Toby, a photographer by profession, and a keen food shopper approached the authorities to see if he could set up a local food market. From the start, Toby’s genuine interest in food, and his nose for good food, was apparent in the mix of traders at Brockley Market. His enthusiasm and excitement about the food traders at Brockley is genuine and infectious and the quality the food on offer is impressive. Meat is sold by Jacob’s Ladder and The Butchery, fish comes from “amazing fisherman Veasey and Sons– they have their own fishing boat” and chickens from Fosse Meadow Farms. London-based food producers are a feature, such as Brockley-based Blackwoods Cheese and Greenwich Salmon. Those wanting food to eat as well as to cook are well catered for, with stalls such as Hix’s Fish Dogs, Mike + Ollie, The Cheeky Italian, Tongue ‘n’ Cheek. Impressively for this young market, Brockley Market was shortlisted as one of the three Best Food Markets in the prestigious BBC Food and Farming Awards, “the only market in England to be shortlisted,” Toby points out with justifiable pride.
From the start, the market has attracted support from the community, with local residents coming even on dull, rainy Saturdays (as I can testify) to shop each week. The market is filled with a pleasant buzz of conversation and laughter, as customers, often trailing small children and dogs, make their way from stall to stall. “People are interested in produce now; they like to cook more and care where it comes from. People do like to engage with the producer, someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.” One of the satisfactions for Toby in setting up and running his own food market is the way in which he gets to work with and know food producers. “They’re a great crowd,” he says affectionately, “There’s a good atmosphere. Over the last two and half years, we’ve all become friends. I like people who are interesting and doing good stuff. We’re letting a young chef launch with a food business called The Roadery – he’s got a nose to tail ethos – very passionate about what he does. I think if people have got the right ethos then I should help them.”
Excitingly, tomorrow sees Toby opening his second food market in London, a Sunday market in Wapping. “The traders asked me to have a second market!” he laughs. Finding a suitable space wasn’t simple though, it turns out. “I approached a few councils with a presentation – Hackney, Southwark and Tower Hamlets – and they were all very keen to have markets within their boroughs similar to Brockley but it was a question of finding a suitable space. I stumbled across Brussels Wharf by mistake while looking for another site and it just looked like a French market – it’s cobbled, it’s tree-lined, really beautiful, so I contacted the council. It was the parks team who own it, so that’s who I’ve been working with.”
When I talk to Toby, he’s at once excited and nervous about his second market venture. “It’s a cool location, we’re surrounded by water. We’re on the Thames Path, so we will have tourists wandering past. Right next to the Sailing Club – I’ve spoken to them and people could go and have a row or a sail – we’ve got to try and make it a destination, somehow. I thought of having a Thai Floating Market! We can do that at a later date.” Many of the stalls at Wapping will be the same as those at Brockley Market – “We’re Brockley on tour, I guess.” Among the treats Toby is lining up at the Wapping Market are gourmet doughnuts from Crosstown Doughnuts and London’s first raw milk seller, from a young girl who’s setting up her own goat dairy. These are creative times on the food scene and Toby is relishing being able to showcase interesting new producers, but, of course, markets need customers in order to survive and thrive. “Fingers crossed. We need the public to come and support it. You don’t know whether they will or not until you open.” Food lovers in Wapping are in for a treat.