While most Londoners are asleep, Mark White is zipping across a deserted city. He’s more commonly known as Marky Market, the man who will buy you anything you want at Smithfield and Billingsgate and then deliver it fresh the next day.
We've had more than our fair share of goodies delivered including razor clams, short rib and enough pork belly to feed half of Islington. We headed out at 2am to join Mark on his foodie jaunt around London’s finest markets.
Mark, it’s very early.
If I wasn’t doing the markets, I’d still get in the car and drive around London at night. Past the Bank of England, Tower Bridge, The Tower of London. It’s wonderful. It’s Monopoly board London.
How long have you been doing Marky Market?
I’ve been doing this for six years. On a perfect autumn day, I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
How did you get started?
With a pack of sausages that I sold to friends! I reinvested the money I made and it grew from there. Now I get orders from restaurants, pop-ups and everyday Londoners.
What does a typical day look like?
I’m in bed by 7 the night before I go to the markets. Then I’m off in my car around 1am. I go to Smithfield first because Billingsgate’s rules are stricter. You can’t trade before 4am. But you can still arrive before and get the pick of the freshest catches from the boats (they’ll give you a ticket for your order). A huge ship’s bell is rung at 4am to announce the start of trading, but if you arrive any later, the freshest catches have usually been snapped up.
Sometimes I have some early morning deliveries - some customers answer the door in a dressing gown and then go back to bed - but I usually get home around 6 in the morning. Then I get everything organised and I’m out delivering to offices all over the city until lunchtime.
Smithfield and Billingsgate are such a huge part of London’s foodie reputation, and we talk about them so proudly. So why don’t we visit our markets?
Because you have to go in the middle of the night! It just doesn’t fit in with most people’s lives. You can see people in the nightclub over the road from Smithfield, it’s like two separate worlds that coexist.
The markets can actually be intimidating. The butchers have such a closed community and it can be difficult to break into that.
It’s also a lot easier to get good meat now. Places such as Ginger Pig and Turner & George make it simple to get the good stuff without the sleepless nights.
What tips do you have for people wanting to visit the markets?
Get there as early as you can so you have the pick of the freshest deliveries. You need to learn the tricks — the markets are open for eight hours but there’s really only a three hour window. You can sleep in and get there at 7am, but you’ll miss all the good stuff.
If you can, go midweek when it's quieter. Traders may have more time to chat and explain things you might not know. But don't try to haggle. You won't get a better price unless you're buying very large quantities.
Tell us more about the community in the markets.
It’s a closed world. They don’t really have much to do with anyone else. Why would they? Everyone’s awake when they’re asleep, everyone is asleep when they’re awake.
A lot of the businesses are kept in the family for generations, but there are still significantly more men working in the market than women.
Is there a hierarchy?
The old guys do give the newbies a bit of a hard time. Sometimes they’ll pelt offal at a new guy in the snow while he’s in his pants. Stuff like that doesn’t happen often, but it’s still part of the culture.
Do you fit in now?
There’s no ‘I’ve made it’ moment with these guys. You realise at some point that someone has just gone above and beyond for you, but they still humour me a bit here.
People will tell me when they’ve got something good in. They’ll shout at me when they see me, “Mark! Look at the marble on this!”, I really like all that stuff. I find the places that specialise. I want the best picanha, the best sausages. I just want to buy beautiful meat.
How do you get word out to Londoners about what you do?
I can’t ever guarantee trade. I could theoretically have no customers one week. I send an email out each Monday, I tweet a lot, I’ve built up a good list of regular customers. Sometimes I have spare meat and fish that I advertise on Twitter. It’s all down to word of mouth.
Are you excited about the tube running all night?
I use the tube to deliver my orders during the day, which means I don’t have to charge my customers for delivery. But in the evenings I still need a ZipCar - the markets still aren’t really accessible, even with the night tube.
But I love that London is a 24-hour city and that there’s all this going on. Billingsgate is right next to the Canary Wharf. There’s a whole other world, a whole economy. There’s a seal outside in the docks, too.
You’re making that up.
I’m really not. Let’s go and see if he’s there.
Sure enough, we did meet a seal out the back of Billingsgate Market. He’ll dance for fish if you’re wearing a white coat and completely ignore you if you’re not. He knows which side his fish is grilled. We later found out his name is Sammy and he’s lived there for over a decade.
What’s the best bit of your day?
Getting to the Star & Garter, my unofficial Soho office when I’ve finished my orders. It’s the perfect Soho pub. They serve really nice beer, I can always get a seat and they don’t mind when I meet my truffle guy and we start weighing everything out on microscales in the middle of the pub. It definitely attracts attention.
Where’s the best place in London when you’re not working?
The Hemingford Arms just off the Cally Road. It’s full of characters and it’s like a London version of the Cheers bar, where everyone knows your name.
What are your favourite restaurants at the moment?
Zelman on St Anne’s Court is fantastic. I love Delhi Grill, I’ve never had anything like the breads there. I’ve also got a lot of time for Dishoom. It’s expanding so quickly, but it’s always delicious.
What’s your favourite thing about London?
It’s all this, when it’s late at night, and you feel like you own the city.