What to buy at your local farmers market now
Each season at Borough Market makes itself felt in different ways: in winter there’s the cold that puts a briskness into every shopper’s step; spring heralds the joy – and relief – of extending daylight; summer’s heat fills the market stalls with the smells of ripe fruits; and in the autumn what you notice are the colours. The lush purples, oranges, greens and reds of the fruits and vegetables that echo the season’s leaves on the ground and tell us we’re entering the time for warming, comforting and completely delicious cooking.
It’s the pumpkins I notice first. You can’t help it. The veg stalls pile them up high, and not just the big orange ones for carving with. There are pumpkins and other squashes of so many varieties, colours, sizes – and uses. Most striking of all is the impressively large Crown Prince, which surprises with is pale blue-green skin, but when cut open reveals the deepest orange flesh. Slice it up and roast skin-on with perhaps a gentle pouring of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a dusting of ground cinnamon.
At the other end of the size scale comes the onion squash. It’s the small one shaped a bit like a teardrop and as bright orange inside as out. The size makes it perfect to stuff and serve one per person. Just cut off the top as a lid, scoop out the seeds and fibers (remembering the seeds are absolutely delicious if cleaned off and roasted); rub the squash inside and out with oil and bake at about 190C for 20 minutes. Use that time to make your stuffing: I like to go for some of the season’s mushrooms cooked off with plenty of garlic and chopped greens, plus feta, pancetta or chickpeas depending on my mood, and perhaps cooked rice or lentils for a bit of double -carbing. Mix in some warming spices, fill the center of the squash, put its lid back on, pour a little oil over the top and bake for 15 minutes more. All you’ll need on the side is a lightly dressed salad.
Pumpkin mash that’s made rich with plenty of butter or olive oil and a kick of grated nutmeg is the perfect accompaniment for autumn’s game birds. Across the stalls you might see red grouse, wood pigeon or duck. Look out for partridges with their mild and tender meat that makes it especially good as entry-level game. One per person will do. Brown them all over in hot oil in a frying pan, then pour over a little wine or cider, cover, and let them finish off cooking for 20-25 minutes.
The pheasant season begins on 1 October and when it does the younger birds are succulent enough to just simply roast. As the season extends through the autumn and winter you might find slightly tougher older birds are best for braises and pot-roasts where they can be given a little of their juiciness back.
Autumn was traditionally the season for butchering pigs that had fattened up with flavor on the early-season windfall nuts and orchard fruits. Every bit of the animal would be made the most of to see families through a long, cold winter – as joints, cured into bacon, for sausages and black pudding and more. We’re all so used to pork being available all year round now, but it still seems especially suited to autumn days and evenings, as the chill comes in. With those heritage flavor partners of walnuts, chestnuts, apples, figs and quince turned into stuffings for rolled joints.
I don’t think I have ever made it home from the market in autumn without an abundance of apples, pears and figs in my bags. It’s often a borderline call on have I got too many to carry and/or use. The first problem is always worth the slight struggle home on the tube. The second means afternoon snacks for the season are sorted; rarely a week goes by without some kind of autumnal fruit cake, tart or crumble; and they’ll also get pan-fried in the cooking juices of game or pork as a fabulous side. And if it really seems like they might not get otherwise used they’ll be turned into fruit preserve “cheeses”.
You’ll find seasonality not just at the fruit, green grocer and butchers’ stalls. Head to the fishmongers to discover what autumn means for seasonal fish and seafood. That could be mackerel, plaice, scallops, mussels or the native oysters you’ll only find across the autumn in the UK. Learn from the shucking masters on the stalls and then get set to do your own at home. As delicious as they are raw, try grilling or deep-frying them too. There’s an especially tasty (if I say so myself…) recipe for deep-fried oysters in a light tempura batter with horseradish sauce and quick-pickled ginger in the forthcoming Borough Market: The Knowledge cookbook, out 27 October.
The book is packed not just with my recipes but with skills guides, tips and produce insights from traders right across the market. So much of what they know is distilled into its pages and a recurring theme from the traders is the importance, value and simple good sense of shopping and cooking seasonally. As I write this I can’t shake the feeling that autumn is perhaps my favorite of all the seasons to shop at Borough Market and cook from its produce. Yet in honesty I know I am as likely to say that about each of the other seasons, too, when they wheel round and I get excited all over again by the produce and possibilities.
And as for autumn, as Keat’s “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”? Well, if you get down to Borough Market early enough in the morning as the traders are still setting up, the top of the nearby Shard might indeed be hidden by the mist rising over London Bridge and the market’s rooftops. With mellow fruitfulness – and gourds, and fungi, and spectacular meats and fish – guaranteed.
Visit Borough Market at 8 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1TL, or find more inspiration and recipes online at the website, boroughmarket.org.uk.