Twenty-five years ago, when my time was cheap and work scarce, I spent three days as a reporter in the old Bull Ring Market in Birmingham. The built, scuffed, graffiti-strewn, urine-splashed environment was due for demolition to make way for the glossy city centre that now occupies the space. Few were prepared to mourn the grey concrete sprawl, with its shadowed underpasses, but it housed a unique retail culture that deserved to be recorded before it went. I was sent to do the recording.
There were the lines of flower stalls run by ladies of a certain age. They were sisters but traded independently of each other, because of a decades-old row that they could not quite bring themselves to explain. There was the fruit trader with sparkling blues eyes and skin the colour of conker who told me the unusual combination was on account of his “pure Romany blood”. It seemed fair to take his word for it. There were the butchers, and the stands selling overstuffed roast pork sandwiches, and the barber with the switchblade who gave me a shave so close it felt like puberty had been reversed.
Sentimentality for its own sake is foolish. There were, of course, dodgy goods being sold down there, and food items so beyond their safe date you wouldn’t foist them on an unloved pet. Buyer beware and so on. For all that obvious stuff, my love for a classic market remains undiminished. As a student in Leeds, I was sustained by the cheap deals offered within the Victorian glories of the Kirkgate Market and rewarded myself with baps full of thick cut, dry-cured bacon cooked on a black hot-plate in its own grease. For me a real market is one that sells both bacon baps and big knickers.
Walking through Doncaster’s market, even on a quiet day when most of the big-knicker stands are shuttered, brings a sweet reminder of their joys; the sense that around the next corner might well be something you didn’t know you absolutely needed. In the section of the covered market dedicated to fish, that something is Clam & Cork, a small seafood café doing lovely things with the catch that arrives here daily, mostly from Grimsby a few miles due east.
With a venture like this, location is everything. If a wet fish stand in one of Brixton’s covered markets turned from selling seafood full time to cooking it, the least you’d get is a bit of championship standard eye-rolling. It would probably turn into a shouty row about the bloody middle classes coming in here with their hoity-toity bouillabaisse recipes. The moaning would be interminable. It would be justified, but interminable.
In Doncaster, it’s still a kind of gentrification, but it has to be welcome – even if its fondest cheerleaders will vouch that Donnie is hardly overrun with great eating options, especially ones offering this level of value. We are won over straightaway by a plate of five fat crab claws in the lightest of lacy tempura batters, pockmarked with pieces of fresh red and green chilli. There’s a garlic and lime mayo to dredge them through and the instruction to hold the tip of the claw with a napkin because the shell will still be hot from the bubbling oil. It’s a lot of fresh crab for £9.50.
About a quid more gets you a platter of fat scallops, fiercely seared on one side, with cubes of crisped pork belly, slivers of extra crackling, apple sauce and a few green leaves. I’ve seen plates like this served up in many a fancy restaurant of the sort where teenage waiters are employed solely to lead you to the toilets because, with your ability to spend stupid money on dinner, comes the assumption that you are also helpless. But it’s always been at double the price or more – and the kitchen had walls rather than being open to the elements.
A south Indian fish curry, full of fillets of meaty white fish treated with tenderness and care, comes in a sweet and deep caramel-coloured sauce of the sort that makes me fear for my shirt. It is heavy with roasted spices and attention to detail. Even the timbale of rice in the middle of the plate is a beauty. Some kitchens just can’t do rice. It comes out in a soggy clag. This is a delightful dome that breaks apart into fluffy grains at the tap of a fork. That is what somewhere like Clam & Cork does to you. It is so good-natured, such a joyous, simple find, that you end up sighing over well-cooked rice.
To check out the basics, we get a crispy fish burger and chips. The fillet is properly crispy, the batter setting in all the tight crevices, and the chips are exemplary. The toddler to my right, out of his pushchair, is very happy indeed. As he should be. The best I can do for a gripe is, the squid rings hadn’t been entirely freed of membrane before being deep-fried in their salt and pepper batter. But that’s just me trying to look all butch and critic-like.
There are no desserts yet, but they say they’re thinking about it. The service is cheery, when it makes sense for it to happen; most of the time dishes just get handed straight out of the kitchen to the diner by the nearest chef. Otherwise our Slovakian waitress, who tells us she’s here in Doncaster “because life happened”, does the heavy lifting. Right now, it is open only until 4pm, unless the horses are running over at Doncaster Races and then it closes at 8pm. But don’t spend your money on the gee-gees. Spend it on lunch at the Clam & Cork. You’ll thank both me, and them.
Much closer to (my) home inside the covered market known as Brixton Village is Beijing street food café Mamalan. They offer a menu of dumpling and noodle dishes. I’ve become utterly addicted to their crispy chicken wings with chili oil. London is overrun with wing options – the Sichuan wings at Chik’n on Baker Street also deserve an honourable mention – but these are the best (mamalan.co.uk).
Investor Luke Johnson, who recently had to put together a personal £20m package of loans to rescue Patisserie Valerie from closure, is facing another challenge. The sale of the 40-strong Gail’s Bakery group, which Johnson is also a major investor in, has been delayed, probably until after Brexit.