At 10 o’clock on Saturday morning, a small group of people are standing around a wooden table in a railway arch near Tower Bridge in London, sipping fabulous coffee and eating pains au chocolat. The atmosphere in the Monmouth Coffee Company’s Maltby Street café is like that of a private breakfast party, except that there’s someone ringing purchases into a till, and just outside, on the threshold, a stall is selling fine Neal’s Yard Dairy cheeses, bread and yoghurt. It looks incongruous amid the housing estates and car-repair workshops of this unprepossessing corner of Bermondsey, but it’s actually the green shoots of what promises to become London’s newest haunt for those who love to cook and eat.
During the week, Maltby Street has a desolate air, and even on Saturdays there’s not much to see besides the Monmouth café and the Beddy Buyz Warehouse next door. But if you slip through the metal gate at the end of the street, past a few more railway arches stacked with salvaged radiators, you’ll stumble upon Bill Oglethorpe, the cheesemaker behind Kappacasein’s luxurious toasted sandwiches and raclette, frying his cheese in olive oil and garlic. Sharing his space is the Ham & Cheese company, with its exquisite parma ham, Basque sausages and fresh mozzarella; and the Kernel Brewery, which makes artisanal beers.
What’s becoming known as the Maltby Street Market is actually neither a market nor a shopping street, but a tiny, ad hoc community of some of London’s finest purveyors of food and drink. It all began when Monmouth Coffee decided, in the spring of 2009, to open the doors of its warehouse to the public for a few hours every Saturday. “We use the space during the week for storage and production,” says Monmouth’s Raef Hodgson, “and we just wanted to make the most of it at the weekends, to give some new people a chance to see what we do.” Without any publicity, word began to spread. Other providers joined them, and the customers began to trickle in.
Further up the railway, in another vault under the line, Jane Scotter of Fern Verrow is selling biodynamic produce from her farm in Herefordshire. The glorious display of fruits and vegetables includes unusual varieties such as parsley root, quinces and red Russian kale.
Just the other side of the railway line, laid out on trestle tables at 104 Druid Street, you can find biodynamic beef from Kent, Swiss cheeses, Polish sausages and pickles, and Claire Ptak’s Violet cupcakes. And nearby is the cavernous Booth’s with its extraordinary range of fruits and vegetables. Fergus Henderson’s St John will soon be opening a new bakery at No 72 Maltby Street and there are rumours that other specialist traders will follow.
Many of the vendors here run thriving shops or stalls at Borough, London’s most popular food market, but find that they enjoy the quieter atmosphere at Maltby Street. “Borough Market is certainly good business,” says Leila McAlister, seller of Polish pickles, crispbreads and sausages. “But these days we often feel like monkeys in the zoo, having our photographs taken by tourists,” she adds. “Many of those who were once regular customers now find Borough too congested for normal shopping, so we don’t see so many familiar faces.”
Jane Scotter agrees that the success of Borough Market as a tourist attraction has put off bread-and-butter customers. “One of the nice things about working here has been seeing these people coming back.”
Shopping at Maltby Street is certainly more congenial than braving the rugby-scrum of Borough Market at noon on a Saturday. It may so far have only a fraction of the goods available, but the quality is exceptional and the traders are at leisure to chat as the trains rumble overhead. The good relations among them are palpable. As Ham & Cheese Company owner Elliott John says: “One of the great things about working here is sharing the space with like-minded people.”