It’s the scent that yanks me back, pinching at my nostrils and dragging me helplessly by the nose. A fat, fragrant double-taker of headiness. The brain doesn’t quite compute at first, because all I’m met with is the gaping maw of a white van spewing crimson viscera onto the road, while a flock of Christian youth rap energetically about salvation. But then I gaze a bit further and there they are in all their scarlet splendour. Punnets upon punnets of them. “3 for a pahnd” bellows the red faced man, and the people jostle and throng with their pounds. Further in there are stalls flogging free range organic duck and quail eggs, the biggest papayas I’ve ever seen, chicken’s feet, goat’s livers, ginseng, mustard oil, fresh shea butter, live crabs, green coconuts and tangerine chillies. However, none of this interests me, for it’s that most English of juicy fruit that I’m after. It feels like the whole of Hackney is here, shopping, shouting and bumping into each other in the sunshine. People hug and argue, they flirt with and avoid each other, they coo over and swear at sullen-faced little ones. There are mountain ranges of rubbish everywhere and an intermingling of other, less savoury smells. Drugs are dealt and hearts are broken. You would never get this in Borough Market.
Back home I think about the flavours that might fit. Because they’re not exactly Gariguettes, I decide that they’d be most at home in a savoury salad, one with plenty of balsamic and black pepper to really flatter the fruit. I decide to team them with some tender grilled feta, watercress, cucumber, parsley and smoked almonds in what turns out to be one of the freshest of summer salads and the beginnings of an infatuation with the chaotic brilliance that is Ridley Road market.
Serves 2-3 generously
1 punnet of strawberries, picked over and halved
1 bunch watercress, torn up
gem lettuce roughly chopped
½ cucumber, diced
1 block of feta
a handful of smoked almonds or walnuts
1 tablespoon parsley, finely
1 orange pepper, diced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little extra for drizzling on the feta
plenty of black pepper
1 tbsp toasted pine nuts
3 tsp honey
Small pinch of dried oregano
Sprinkle a little olive oil and the oregano over the feta and brown under a hot grill until tender
While that’s cooling, combine the watercress, cucumber, toasted pine nuts, smoked almonds, orange pepper, strawberries and lettuce in a salad bowl.
Cube and gently mix in the feta
Combine the parsley, balsamic, remaining olive oil, salt, pepper and honey and carefully dress the salad