Who in their right mind would get up at 4am to buy a box of fish or flowers? A reluctant Eddy Frankel did, meeting specialists at London’s biggest wholesale markets to find out if ordinary shoppers can sneak in, and how to get the best bargains. Portraits Rob Greig
Don Tyler, chairman, London Fish Merchants Association and stallholder
‘I’ve worked in Billingsgate for over 50 years. I should be retired but I enjoy it, so I keep going.’
‘Every day is different: the supplies, the prices and the people. They’re the real fascination.’
‘We love having everyday punters here. We’re not going to deter anyone who wants to buy a box of fish. What we do frown upon is people who want a couple of kippers. That’s Tesco. We’re wholesale.’
‘You can arrive later, around 6am to 7am, if you’re coming down as a casual customer, and you want to buy a box of kippers, smoked haddock or cod fillets.’
‘We get plenty of famous faces around here. We had Prince Charles visit. I remember handing Princess Anne a box of smoked haddock myself. She said “Please give it to my driver, but seal it up because he’ll pinch some otherwise.” Great fun.’
‘There’s no etiquette, but it’s frustrating if you fiddle with your coins and spend ages making up your mind when I’ve got people queuing for fish.’ Billingsgate Market Trafalgar Way, E14 5ST. Tue-Sat 4am-9.30am.
New Covent Garden
Florence Hill, owner of Petalon florist
‘I’ve been going to the market since I set up my business, Petalon, a year ago. Nothing can really beat the huge variety on offer here.’
‘Always get what’s in season. The quality is much higher because the flowers aren’t being forced to grow unnaturally, and it’s cheaper too. The traders are full of advice, but go for whatever is in abundance, that’s the main clue.’
‘You don’t come here for a bunch of roses. If that’s what you want, you’re better off going to a florist. They come in packs of ten or 20 stems so it’s perfect if you’re doing a wedding or an event.’ ‘Be careful when pulling flowers out of buckets. If the stems drip water on to the petals of other flowers it ruins them. And only pull flowers out to buy them, not just to browse.’
‘The traders can be grumpy. They blame supermarkets for how things have changed, so they’re happy to get big orders from everyday punters.’
‘The earlier you can get down, the better! At 4.30am there’s plenty of stock left. The best day to go is Thursday because that’s when florists have to buy for their shops for the weekend.’ New Covent Garden Flower Market SW8 5BH. Mon-Sat 4am-10am.
Greg Lawrence, chairman, Smithfield Market Tenants’ Association (SMTA)
‘I’ve been on the market since 1966. Working here was like nothing you could imagine.’
‘You walk through the market while the containers are unloading 1,000 lambs at a time and it’s wonderful. My son works here now, so it’s a family business even though it didn’t start out that way.’
‘It’s a user-friendly place: it’s not intimidating or aggressive. Pedestrians should get here from midnight. We open the doors at 10pm and start loading in and cutting the meat, so we’re ready to go a couple of hours later. The market is busiest between 3am and 5am but we don’t mind when you come. If you’ve got money to spend, we’ll take it.’
‘Haggling is what it’s all about. That’s how it should be. We chop down the prices when we have to, it just depends on when you come.’
‘You can buy a steak. But what we offer is value and quantity: that’s why you should come here. Whatever meat product you require, you can get it.’
‘The customer is always right. That’s not bollocks,that’s how it should be. Even when they’re paying top money here, they’re still getting a bargain.’ Smithfield Market 225 Central Markets, EC1A 9LH. Mon-Fri trading from midnight-8am.
FRUIT & VEG.
New Spitalfields Market
Kevin Prentice, trader
‘I’ve been working on fruit and veg stalls since the womb. Market trading is in the family: it goes back generations. It’s always been fruit and veg, though there was a bit of blackmarket in the war, but we won’t talk about that!’
‘We want people to support their local markets and greengrocers. But if you are going to come here, keep some things in mind: don’t think you can get away with just buying a lettuce. We’re wholesalers and we’ve got people coming to buy palletloads of produce, so don’t waste our time.’
‘People don’t realise the dangers. There’s so much traffic going up and down with the forklift trucks and the pallets of produce. We’ve got yellow paths to follow, but the buyers get distracted by a bit of curly parsley and step out into the road. Wear hi-viz and don’t bring your kids.’
‘Those who buy in bulk get a special price. If you don’t, it might not be as cheap as you think.’
‘We do all sorts of exotic stuff. I’ve got lovely pomegranates, edible flowers and Bulgarian mushrooms for £26 a kilo. I’ve had mangoes at £13.50 a box, and people look at me like I’m a thief, but prices go up and down.’ New Spitalfields Market 23 Sherrin Rd, E10 5SQ. Mon-Sat midnight-11am.
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