Among Railway Arches, London's Best New Market

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More a gaggle of artisans than an organized whole, the Maltby Street Market unites top-notch food and do-it-yourself cool

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Over the past two years, the arches beneath the railway tracks in Bermondsey, a London neighborhood on the south bank of the Thames, have become the home of a growing community of food artisans. The process has been gradual; indeed the renovated vaulted spaces where bakers, cheesemongers, coffee roasters, and other vendors make and sell their wares are separated by vacant arches filled with discarded building materials, rusty radiators, even a stray bathtub.

The area has been dubbed the Maltby Street Market, though it is neither a market nor confined to Maltby Street. Forget about evenly distributed stalls clustered close together. Here, vendors are distributed among arches on both sides of the train tracks along Maltby Street, Rope Walk, Stanworth Street, and Druid Street. During the week, the arches are used for the production, storage, and maturing of food and beverages; they open to the public for retail sales every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

A visit should begin at Monmouth Coffee for caffeine and some sweets, preferably Nic Roome's Madeleines, perfect scallops of ground almonds and lemon zest that have achieved cult status in the short amount of time they have been available. Roome began selling his sweets at Monmouth in December. The former Burberry designer and studio manager quit his corporate job in early 2010 to pursue his lifelong passion of baking. Building a faithful clientele via word of mouth, Roome was asked to supply Monmouth Coffee's Maltby Street location on Saturdays and its other two locations on Thursdays. Devotees of these cakes flock to Monmouth religiously on the designated days to snag them. Roome's production is small, and he still does all the baking at home. "The hope is to eventually rent a space in the arches for baking, but that still seems far off," he explains. In the meantime, Monmouth Coffee is his steppingstone.

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A solution several artisans have found is to share space. At 1 Rope Walk, 150 meters east of Monmouth Coffee, a brewer and two cheesemongers do just that. Two rooms built inside the arch are home to the Kernel Brewery. Established by home brewer and former Neal's Yard cheesemonger Evin O'Riordan in December 2009, the brewery specializes in porters, stouts, and imperial pale ales. O'Riordan began selling bottles from the arch in May 2010, and customers can carry them away or drink at the picnic table set up outside the arch. O'Riordan's production remains small, however, and, in addition to what he sells on Saturdays, he is able to supply only a handful of pubs and restaurants.

In a self-contained room beside the brewery, Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein makes cheese in a massive cauldron. His grilled cheese sandwiches, of which Corby once said, "I took one big bite and the sandwich immediately went onto my list of best things I've ever had," are a highlight of the nearby Borough Market. Oglethorpe has invented a variation, the Bermondsey Frier, exclusively for Saturdays at Maltby Street. And, of course, his production is also small. In fact on my first visit to 1 Rope Walk, Oglethorpe wasn't selling cheese at all. When I tracked him down at his stall in Borough Market later that day to ask why not, his reply was matter-of-fact: "Because we've sold out."

The third vendor in the arch is The Ham & Cheese Co., which specializes in Italian and Spanish cheese and charcuterie. Although most of their items are imported, they do produce their own York-style ham and herb-roasted porchetta. They moved to the arch in August 2009, and it serves as the maturing and storage areas for their retail outlet.

Continuing east, at 55 Stanworth Street, biodynamic farmers Jane Scotter and Harry Astley sell seasonal produce and meats at the Fern Verrow stall. The produce comes from their farm on the Welsh-Herefordshire border, and when I visited there were leeks, Swiss chard, parsley, chives, and spring greens, in addition to some imported and locally sourced fruits and root vegetables from other biodynamic farms. Their meat includes chicken, duck, and sausage. In the same arch, The Borough Cheese Company sells Comté from eastern France.

A bit farther along, Neal's Yard Dairy occupies several arches where cheese is matured for their Borough Market and Covent Garden shops, as well as the countless restaurants they supply. They open Arch 60 on Saturdays to sell yogurt, butter, and, of course, cheese.

On the other side of the tracks, on Druid Street, Arch 104 is shared by a number of vendors. At the Topolski stall, Leila MacAlister sells variously spiced homemade Polish sausages, horseradish, gherkins, and pickled vegetables. Customers may recognize these items from her famed cafe, Leila's Shop, in Shoreditch. The adjacent stall sells hot Staffordshire oatcakes with Leicestershire cheese. At a table outside, Hophurst Farms sells heritage fowl eggs, biodynamic lamb, and organic beef and pork. Violet Cakes has been selling baked goods in part of the arch since September. Owner Clare Ptak, a native Californian and former pastry chef at Chez Panisse, built her business selling cakes, cupcakes, and whoopie pies at Broadway Market in Hackney, eventually opening a shop nearby in 2010. She acknowledges the unique character of the marketplace: "There's a lovely community of vendors all selling things that I personally buy, so for that alone I enjoy it each week because I can do my own shopping here. Also as a vendor, because we're all running it together, it's a very cooperative market."

Farther down the road, St. John Bakery opened at 72 Druid Street in November. Occupying an entire arch, the bakery makes bread for Fergus Henderson's restaurant St. John in Smithfield, St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields, the St. John Hotel in Chinatown, and for restaurant wholesale. Saturday mornings, the arch is open for bread and pastry sales, including the famous St. John eccles cake, granola, loaves of rye, raisin, and sourdough bread, and plump doughnuts filled with vanilla custard.

Round out the visit with a stop at Gergovie Wines at number 40, back on Maltby Street. This small wine importer opened on February 26. The space will be used to store the company's (mainly) natural wine selection, and owner Raef Hodgeson will be there to great customers and do some tasting on Saturdays.

There is plenty of talk of more vendors to come. Also look for seasonal ventures like La Grotta Ices, Kitty Travers's all-natural gelato, sold from the back of a little Piaggio "Ape" three-wheeler in late spring and all summer long.

Vendors:

1 Rope Walk
The Kernel Brewery
Kappacasein
The Ham & Cheese Co.

55 Stanworth Street
Fern Verrow
The Borough Cheese Co.

60 Stanworth Street
Neal's Yard Dairy

34 Maltby Street
Monmouth Coffee

40 Maltby Street
Gergovie Wines

Parked on Maltby Street
La Grotta Ices

72 Druid Street
St. John Bakery

104 Druid Street
Topolski
Violet Cakes
Kase Swiss
Hophurst Farm

Main image: Katie Parla

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Katie Parla is a food historian and sommelier based in Rome, Italy. Follow Katie on her blog, ParlaFood.com, and on Twitter at @katieparla.

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