Christmas at Columbia Road Market

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Yvonne Harnett and her trees.

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”
from Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories by Garrison Keillor

Yesterday we got up very early to go to Columbia Road Flower Market. We go every Sunday, but this week we were under strict instructions from stallholder Yvonne Harnett not to slope up at our usual, slothful 10ish if we wanted a really big Christmas tree. And we always want a really big Christmas tree. Yvonne’s husband Shane is a fourth generation nurseryman and his family have sold Christmas trees on this corner of Columbia Road and Ravenscroft Street for over a hundred years, so I’m inclined to do as she says.

We reported for tree-purchasing duty at an eye-blinkingly early 8.30am, fortified ourselves with coffee and excellent sausage rolls from the Lily Vanilli Bakery and picked out a fine 10-foot Nordman Fir from Yvonne and Shane’s stall. Then we loaded ourselves up with other Christmas essentials: some scarlet poinsettias, a tray of miniature cyclamen, a bag of fir cones and a couple of Turkish fruit wreaths which I’ll use to decorate our table with the addition of some fat church candles. Next week, I’ll stock up on holly, ivy and mistletoe to drape along mantles and banisters and hang from chandeliers. I am a maximalist.

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Urban forest.

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Stuart with his poinsettias. Every week he makes me laugh with his cheeky sales pitches.

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Mick and Sylvia Grover. During the summer, they sell all kinds of culinary and medicinal herbs but at this time of year, their stall is piled high with wreaths and garlands which they make themselves. They give our dog Barney a Christmas present every year and are two of the kindest people you could ever meet. It shows in their faces, don’t you think?


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Mick and Sylvia’s wreaths.


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Turkish fruit and berry wreaths. I bought two of these for the Christmas table, so pretty with a fat church candle in the middle.


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Sean, whose bric-a-brac and book stall is a great favourite of mine. I think he would make a very good Father Christmas.


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Fortifying sausage roll from Lily Vanilli Bakery


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Festive decorations around the door of this café.

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Jones the Baker gets into the Christmas spirit.

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Dazzling proteas.

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Sparkly branches.

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Ilex berries.

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Fat amaryllis buds, one of my favourite winter flowers.

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Mountains of holly and mistletoe.

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Birdfeed baskets.

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Christmas planters.

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Crates of pine cones.

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Pots of hyacinths. Do what I do – transplant these into pretty bowls and pretend you’ve grown them yourself.

Hello autumn, my old friend

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Chinese lanterns, chrysanthemums, crocosmia, raggy purple dahlias, hypericum berries, bells of Ireland


Shape and shadow are candied citron
as lanterns turn bitter yellow. Autumn
is a red fox, a goblet filled with dark wine,
a hot chilli pepper with smoky eyes.

Autumn by Mary Hamrick, 2009

A morning in the flower market and the bunting-bright shades of summer have given way to fat berries, fiery chrysanthemums and boxes of papery-skinned bulbs. Trays of summer bedding are replaced by pots of sweet cyclamen, winter pansies and blowsy mums.

I’ve bought thick socks and pulled cosy scarves from the drawer, brushed last year’s dried mud from my boots and paired up a tangle of gloves and mittens. I’m ready.

Deck the halls

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Every December, I buy a plain evergreen wreath from Mrs Grover’s stall at Columbia Road. She sells her own beautifully decorated wreaths but I love the slow, scented ritual of creating my own. This year, I raided the kitchen cupboards to make a cook’s wreath finished with some of my favourite flavours of the season: oranges and lemons, cloves, cinnamon and star anise.

Making a wreath is incredibly easy and – a bonus – it gives me the chance to get my glue gun out (£2 at a church jumble sale, thank you very much). In my enthusiasm, I always forget how bloody hot the glue gets. Still, and I’m sure Martha would agree, nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ like a new set of fingerprints.

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You need…

  • A plain wreath
  • Glue – a glue gun works brilliantly, particularly if you are on the run, but any strong, clear-setting glue is fine
  • Green florist’s wire from garden centres or DIY shops
  • Raffia or ribbon
  • A selection from the decorative bits and pieces below


Dried orange slices
Preheat the oven to 130°C/250°F/Gas Mark 1. Slice the oranges about 4mm thick. Lay them out on a tea towel and press out some of their moisture with another tea towel or kitchen paper. Lay them on an ovenproof rack and place it on top of a baking tray. Place in the oven and after the first 15 minutes, turn the oven down to its lowest setting and leave the oranges to dry out for about 5-6 hours, turning them halfway through and opening the door from time to time to let out the steam. Turn off the oven and leave them to continue to dry out in the cooling oven. You can dry apple slices in the same way.

Once the orange slices are completely dry, glue them together in piles of three or four. Poke two holes in the stack of slices with a dowel and thread enough green florists’ wire through the holes to hold them together and to tie them around the wreath. Hide the wire by sticking a star anise over the top.
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Cinnamon bundles
You can buy packs of cinnamon for crafting quite cheaply on Ebay – I bought mine, £2.50 for 40x8cm sticks, from www.floristrywarehouse.com. Stick them together in bundles, tie some floristry wire around them with enough excess to tie them around the wreath. Hide the wire with a raffia or ribbon bow.

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Oranges and lemons
Whole fruits look great and smell wonderful tied to your wreath. Poke a hole through the fruit with a skewer, thread some wire through the hole, leaving enough excess to tie around the wreath. If you like, you can stud the fruit with cloves.

Other things you can tie or stick onto your wreath if you like…

  • Pine cones
  • Bundles of woody herbs such as rosemary or thyme
  • Bits of holly or ivy
  • Nuts
  • Sprigs of eucalyptus or laurel


To assemble your wreath…
Simply tie all of your orange slices, lemons and bundles of cinnamon to your wreath, twisting the wire several times at the back of the wreath to secure them firmly. Trim off the ends of the wire with secateurs. Lighter things, such as apple slices and nuts can be glued directly onto the wreath.

Sunday best

IMAG0270 Before: Dog as tweed cushion.

However hard I’ve been trying to convince myself – and believe me I have – there’s nothing festive about balls of dog hair blowing silently across the floor. I considered spraying them with glitter or weaving them into a festive wreath, but concluded that there is a limit to all of this wild, free-range, organic and home-grown business. Barney really needed grooming before I looked like a mad lady walking a tweed cushion on a lead along Church Street.

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Groom Dog City recently opened a salon (Is it a salon or a parlour? Parlours make me think of poodles with more pom-poms than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleading squad, so I think we’ll stick to salon) in Ravenscroft Street, just off Columbia Road, so I booked him in for their Drop and Shop service – he gets groomed while I get to raid the market unencumbered by a frisky hound on a search and rescue mission for bits of dropped bacon sandwich. We even managed to fit in lunch at the lovely new restaurant, BrawnColchester oysters, pork belly and a delicious pudding of warm pear compôte, crème fraîche and toasted pain d’épice crumbs, thank you very much.

IMAG0284 Warm pear compôte, crème fraîche and toasted pain d’épice crumbs at Brawn.

We picked up the dog, transformed* from miniature woolly mammoth to sleek dog about town by friendly, skilled groomers. No pom-poms, but he did get a little green bow on his collar. It looks pretty festive, actually.

IMAG0290 After: Barney transformed –though I think he’s looking a bit put out that he missed the pork belly.

* Hand stripping a border terrier takes about two and a half hours and costs £40.

A Sunday morning in spring

Columbia Road Daffodils

Finally, our fruit trees arrived – two espaliered apples, a Bramley Seedling and a James Grieve, and a fan-trained Morello cherry.

Our garden is quite small, about 20 feet by 50, standard issue for a London terrace. It slopes upward slightly at the back, as many London gardens do. During the great housing rush at the end of the Nineteenth Century, builders seldom took away their rubble. They just slung it all into a heap at the far end of the garden and covered it with a bit of soil, before racing onto the next house, the next street, the next parcel of profit. When I’m digging, I often turn up an odd fragment of blue and white china or chunks of thick, greenish bottle glass among the broken bricks and shattered slates. Once we even found a stoneware flask from a local wine and spirit merchant.

Columbia Road - Pot

We built a deep, raised bed along the back fence of the garden, open to the ground, for the apple trees. Séan hauled 40 litre sacks of topsoil, 34 of them, through the house to fill it. We planted the trees. I thought they looked majestic, like sails. Our neighbour Paul thinks they look crucified. He has a point. With their two, parallel rows of horizontal branches they do resemble a pair of Orthodox crosses on an altar. In a few weeks, frothy blossom will soften their austerity.

We spent most of the weekend in the garden, tidying, weeding, encouraging the roses’ new shoots over the pergola. We joined the masses at, well, the closest lots of Londoners get to Mass: Columbia Road Flower Market. In that narrow street, for a few hours on Sunday morning, spring is in riot.

Columbia Road - Window A house at the entrance to the market.

I always start my floral pilgrimage in the little courtyard off Ezra Street, where they sell the best coffee in the world, and that’s official.

Columbia Road - Gwilyn's coffee

I can’t decide whether these oysters are the breakfast of champions…Columbia Road - Oysters

Or this chorizo sandwich?Columbia Road - Chorizo sarni

Barney Barney, meanwhile, holds out for a sausage.

Séan's Chair A chair on Sean’s stall (no, not my Séan).

Baguettes from the French cheese stall

Not an ordinary bin!

Columbia Road - Olives

Columbia Road - Bits and bobs I can’t believe I resisted the temptations of this
book by M.E Gagg…

Columbia Road - pots Or these pots.

Suitably fortified, we edge our way into the market.

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Every week, I buy my flowers from Carl. He has the most interesting selection and they’re the best in the market. They always last for at least 10 days; I tell him this must be bad for business.

Columbia Road - Carl Grover Carl’s stall

 Columbia Road - Tulips Tulips

Columbia Road - Roses Roses

Columbia Road - Cherry Blossom Cherry blossom

Columbia Road - Mimosa Mimosa

My garden, kitchen and cooking owe much to the wonderful herbs, fruit and vegetables bought from Carl’s lovely mum and dad, Mr and Mrs Grover, who have had a stall in the market for more than 35 years.

Columbia Road - Grover's herbs Mr and Mrs Grover’s herb stall.

Columbia Road - Grover's Mint Mint

Columbia Road - Grover's Thyme Thyme – how could you resist running your fingers through it?

Columbia Road - Rhubarb Tiny rhubarb plants, pies in waiting.

And onwards into the rest of the market…

Columbia Road stall Hyacinths, cyclamen and primroses.

Hyacinths Before…

Hyacinths … and after.

Cyclamen Tiny cyclamen petals, like butterfly’s wings.

Daisy Cheerful little daisies.

Perennials Perennials in their clods of earth
‘What will I be when I grow up?’

How I learned to cook


What a way to start... 
In 1990 and 1991 I lived in Moscow, on the seventh floor of a concrete block in Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad. Had our apartment been on the right side of the building, we would have looked out on a towering bronze statue of Lenin, his coat flapping in the wind as he gazed sternly towards Gorky Park. As it was, we looked out onto a car park full of faded, boxy Ladas and shiny, boxy Volvos. At night, rats performed their own ravenous ballet in the open rubbish bins.

We had a full-time maid, Katya, and a driver, Uri. This sounds grand but in those days it was mandatory for foreigners. It was how, during the last, brittle glimmers of the communist super power, the authorities kept track of what we were doing, who we were seeing.

Each morning, I asked Katya ‘How’s the weather?’. In winter, she had a special glint in her eye. ‘Oh, minus 25°C,’ or, even better, “Minus 30°C!” “That’s very cold,” I’d say, taking a quick, comforting slug of steaming coffee. “Oh, it’s not so bad. It’s just the way I like it!” she’d say, unpeeling coat, hat, scarf and gloves from her short, round body and changing her thick boots for dainty patent leather shoes. No wonder Napoleon and Hitler didn’t stand a chance against these people.

Our flat had a sitting room, two small bedrooms a kitchen and a bathroom. I could, with a little stretching, have dusted the whole place from the hallway. Not much for Katya to do. I was 24 years old, excited, a bit scared. I’d had a few Russian lessons from a long-lashed, razor-cheeked Serb called Zoran in a bedsit in Earl’s Court. I’d just about mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and learned how to say zdrah-stvooy-tee. I remember thinking that it was hardly surprising a nation with such a long word for ‘hello’ had a reputation for being unfriendly.

So Katya became my Russian teacher. We drank tea and talked. Sometimes we went out and talked. Sometimes we bought ice cream, even in winter, or hot beef pastries from vendors outside the Oktyabrskaya metro station. She taught me how to use the underground and take a tram, how to pay in shops. (See something in a cabinet and ask to look at it, ask the sales person for a ticket, queue up at another counter to pay for it, go back to the first counter with your receipt and collect your purchase, which would then be carefully wrapped in brown paper. You better not be in a hurry.) And, most importantly, she took me to the markets.

I loved the huge Centralny Rynok, the Central Market, the best. In the main hall, there were flower stalls selling chrysanthemums with creamy, billowy heads the size of turnips and carnations dyed lurid shades of electric blue, stalls heaped with walnuts and raisins, strings of dried mushrooms, barrels full of pickled cabbages and cucumbers, boxes of perky lettuce, crates of potatoes and carrots, bunches of dill, coriander and parsley as big as a Cossack’s fist, little bundles of thyme and bay, baskets of lemons and oranges. Citrus fruits were brought up from the southern republics in suitcases by gold-toothed sellers who took advantage of air fares fixed by the state years ago, so selling a few lemons was enough to pay for their 2000 mile round trip between Tblisi and Moscow.

Behind the main hall, there were two long, low buildings. The one on the left sold meat, everything from rows of waxy piglets to legs of lamb, ribs of beef and enormous slabs of pork. In the white-tiled building on the right, stout women with white overalls buttoned tightly over their woollen coats sold milk, yoghurt, cream and cheese in old jam jars and brown paper bags filled with eggs.

In London, I’d bought fruit and veg from the cheerful blokes on Berwick Street Market, tiny, beautiful single-girl lamb cutlets from the butcher on Brewer Street, sardines from the fishmonger on Endell Street, garlicky slices of salami from I Camisa on Old Compton Street. When I left work late, or towards the end of the month when funds were running low, I’d pick up things for dinner at Sainsbury’s on the Finchley Road. Neat. Clean. In Moscow, I was thrown into a world of grubby vegetables and strange cuts of meat sold by men in dirty aprons. Katya taught me to hunt down the finest produce, negotiate the best prices. I enjoyed, for the first time in my life, a sense of the seasons passing. After a long winter and chilly spring, the first strawberries, tomatoes and French beans were more tempting than gold.

In a city where pensioners lived on 90 roubles a month, less than I’d pay for a leg of lamb, I learned not to waste a scrap. In my kitchen on the seventh floor, I cooked simply and entertained a lot. There were few restaurants, so we often ate in each other’s homes. I’d packed Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David, I think because I imagined reading her sensual prose would see me through a bleak Russian winter. But I cooked from it, working my way through its pages, tumbling my Russian vegetables in her French dressing, turning fat little mushrooms into her champignons a la provençale and transforming those Georgian citrus into crème a l’orange. Julia Child said, ‘You learn to cook so that you don’t have to be a slave to recipes.  You get what’s in season and you know what to do with it.’ Well, in those dark winter months, I had time, great ingredients, a warm kitchen, an eager audience and, most importantly, Mrs David at my side, teaching me from her recipes how to cook without recipes.

So there you have it. How I really learned to cook. From Russia, with love. And a licked spoon.

Khachapuri

Khachapuri The khachapuri is on a board I bought in Moscow and have used almost every day since.

Borsch is all well and good, but when I lived in Moscow the foods I enjoyed most were the ones I enjoyed in its handful of Georgian restaurants. Shashlyk, or shish kebab, chicken in walnut sauce, raisiny plov, or pilaf, marinated aubergines…in fact, they were a lot like the dishes I eat now, in Stoke Newington’s many Turkish cafes. The one thing I loved then and crave now is khachapuri, thin breads filled with salty cheese, eaten quickly while they were still hot from the oven. I was thrilled to find a recipe for them in Jill Norman’s delightful Winter Food: Seasonal Recipes for the Colder Months. Jill Norman, Elizabeth David’s editor and literary executor, is an elegant, masterful writer in her own right. If you want to silence that screaming internal yearning for spring, buy this book.

Serves 8

3 eggs
175ml yoghurt
200g plain white flour, plus extra for dusting
½ tsp salt
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
50g cold butter, cut up into pieces, plus extra for greasing
450g cheese, a mixture of feta or havarti and crumbly white cheese such as Wensleydale or white Cheshire or Lancashire work well

Very fresh eggs Getting it all together.

Feta & Wensleydale Mixture of feta and Wensleydale.

Mix away Mixing the flour in with the yoghurt and eggs.

Flouring all the way Shaping the dough.

Putting the lid on Forming the khachapuri.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Beat 1 egg in a large bowl and stir in the yoghurt. Mix together the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda in another bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the flour mixture to the yoghurt and stir to form a dough. Add a little more flour if it is too soft. Knead into a smooth, elastic dough and leave to rest while you prepare the cheese.

Grate or crumble the cheeses coarsely. Beat the second egg and stir it into the cheeses. Set aside. In Jill Norman’s recipe, she divides the dough into eight pieces, rolls each one on a floured board to a circle of about 12-14cm diameter and puts one eighth of the cheese mixture in the centre. Then she gathers up the sides to meet in the centre and either crimps the edges together to enclose the cheese completely, or leaves them slightly open. I decided to make one large round, so I divided the dough in two, rolled out the bottom into a circle, spread the cheese out on top, brushed the edges with egg and placed the second layer on top, crimping the edges firmly. Put the bread/s onto a large, greased baking sheet. Brush with the third beaten egg and bake for 25-30 minutes until browned. The bread is best served hot or warm. Serve it as a satisfying first course or with a salad as a light meal. I served mine with tomato and lentil soup – I’ll post the recipe next week.