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Behind the scenes at market

A night in the life of our wholesale team at New Covent Garden Fruit & Vegetable Market…

New Covent Garden Market. First things first, it’s not in Covent Garden, it’s in Vauxhall (my first mistake!). I had always wondered where they were hiding a giant fruit & veg market in the middle of central London, which I tell Daniel – our Fruit & Veg Buyer and partner in crime for the evening – who laughs. The market was in fact relocated way back in 1971 to its current spot near Battersea Power Station, right by the River Thames.

We arrive at the market just before midnight and park up in our usual spot (the traders need to know where to load the lorry so we stick to the same space!). It’s a simple process I’m told. The plan is to visit all the different traders, inspect the produce, discuss price and place our orders to be put together and loaded onto the lorry as we continue exploring.

The first trader we meet laughs at me for joining Daniel, telling me the market isn’t a very exciting place, but I think otherwise – it’s a whole other world and is fascinating for me to see how we end up with the specific produce on our shelves. As a business, we visit the market twice weekly (and even more so at Christmas!), so it’s nothing special for Daniel, or for the traders who are working most nights.

The second trader we meet has been working in the market for 38 years now. He talks me through how they keep track of the stock throughout the night – checking it off on massive A1 sheets as the buyers make their picks. Things are changing however…. They are moving to a new iPad based system in the next few weeks. To me, the market seems pretty old-school and this sentiment is echoed by the traders. As important as it is to embrace new technologies, they are worried that the iPads will initially slow them down and affect business when the buyers are in a rush. I guess only time will tell!

We move on through to the next section of the market, where everyone knows Daniel by name and asks after Renato, who before Daniel had been doing our market trips for over 35 years. Apparently, he’s a dab hand at getting a bargain… something you learn when you’ve been doing it so long I suspect. All the traders know the quality or size of produce expected by each buyer, so when Daniel asks questions about the different options, they let him know whether it’s going to be suitable for us at Macknade… (continued below!)

Daniel also knows which traders to go to for certain produce. For example, one trader does amazing herbs except for chives, which Daniel buys from someone else. My favourite buy is some spectacularly juicy looking blackberries, which we get for a really good price… They honestly couldn’t look any more perfect!

I may not have been before, but I expect early October is a particularly good time at market with the seasons changing and the wonderful Autumnal veg appearing – squashes, pumpkins, gourds and the like. We pick up kaki fruit and leafy clementines, which are both new for this season, but leave the squashes, as we are currently buying them from a local farmer. We also stumble across the first sacks of brussels sprouts (Christmas really is coming!), but don’t buy them, as again, we are getting our brussels direct from a local farm.

One trader (aptly named The Mushroom Man!) sells only mushrooms – and so many varieties at that! We pick up chanterelles, shiitake and king oyster (or eryngii – which I fail to pronounce!), but are on the hunt for porcini – the one and only variety he doesn’t have. The Mushroom Man’s fridge is the coldest place we visit throughout the evening, so I can’t say I’m sad to leave!

We also stop at what Daniel thinks is one of the most interesting traders in the market. A lot of the produce I’ve never seen before including yellow dragon fruit, cloudberries and miniature romanesco. Our final buy is some baby courgettes on offer (he chases us as we leave!), which Daniel suspects may be supermarket rejects. We get two boxes and head out to the van.

Even though it’s been a fairly mild day, standing outside at 3am is pretty chilly business so we keep busy reducing our pallets down. We have 12 in front of us and only 10 can go on the lorry. It’s a struggle and there’s definitely an art to it (you don’t want anything heavy on top of your soft fruits for example!), but we manage to condense the pallets down just in time for them to be loaded.

There are fork lift trucks EVERYWHERE, so you have to be careful, and Daniel & Renato have a preferred driver (Terry) who loads the lorry. Once the sides are strapped down (the lorry is bulging!), we hop in and head home, arriving back in Faversham at 4am. I head straight home to bed, leaving Daniel with the mammoth task of unloading the lorry, ready to get the produce out for us to begin trading at 9am… I’m glad it’s him not me!

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