Thursday, 5 February 2015

Underneath the arches

Foodie hide and seek: Bermondsey's spa terminus is a collection of food wholesalers who open to the public on Saturdays

Last Saturday (Feb 1st) we went to visit Spa Terminus, the collection of food wholesale businesses that operate under the arches around the remoter enclaves of residential Bermondsey. This is a weird combination of private space and public space – Network Rail owns these arches. But Network Rail is a publicly owned company, so in a way this space belongs to us. Anyway, thanks to an enlightened agreement negotiated collectively by these foodie business owners, they have long term, affordable tenure and are able to run their high quality food wholesaling businesses from cool and spacious premises during the week, opening up their doors to the public on Saturday mornings so that everyone can share in their bounty. It's highly priced bounty. But it’s worth it. 

Browsing for food in this manner – searching along the bleak back streets, with little street life to speak of between blocks of dog-eared social housing and handsome private flats - there’s an appealing ‘hide and seek’ quality to the experience; not knowing what you’ll find from one set of arches to the next. And it was always worth taking a look.

There’s something about the vendors’ isolated units that highlights the extraordinary colours of the produce when you come across it stacked high and casually in boxes; something about the un-manicured setting, the rough brick and concrete structures, that really sets off the rich purple of Italian aubergines, the flamboyant frills of purple frisee lettuce, the delicately coloured garlic bulbs, or the voluptuous contours of exotic tomatoes. In this antithesis to the supermarket setting – away from the entrances reeking with the artificial odour of freshly baked bread, or the scent of cappuccinos trailing from the nearby Starbucks – the nostrils seek out and savour the subtle delights of bunches of fresh basil; the citrus scent of ruby oranges sliced in half; the eyes feast on the vivid raspberry red colour of Yorkshire rhubarb. It cost a fortune (£10 for a generous stack of rhubarb!!) but for the sheer sensory enjoyment and the taste of the produce, you can’t resent it. Well, not as a once in a blue moon experience.

The colours of purple and white frisee lettuce pop out against the brick and concrete industrial setting

England Preserves tasting bar shows what a lot of skill, time and top quality produce can yield to the conserve-ator
There’s such pleasure to be had in the artisan offer and presentation. We fell heavily for the Gooseberry and Elderflower jam we experienced at the tasting bar for England Preserves, not to mention the most divine biscuits I’ve ever eaten (possibly). Made with the left over egg whites from egg yolks needed for their lemon curd, we sampled unbelievably delicious macaroons made just with oranges, almonds, egg white and sugar (fat and flour free), as well as some pistachio biscotti. They were the perfect complement to a latte from Monmouth Coffee next door.

Possibly the best macaroons ever
And as you look, you dream, you savour and you plan. It’s like food foreplay. After a spot of gentle browsing, I already had some lovely meals in my head (and my rucksack) for the week coming up. This felt like an incredibly civilized alternative to the weekly supermarket shop.  Why would you want shop any other way? Because it took a whole morning, and I spent over £60….and only had enough food for four meals. And one hell of a rhubarb crumble.

But I came home and arranged the groceries along the kitchen counter, like one gorgeous still life, so our eyes could feast on it for the whole weekend. So if you add in the amount of pleasure to be had from the experience along with the food - and the fact that my 12-year-old daughter, who has never fancied mushrooms, has now fallen in love with them after seeing such an interesting array laid out in the stalls (and then tried them fried, with butter and garlic) and you might recalculate it as time and money well spent.