I was born in England and was immigrated to Greece when I was two months old.
The Greece I was raised in is very different to the Greece I visit once a year. It was vibrant. Wealth was visible in the way it was shared; through invitations to tavernas where spaghetti lobster, swordfish or freshly caught fish were ordered; beautiful houses we were invited to stay in clouded by buganvilia or surrounded by ancient olive trees some youth would comically fall out of trying to catch cicadas; with the occasional glimpse of yachts in the marina we swam in; and cheers of admiration when someone who had done well for themselves was seen.
The thread for me which tied it all together was food. There was always a roasting tray of stuffed tomatoes, freshly made biscuits or if you happened to stop by unannounced and something was still in the oven, a boiled egg would be thrust upon you, with a pinch of salt and you would have to refuse three times before being guilted into eating.
This gastronomic display of affection and generosity means I always overcook, save or recycle food in case someone stops by unannounced and miss, in London at least, that people rarely do. All these memories tie into to the local Laiki or rotating farmers’ market where certain streets would be shut down, people flock to and leave with a trolley overflowing with seasonal produce. Taxi drivers would know which areas to avoid on certain days and farmers would park their dumper trucks, shouting over each other to attract shoppers.
We wouldn’t buy one or two oranges or nectarines. We would buy 5 kilos. 3 kilos of tomatoes. 10 cucumbers. 6 kilos of onions. Then drag them home hoping the trolley would survive the journey over uneven pavements and up flights of stairs. Bags of lettuce, herbs and eggs would have to be tied to the trolley handle with excess bags carried in raw hands from where the bags would cut into the flesh of my palms.
I remember nagging my mother when cherries would be back in season, counting down the days, and the tiny bananas grown in Crete competing with Chiquita which were bigger but always under-ripe and we’d have to wait what felt like weeks to eat.
Everything tasted fresh. They didn’t always look pretty. Some cherries had other cherries growing out of them. Cucumbers came in all shapes and sizes. Tomatoes looked more like small pumpkins (the best ones). Lemons weren’t waxed. The farmers would expertly weigh the produce, place the bags in the right order so that soft fruit and vegetables weren’t squashed and ask what we were cooking or offer a recipe a previous customer had suggested, while serving the next customer and shouting abuse at a car trying to drive down the road having taken a wrong turn.
We would see our neighbours, local taverna owners and catch up. They would pinch my cheeks and invite us to their house or we invite them to ours. Often I would be given 100 drachma if I helped someone with their shopping, which would buy a whole ice-cream but be worth less than 5p.
On accepting an invitation we would make the detour to a friend’s house and park our trolley in the building block foyer. No one stole from them and if they did, it would be because they needed them more than we did. I remember peeling the bags off my throbbing hands. Ringing the doorbell and being greeted like I had been missing for years rather than having bumped into them 30 minutes earlier.
There would be a customary egg to contend with if it was early in the day but market days were always sociable and dictated the day ahead. They would lead to another invitation as more people popped in.
Just as exciting was unpacking the bags when we got home and, depending on the season, setting some aside to take to the beach the next day. As I grew older I’d go on my own with a list based on the dishes we would cook that week. I must have been 8 the first time I did so alone but everyone knew me and I was safe.
Mr Kaloudis, an orange grower, would occasionally ring our doorbell and have a whisky at the end of his shift before driving back to Corinth. Just the one. He would leave a crate of oranges and tin of olive oil that hadn’t been sold in the market. Have a rest. Discuss the various woes he had with his daughter living in Germany. Mum would listen and gasp at the right intervals and he’d let me climb into the truck and toot the horn. All in central Athens on our narrow street of our one and a half bedroom flat and much to the dismay of drivers desperate to park. I remember him insisting I take a cardboard box of oranges to England and give to my grandfather. They were predictably squashed and rolling all over the conveyor belt at Heathrow airport but Mr Kaloudis was happy and that’s all that mattered.
This probably explains why I lug crates of tomatoes home when Borough Market whole sellers have surplus, handing them out on the tube and spend the next week making soups, chutneys, sauces and bloody Mary’s. My husband no longer bats an eyelid at 200 oysters falling out of the fridge.
This self-indulgent trip down memory lane, is why I keep coming back to Borough Market, despite my attempts to open “real” shops in St Pancras and Liverpool Street. I feel at home and until recently, I felt safe whether it was 2pm or 2am.
Greece has changed. The laiki doesn’t take up as much space, produce is prettier, the national motorway is no longer gridlocked with trucks and people don’t have time to talk to each other the way they used to.
Like London, Greece doesn’t need markets for food distribution. We have vast supermarkets where oranges are squeezed and bottled so that we don’t have to carry kilos and kilos home. When the economy improves, I am sure delivery services will take over and add that extra layer between farmer and customer.
This is why I loved our unit on Stoney Street, despite how small it was. It is also why I still take the long route passed our old shop to say hello to my fellow traders on a Saturday, when it is overflowing with people. Ask how they are. Them ask me how I am. How the little ones are. I almost miss frantically running around for change when we ran out and the banks were shut. Bringing them change when we had enough. Having regulars share a new cheese they thought would go with a wine or showing me an onglet they just bought. Finding a pig’s head in a bag, a staff member forgot to take home to cook. Human interaction.
Market life in a stall was hard. It was cold in the winter. The hours were long and when it was quiet it was lonely. We would have made much better margins selling prosecco by the glass than English wine retail and if a team member was sick, I’d be on my own. After my son was born and when supermarkets started selling English wine, this model became unsustainable.
Then again, when it rained, new customers and regulars would huddle into the 4m by 4m unit, pitch in with washing up, suggest new wines they had tried at a vineyard and bring visiting fiends and family. They’d dance to a busker we’d coaxed to play closer to us, man the shop and watch with amusement as I’d chase after customer who had forgotten an umbrella or their change. Or after a shoplifter 81/2 months pregnant, demanding at the top of my voice to know what his mother would think.
Borough market isn’t the same as the market I grew up visiting. The food isn’t just produce and there are tempting delicacies from all around the world. It is however, where I feel most comfortable. Where I can get lost and still interact with people from all over the world. Be vulnerable, be successful, admit failure, bring my children, be supported and keep those memories alive.
Our new unit is much bigger and, with restrictions on signage, almost impossible to find in the market. However, we now include British Spirits, have a dishwasher, toilets and seating. Like many businesses, we needed to adapt rather than compete with the supermarkets and chose to focus on small scale wholesale, tastings and events, open to the public only on Friday evenings and Saturday day time
This trade-off means that even though we are no longer in the heart of the market, we bring parts of the market upstairs and host tastings showcasing other traders, have space to pair our wines with cheese and be the ones to welcome customers with open arms as they take a rest from their shopping,with a wine or gin tasting rather than a boiled egg.
Unit 7, first floor