You'll Need To Be Up At 3am To See This Fruit And Veg Market At Its Best

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 17 months ago
You'll Need To Be Up At 3am To See This Fruit And Veg Market At Its Best

"That's a shame innit. You bought it. No, you bought it. You made the mistake, not me. I know I didn't make a mistake. Wasn't me was it. Remember who looks after you. Alright mate. Love you."

Most conversations that go like this at four in the morning involve a skinful of beer and probably a kebab. But this is the tongue in cheek patter of Damian Fowler of Gilgrove Ltd. Exotic fruit is Fowler's game. His New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms stall bristles with prickly pears, granadillas, mangoes (one of his personal favourites) and yellow dragon fruit.

"A lot of it's visual," Fowler tells us, "things like this granadilla is fine to eat, it's nice to eat — but it looks better than it tastes. On a platter it looks the part."

We'd never considered it before, but the fruit and veg business — some of it, anyway — hinges on the whims of fashion.

"It can be as simple as something that's been in a magazine or on telly," says Fowler, "and that can boost an existing product. All of a sudden you're selling twice as much lemongrass as last week and you think 'what's going on there? Something's up'".  

Damian Fowler, bringing the exotic to south London
Yellow dragon fruit on Damian Fowler's stall

Like all trends, not every fruity fad works out. With what we soon realise is trademark honesty, Fowler scorns a punnet of fresh goji berries, holding it away from his body like he might contract something off it. Dried gojis are the way to go, he says. Fresh goji berries don't taste as good, and they go off quickly. Getting these punnets in was not Fowler's idea, he tells us in no uncertain terms.

Another trader at New Covent Garden who understands the visual power of his produce is Tim Garrett of European Salad Company. If you've ever watched EastEnders and wondered if the fruit and veg on the market is real — the answer's yes, because Garrett provides it. "The only difficulty is they'll come down in July and go 'we want a bag of sprouts', because they're filming the Christmas special," he laughs.

"Last year," says Garrett, "I sold a film company hothouse cherries, grown in France. It was for a TV advert. These were 100 euros a kilo. I said to them 'you must be absolutely mad!' They said 'well, it sounds a lot of money, but if we couldn't have got those we'd have had to get them made.'  That would have come to two or three grand."

So hang on — does anyone actually eat the fruit and veg here?

Film and TV is just a smattering of Garrett's empire. The 'front' end of his stall here is laden with continental goods — marrow stalks, purple cauliflowers, very expensive Italian peaches ("you can probably buy a box of peaches over there for four quid. These peaches are 25 quid!"). This is where Garrett's specialist buyers — people like Leila McAlister and Turnips of Borough Market — tick off their grocery lists.

We may be in the midst of the British berry season, but Garrett's business still has four arctics ploughing back and forth to Paris every day — they have a warehouse in the middle of Rungis Market, where they source produce. Bigger orders, they get direct from French farmers. Garrett's wife, meanwhile, is currently scouting for specific clients in Milan (she's a "spirited amateur" in the kitchen, who likes to try to cook with the often-esoteric produce).

Tim Garrett flaunts his expensive peaches

But it's not all for farmer's markets and artisan cafes. "I'll sell anything," admits Garrett, "it makes no odds to me. If they want it, I'll find it." He points out the jars of pickled onions and gherkins that'll end up on fish and chip shop counters across London.

Such a flexible business model explains how the market has ducked, dived and survived since it was opened by the Queen in November 1974 (moving from the actual Covent Garden in central London). When the supermarkets first came along, they used markets like New Covent Garden. Then, in the 1980s, they pruned out the middleman, causing a downturn in business. Many traders jacked it in, but those who've clung on are now harvesting a newfound interest in organic and the exotic perishables.

The Queen opens the market in November 1974
Margaret Thatcher pays a visit

One stretch of New Covent Garden we come across looks less wholesale market, more state penitentiary. In fact, we're told this is a form of alleyway — the back walls of 30 businesses on either side, operating at breakneck speed to get fresh produce into London's commercial kitchens before the start of the business day.

In all, there are some 175 businesses on site (not forgetting the accountants, two greasy spoon cafes — where bacon sandwiches are eaten for breakfast at 10pm, slabs of lasagne for lunch at 4am — and even a company that pre-peels veg).

For those who can't quite stomach that 1970s architecture — good news. Covent Garden is the Doctor Who of London's markets; it has regenerated (and relocated) once, and it will regenerate again in 2022 — albeit this time on the same site.

This poster's past its sell by date

One trader concerned he might not qualify for the new New Covent Garden Market is Grant Stanton, of Bar Fruit Supplies. His company hasn't been on site long enough to automatically qualify — although he's hoping they'll sneak in anyway.

Stanton is a real specialist; "We don't do restaurants," he says, of his business, which comprises his daughter, two sons, wife and a couple of drivers. "I try to keep it as compact as possible."

Grant Stanton, a beer man

Starting out on a fruit stall in Clapham, Stanton was approached by a start up called All Bar One. Reluctantly at first, he began sending them minicabs full of mint, lemons, limes and strawberries. The number of All Bar Ones now is in the mid-30s, with Stanton supplying all of them — and numerous other bars and pubs besides. His New Covent Garden warehouse, then, is stocked with more than the odd bit of citrus fruit now; we gaze at shelves of  jams, purees, sugar, Haribo, marshmallows... Passion fruit is big right now — owing to the popularity of cocktails like the zombie and the porn star martini.

With such a well-stocked warehouse at his fingertips, which cocktails does Stanton like to mix up for himself? "I'm a beer man," he says.

It does go to show though — no matter how much Londoners love their local supermarket, chances are some of the produce that passes their lips has already passed through New Covent Garden. They might just have been too tipsy to realise it.

Superb typo
The world's best known VW poses in the market, promoting the film Herbie Goes Bananas
Micro greens: another fashionable item right now
"It's the buzz. Every time you come in here there's something different." Leslie Singh of Pomona Foods in Belsize Park
"Fancy a blood nectarine?" Anish from The French Garden

Last Updated 27 July 2017