A cook's tour of London

Five of the capital's best markets
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The Independent Travel

In Hong Kong, between the piles of spices and towering stacks of caged chickens, live fish are scooped from densely packed crates and gutted with blasé precision while their tails still twitch. In St Petersburg the curiosities are social - feel free to taste as much cheese, honey and sevruga as you can stomach, but point a camera lens at the stallholders and those friendly, stout women in their immaculately laundered white coats and matching hair nets can shoot a look as sharp as any fishmonger's knife.

Wherever you are in the world, food markets are places where vivid memories are made. Will the same be true today on the more familiar turf of Borough Market? So far, the unrepeatable musings of sarf-London white-van man - unimpressed that I momentarily blocked his way - have certainly made an impression, but let's not be hasty to judge. We've barely arrived, and something a little more Rick Stein's Food Heroes should happen any moment now.

That's the idea, anyway. I'm here for a test-run one of three new gastro-tours led by Celia Brooks Brown, the foodie, caterer to the stars, cookbook author and TV lovely from Saturday Kitchen etc. The other two are around Marylebone and Portobello, both fine destinations for food lovers, but Borough Market has a soul the others don't - it wasn't recently voted London's top tourist attraction for nothing.

Vans aside, the start looks promising: the Monmouth Coffee House. This is the sort of place a first-time visitor could easily skip - it's only when you're inside, and order, say, a filtered Baixadao coffee from the Leal Carneiro family in Brazil (coffee nerds welcome) that you understand how different this is from Starbucks. Usually you'll get a talk from AJ here, too, but today she's in Brazil visiting another coffee producer. It's an irritatingly good excuse, but if it happens to you, Celia can always step in.

On to Neal's Yard Dairy. As the distinctive aroma of the shop's activity becomes apparent, it strikes me that neither this cheese shop - excellent as it is - nor the previous coffee shop, are things that Borough alone possesses. But both can claim to be very much a part of the market, especially since Randolph Hodgson - whose Montgomery cheddar is among Celia's favourites - was among the saviours of this market. At the end of the 1990s, under pressure from the supermarkets and their direct distribution deals, the wholesale fruit and vegetable market was struggling. It still exists now, with traders setting up at 2am while clubbers, drunks and streetlife walk by, but it was the idea of Borough's trustees, Hodgson included, to open a daytime market for the public that really created the fashionable, thoroughly middle-class attraction as most people now think of it.

Of course, Borough Market is so embedded in post-Jamie Oliver Britain that it's hard to imagine it was ever under threat. There are around 100 casual traders and a dozen or so permanent stalls, as well as delis, patisseries and so on scattered around the perimeter. City boys eat lunch at the new restaurant Roast, looking out over the hubbub below. Couriers push their bikes in one hand and hold treats for the weekend in the other. Beneath a brace of blue rinses, private tasting notes are exchanged on preserves and chutneys.

In all, 5,000 people visit the market every Friday, and double that number on Saturdays, and if you come into the market proper and see the stalls, you'll understand why. Yes, it's small by the standards of Barcelona's immense Mercat de la Boqueria, but it's the variety and the contrast of the traditional and cosmopolitan that set Borough apart. When we get to HS Bourne, purveyor of "choice Cheshire cheese", we find Mr Bourne on the phone, organising a repair back at the creamery where he makes what he sells. Even better, he knows Celia, and since I'm with her, he opens up to us both about hunting bans, his ancestors, cows and, would you believe, even cheese.

If you need something to ward off the winter chill, try a pint of something warm and spicy at the New Forest Cider stall. But if you want a taste from further afield, Celia can lead you to the Parmesan Cheese Company, whose huge wheels come from cows that breathe the pure air and graze the untarnished pasture in the Apennine mountains. At the Cool Chile Co we taste fierce spice pastes and chat with another of Celia's pals about Green and Red, a new Mexican bar in Bethnal Green, where they serve Guadalajaran food. And, of course, there are olives, oils and bizarre Italian fruits.

Next Celia will take you to a 45-minute wine-tasting at Bedale's, before a half-hour stop off at Brindisa, Spanish specialists, to nibble the exquisite Iberico jamon and membrillo (quince jelly) with tetilla (a cheese named after its resemblance to a certain part of the female anatomy). Then it's a walk west to Zakudia, a restaurant with a view over the river, for a buffet lunch of Borough Market fare, which is included in the tour price, though drinks are extra.

Which brings me to the only reservation about the tour - it costs £55. If you're in town to blow the budget, you could write it off as a holiday treat, like the special bottle of wine at dinner, seats at the opera and the trip down Bond Street. Celia is good company, and can guarantee you won't miss any highlights. You'll get to chat a little more to the stallholders and you can certainly taste more than other visitors. She speaks a little Spanish, for visitors who may get lost in translation.

But anyone can wander the market, strike up conversation and sample cheeses, olives and cider. It's an odd proposition: a vegetarian born in Colorado leading you round a London market where my personal highlight is the bacon at the Ginger Pig. Even if you don't know the market already, you may still want to explore it by yourself. Borough may not be the cheapest place to buy food, but even here, £55 buys a lot of bacon.

Still, I have to thank Celia. Without her I wouldn't have found my food-market memory, of the blackberry tart and apple pie I bought. It wasn't just the puddings that were so memorable. The guy serving us took quite a shine to our glamorous Celia, but as for what exactly he said, well it was so suggestive he made that van driver seem like a nun.

Tours of Borough Market with Celia Brooks Brown cost £55 and include lunch (020-8376 2847; celiabrooksbrown.com)

Spitalfields

Groovy furniture, oh-so-Shoreditch T-shirts and organic food and veg - the ever-sprawling City may be encroaching on its territory, but what remains of the old vaulted East End landmark is still enough reason to visit. You may want to take in Brick Lane's equally fashionable offerings (until 2pm Sunday) and the spectacle of Columbia Road flower market (Sunday, 8am-1pm), while you're in these parts.

Main market open 10am-5pm every day but Saturday. Commercial Street, London E1 (020-7247 8556). Nearest station: Liverpool Street (Central, Circle, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan Lines, and national rail services)

Portobello

Food, fashion, antique furniture - it's all here on the long stretch north from Notting Hill to the Westway and beyond. The setting's perfect too - framed by the types of London terraces that make those "Hugh Grant Woz Ere" holiday snaps. And there are plenty of cafés that offer the blissful relief of a cup of tea and a sit down.

Main market 8am-6.30pm Monday, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday 8am-1pm, Thursday. Portobello Road and Goldborne Road, London W10. Nearest station: Ladbroke Grove (Hammersmith & City line), Notting Hill Gate (Central, District and Circle lines) or Westbourne Park (Hammersmith & City line)

Camden Market

Yes, what you've heard is true: there is a lot of tie-dye and joss-stick action going on at Camden Market. But scale makes up for that, as do the winter mists and twinkly lights. If you want to get to grips with it all, leave plenty of time - it is huge, if you include the Stables Market, where vintage clothes are something of a speciality.

Daily, 9am-6pm. Camden High Street, London NW1, 020-7278 4444. Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1, 020-7485 5511. Nearest station: Camden Town and Chalk Farm (both Northern Line)

Greenwich Market

Handmade toys, Peruvian jumpers, cheap leather sofas, Chinese lanterns ... Greenwich is a catch-all kind of market with a globe-trotting food court. Like the rest of the area, it gets choked with tourists on weekends, but it does make for great gift-hunting for a burst of Christmas shopping.

For full opening times and locations see greenwichmarket.net or call 020-8293 3110. Nearest station: Greenwich (mainline and DLR) or Cutty Sark (DLR).

Brixton Market

For some Afro-Caribbean culture, get down to Brixton's Electric Avenue. There are plantains, papaya, record shops, rastas and no end of places to get your hair relaxed, extended or covered up by a wig.

Mon-Tues, Thur-Sat 8am-6pm, Wed 8am-3pm. Electric Avenue, Pope's Road, Brixton Station Road and Atlantic Road, London SW9. Nearest station: Brixton (Northern and Victoria Lines and British Rail)

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