A celebration. A toast to the first place I loved in London, which, through the changing of its seasons, stalls and stock, has taught me as much about seasonality and ingredients as all the cookbooks I’ve read.
Hidden behind high walls, in a dingy carpark, the Notting Hill Farmer’s Market springs into life every Saturday morning with flowers, vegetables, fruit stalls and a rich cast of actors.
There are the ancient dowager types, filling their baskets with gamey looking meats from secret coolboxes under the stall tables, moving around with a vague air of disbelief (at what, it should be noted, is not exactly clear). There are the Elle McPherson lookalikes, with tall husbands and expensive bikes and small children and statuesque clipped Labradoodle dogs and enormous bunches of sunflowers. There are the stressed young couples, planning dinner parties with two different budgets and no set menu in mind.
Then there are the stallholders. The barista who makes the best coffee around and always has a pleasant word for everyone; the nice women on the mushroom-and-egg stall who are happy to let you pick your own; the quiet man who runs the salad and plant stall with an incredible array of stock that changes from week to week; offering unusual garden finds that never fail to delight.
And lastly, when you have picked your way through all of that, there is still the food to navigate. There are the basics: lots of bread & pastries; a milk & yoghurt stall; a fish stall; several fruit & vegetable, meat and egg stalls and a tomato stall. You can also pick up hot sausage rolls; apples; locally grown flowers and jars of pesto. All are very good.
Then there are the seasonal treats and unusual rarities that make this market so special. Fresh pasta; potato sourdough from The Dusty Knuckle bakery. Wild garlic, peas, British beans, Jersey Royals, cardoons, then cherries from Kent for three glorious weeks in July. Peppers and tomatoes in every colour. Sweetcorn in husks, then all sorts of squash and pumpkins. Melons. Then root veg; giant drippingly wet purple cabbages. Brussels sprout trees, with their tender top greens sold separately. Great trees of celery. Chestnuts, Christmas foliage, gold-sprayed teazel seedheads, grouse, pots of paperwhite flowers, holly wreaths. A quiet few weeks and then the winds die down, the days start to lengthen and the cycle starts all over again.
With such an array of produce available, much of which is from particular places at particular times of the year, it is hard not to feel connected to something bigger, to a way of eating and living that feels like a very rare form of luxury now.
This form of luxury is exemplified to me in the smoked trout from the Oxfordshire fisherman who only has a stall at the market once a month. You can buy flakes of hot smoked trout from him, as well as trout fillets, but the greatest treat of all in my view is his whole filleted smoked trout which come with rippled golden skin and tender, succulent, coral pink flesh. They are a thing of beauty inside and out.
POTTED SMOKED TROUT with gin
Once home, I decided to make potted smoked trout, which is a real favourite of mine. While I will be making my smoked salmon dip as usual for Christmas Day, I expect I’ll make these gin-infused smoked trout pots again before the winter is out – they’re perfect for an easy lunch or stylish starter – just serve with lots of hot sourdough toast in either case, and maybe a pickle or two.
250g hot smoked trout or salmon fillets
2 scant tablespoons of crème fraîche
1 tablespoon of gin (optional)
2 tablespoons of diced fresh parsley
1.5 tablespoons of juniper berries
Juice & zest of half a lemon
Dash of cayenne
Lots of black pepper
Flake the smoked fish in a bowl, removing all bones. Add the crème fraîche, gin, lemon juice & zest, parsley, cayenne and plenty of black pepper. Mix well to combine, adding a little more crème fraîche if needed – it should bind lightly. Divide the mixture between 4 to 6 small pots or ramekins depending on how many you’re serving and whether it’s for lunch or just a starter.
Add the butter and juniper berries to a saucepan and warm over a low heat till the butter melts. Turn the heat off and leave the butter to sit for a minute or two – this clarifies the butter. Skim off the yellow liquid and divide over the tops of the pots, finishing each with a few juniper berries. Discard the white dairy solids. Doing this step gives the top of the pots a cleaner finish.
Refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving to allow the butter to set fully. If you’re under the pump and your guests are already en route just pop them into the freezer – they’ll be ready in about 15-20 mins. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for 2 days if you want to make them ahead.
Serve with a good grinding of black pepper on top and lots of hot sourdough toast. Naturally enough, these go very well with a crisp gin & tonic on the side. Well, it is Christmas.