Word of mouth: Rocket man

Need exotic fruit and veg? Fred Foster knows his onions

Fred Foster is one of London's best fruit and vegetable detectives. He will trudge through Soho to discover who supplies the freshest Japanese shiso leaves or chat to the exotic fruit and vegetable importers at the Great Western Market, near Heathrow, to find the best green paw paws, just landed from India. His passion for quality has made Turnips one of the leading small suppliers of fruit and veg to the restaurant trade. Now, once a month, the rest of us can turn up at Turnips and find out what makes top chefs devoted fans of Fred's.

You can't miss Turnips' large sign, arching over its large-gated courtyard in the heart of Borough Market, which dates back to Victorian times. Inside, behind the boxes of organic lemons and sacks of banana shallots, squashed between the order sheets, old herb boxes, account files, a kettle and blow-heater, Fred Foster runs the business with his wife, Caroline. She still finds it hard to keep a straight face when people call her Mrs Turnip.

Both of them have fruit and veg in their blood. The couple met in Tachbrook Street Market in Pimlico when they worked on their family stalls. "My father specialised in salads," says Fred, "Webb's Wonder, Cos lettuces, radishes and spring onions, but you soon develop your own style." Fred, who took over Fosters of Pimlico 12 years ago, became known for his unusual vegetables: rocket, tiny spinach leaves, smoked garlic, wild mushrooms, even truffles graced his stall in the late Eighties. Soon chefs were beating a path to Pimlico, and as supermarkets tempted shoppers away from the street market, the Fosters decided that it was time to concentrate on the restaurant business. Turnips was born.

As all Fred's chefs know, he's a football fanatic, which helps explain the name he chose. At the time, the England manager Graham Turner had been dubbed "Turnip Head" by The Sun. "I wanted something that people would remember," Chelsea supporter Fred chuckles.

As Turnips took off as a wholesale business about five years ago, the Fosters decided to end 130 years of trading in Tachbrook Street Market. The Fosters change of location has now brought them back in contact with the public. With regular open days turning Borough Market into a Mecca for food lovers, anyone can visit Fred for the pick of the crop which he searches out from smaller growers, insisting that everything tastes as good as it looks.

"In my eyes a knobbly carrot is just as beautiful as a uniform one," he argues, before arranging his produce to look as attractive as the tasteless but perfectly formed veg we're used to. "Why do people who sell organic food make it look so awful?" he wonders. His displays are proving so popular that he's thinking of opening an organic greengrocers under one of Borough's railway arches.

Meanwhile who can resist Fred Foster's wholesale prices? Organic oranges from Sicily at 35p a pound; and exquisite heads of trevisse and chicoria at pounds 1.80 each. Borough Market, Stoney Street, London SE1 is open on the third Saturday of every month from 9am-5pm, for details telephone 0171- 407 1800.

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