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World food market odyssey

Roger Barton, one of the best-known traders at London’s Billingsgate, has spent five months exploring some of world’s most spectacular food markets. He gave Time Out his top foodie picks

London • Billingsgate

This is the best market in the world for…?

‘Fish. You can have a different fish from Billingsgate 365 days a year. Fish from all over Mexico, India, Indonesia, Australia, America. Parrot fish, snappers, yellowtails… it’s a lovely show. And every fish has a different taste. There’s rivalry between all the tenants here. They’re all trying to get more fish. There’s a certain amount of banter.’

Isn’t it smelly?

‘Good, fresh fish never smells. It just gleams, and it has blossom on it. There’s no smell at Billingsgate. Or maybe I’m used to it – I’ve been at Billingsgate 55 years, after all. But I mean, I can definitely smell when a fish has seen better days.’

Any tips for making the most of the market?

‘Go on a Saturday morning (it’s open to the public on Friday and Saturday). Billingsgate is open from 4am. Local supermarkets will be selling the same stuff at double or treble the price. There is haggling to be done – you might get a whole box of mackerel for £15. If I feel people are genuine, if they say ‘I’ll have three boxes, not one, is there leeway?’ then I’m open to dropping prices.

‘Also, make sure you wear proper footwear – it’s wet underneath. There’s ice everywhere, because as they say, “spare the ice, spoil the fish”. Wear something with good grip, or you’ll slip arse over head.’

© Jonny Hunter/

Paris • Rungis Market

This is the best market in the world for…?

‘Finding everything under one roof – literally, because Rungis is all under cover. Meat, fish, cheese, milk, crustaceans – tremendous oysters and scallops. The market sells all things, it’s like one big umbrella. I think the fish is all particularly excellent; top quality bass, Dover sole… The French stand for no nonsense – they want good fish.’

It’s a huge market, isn’t it?

‘It’s very big. It has 18 million customers a year.’

Is it a tough place to get a bargain?

‘Some people say the French have a reputation for being surly, but that’s not true – it all depends on how you greet people. If you go in with a smile on your face, you’ll be fine – but if you’re grumpy, you won’t do well. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’

When’s the best time to visit?

Go at 7am if you can, because by that time most traders and wholesalers will have got what they wanted, but there’ll still be a lot left. The salesmen will have more time for you, and might even give you advice on how to cook what you’ve bought.’

Delhi • Azadpur Market

This is the best market in the world for…?

‘Variety. You’ll see things you’ve probably never seen before. It’s not just the products – because cows are sacred here, you’ll see 600 of them just wandering round the market. They sell a lot of different fruits, like bear fruit, and loads of different types of flowers. Of course, you’ll also get your staples – like potatoes and onions. There’ll be 3,000 or so bags of onions, as the Indians use them a lot in their cuisine. Produce from here ends up going all over the country. There are always rickshaws coming and going.’

Sounds busy.

‘It is. And it can get very hot – it’s 42 degrees sometimes.’

Is there a particular Azadpur etiquette?

‘There’s a haggling tree. The place is three markets in one. The big guys might sell 20 bags of onions to a second group of guys. Then those guys will go and set up a stall 20 yards away and sell two or three bags to a third lot, who’ll set up another stall. The public will buy from the second and third lot.’

© Ficeda

Mexico City • Central de Abasto

This is the best market in the world for…?

‘Vegetables and fruit. This is the largest food market in the world, and it’s unbelievable – 600 acres. 400,000 people through the door every day. The aisles are half a mile long, it’s mind blowing. It’s very cheap, and there are a huge amount of public there. You’ll see five and six year olds carrying bags. People come and go all the time. They even have police there.’

What will you find there?

‘Anything you like. The market sells everything. There’s lorryload after lorryload of produce – there are 25 ton trucks, coming and going all day and all night.

I don’t eat a lot of chillies but before I went there I’d never realised there are hundreds of different varieties of chillies. If you closed your eyes and walked down an aisle in the place, you wouldn’t have to open them again to know where you were. Because of the smells. Like bananas – there’s a whole lane of bananas, thousands of them. The quality of wares is superb, and it’s all very well presented. A lot of the traders spend two or three hours getting their stalls ready.’

Is it easy to get a bargain?

You can definitely get a bargain, because the haggling never stops. People don’t buy anything at the face price. Buy more to get it cheaper.’

New York • New Fulton Fish Market

This is the best market in the world for…?

‘Shellfish. The American market for shellfish is huge. They have lovely oysters. Plus one or two bits we don’t see in England, like blood cockles. They’re like an oyster but they don’t look the best. Mums and dads should encourage their kids to try more stuff. Eat fish and you’ll never have to take a pill.’

New Fulton is a big place, right?

‘I think it’s 27 acres. Eight billion dollars of trade is done there each year – there’s a tremendous amount of fish there. Boxes and boxes of it. America’s a big place, and they sell Canadian fish too.’

Which stalls would you recommend?

‘The market tends more towards wholesale than retail, but there are several firms there that cater well to the public – friendly guys who will sell you fish and shellfish. Look out for Frank – you couldn’t miss him. He’s short and stout – he’s got lovely fish. Lovely flounders. Here they’re poo-poohed a bit. And coley, another fish with a lovely taste. A beautiful fish.’

Any tips for getting a good deal?

‘At the back of some of the stands you’ll see a cabinet of Jack Daniel’s – a lot of business is done over a glass of Jack Daniel’s. Really – it’s often the first order of the day.’

‘World’s Greatest Food Markets’ is on BBC Two at 9pm on Sunday November 16.


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