Lemons over the Atlantic

With the Beast From The East arriving imminently, Nick probably didn’t pick the best night to go to New Covent Garden Market to see how top restaurants get their fresh veg every day.

“It’s called the ‘Flash’,” one of the market traders tells me, almost invisible under his layers and layers of warm clothing on this freezing night in Vauxhall.

He’s talking about the beautiful display of fresh veg outside his unit on Buyers’ Row at New Covent Garden Market. Boxes and boxes of vegetables and fruits, from the exotic to the everyday, all painstakingly assembled into an eye-catching tribute to the freshest produce money can buy.

‘Most of the orders from restaurants and chefs for the morning are already in, they’re made over the phone and the web,’ he explains as we stamp our feet, ‘they know we have great stuff and they order with confidence, but the ‘Flash’ is traditional, a way of showing your competitors, and those buyers who do come in, the quality of your produce. And of course, it’s a bit of pride in the job.’

It’s past midnight at the market. The Flash was built early evening and now outside in the massive yard, articulated lorries are constantly arriving from all over the UK, the airports and the seaports with the night’s main produce. Many are up from Dover, they have snow on their roofs having already passed through the winter storm that’s on its way north to us.

Come whatever weather, the market marches on. A small army of people who work through the night and sleep in the day. It’s a market for professional food retailers; food resellers, restaurants and hotels. Every one of London’s top twenty restaurants buys from the market through their suppliers.

Toward the early hours of the morning though, independent grocers and retailers will come in, using their own small vans as transport, to negotiate for the produce that’s left and hopefully nab a bargain. The really prime stuff will already be in kitchens across London ready to be served up at lunchtime alchemised by top chefs into amazing meals.

Buyers Row is where it all happens, a central aisle with units on each side. Out front the traders answer phones and deal with direct customers. Behind them is their storage area and beyond that their loading bay for goods in and out.

Deals are done by the tray, box or sack. Prices are negotiable, by quantity and demand, nothing is marked up with price signs, you just have to ask and negotiate.

There are things I recognise and things I don’t, I have to look at the box sides to identify some of them. A few vegetables and fruits I have simply never heard of.

Tonight, for some supply-led reason, there’s a big range of chillies on many of the Flashs, wondrous chillies of all kinds of shapes and sizes.

They’d have not been many chilies, if indeed any, at the old Covent Garden Market which closed in 1974 having started in 1670.

The market traders, many of them well-established family businesses who transferred to Vauxhall, say they have seen demand change over the years with new restaurants and many new cuisines coming in.

They don’t mind of course, it’s all good business to them, even if their London accents sometimes torment the exotic vegetables’ names into unfamiliar shapes.

Puntarelle and Cimi di Rapa are two often hard to find Italian vegetables that I spot, along with purple artichokes in wooden crates, some still dramatically attached to their massive stems.

‘There’s no need for it,’ I’m told, ’the stem gets thrown away, but the Italian growers are really proud of what they produce and it looks good on our Flash.’

It isn’t just fruit and veg either, The Mushroom Man sells a massive range of wild and cultivated mushrooms from all over the world – Europe, China, Poland, Portugal, Korea and Japan, all in pristine condition. The colours of some are remarkable.

“We do mostly wild mushrooms – we keep our ear to the ground and so we get the best, first.” says Michael, staying warm in his small cabin. “The cultivated ones are good though and they make mushrooms affordable for the less-expensive restaurants. What’s really changed is the size; chefs now specify the size they want. They want particular sizes and all the same size. Portion control I suppose, but also so their plates all look good and all look the same.”

All the deliveries to kitchens aim to go out by 3.a.m before the traffic builds up, although there may be a second run after the rush hour is over.

“Chefs change their minds,” I’m told, “or they run out or want something suddenly. One of the great advantages of having the market where it is that we can deliver across London quickly.”

One unexpected side of the market, to me at least, is the trade in pre-prepped food. Any notion of apprentice chefs peeling mountains of potatoes out in the restaurant’s back yard is, it seems, well out of date.

At Premier Fruits people are peeling, chopping, chipping, chunking, dicing and slicing amid clouds of steam. Enormous tubs are already filled with peeled white, red and yellow onions. They will be cut whichever way the chef has decided only when the orders come in, then they’ll be packed ready to go out.

They show me packs of pre-cut potatoes for chips – thin fries, chunky chips, standard size –  all made from whatever potato the chef specified. “Restaurants don’t have much space for prep or for the waste peels and trimmings. We do it for them”.

Of course, they pay more than for unprepped, but we’re right next to the suppliers for freshness and it works out better for them, thanks to the added efficiency and consistency.

”Each restaurant’s order is collated onto a pallet ready to be forklifted out to the delivery van. All kinds of veg, all cut just the way chef wants, carrots round sliced, baton, grated. But what on earth are all these little plastic tubs of lemon slices for?

“Ah,” says my guide smiling. “They’re for the airlines. They’re sent out to the airport freshly sliced each day all set to be loaded onto the planes ready for the on-board drinks service.” So, my drink at 40,000 feet over the Atlantic will probably have a lemon slice delivered from New Covent Garden Market that day? “Oh yes, almost for sure!”

I head to the cafe where the bacon rolls and cups of tea are flowing, bringing life back to frozen hands and weary heads. Outside the promised snow is finally beginning to fall in serious amounts and as it’s now 3 a.m., I’m ready to go home.

The great people at New Covent Garden Market do this every day, come rain, shine or snow, so that we can have the best seasonal produce on our tables whatever the weather.

I’d applaud them but by now I can’t feel my fingers any more.


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