An English Produce Market Saved Me From Terrible Food

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“Best cabbage I’ve ever tasted there.” I turned around. The man who had spoken had blanched hair and wore heavy blue overalls.

“What, this?” I asked.

“That’s a January King. Freshest ones you can get this time of year. Split it open, cut out the heart from the center, and put it in some boiling water with salt and a little balsamic. I promise you, mate, you’ll never want to eat anything else for the rest of your life.”

“The rest of my life?” I laughed.

“Try it and see.”

The man, I soon learned, was Chris White, owner of the Quick Turnover Fruitery at Oxford’s Gloucester Green Market. Though I had been shopping there for months now, it was the first time I’d met Chris.

I had already had quite a few spirited exchanges with other market employees, one of whom scolded me after I asked her where I could find red chilies. “We sold out of those about 11 this morning,” she said. “We got green chilies. You want red chilies though, darlin’, you set your alarm next week and get your ass out of bed.”

Yes, the Quick Turnover Fruitery was my kind of place.

A few days before moving to Oxford I had visited Drew, a friend from college, on one of those cloudless, just-before-fall New York Saturday afternoons. We raced bicycles across the Williamsburg Bridge to the Union Square Greenmarket.

I marveled at tangles of tender salad greens, marbled prosciutto cut like paper, and heirloom pears whose purebred seed lines dated back to the days when New York was still a colony. “I’m really going to miss good food,” I told Drew as I paid for a bunch of spinach for the risotto we were planning to cook that night.

“You think there’s anything like this in England?” Drew asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m actually pretty nervous about it. I don’t think I’ll make it if I have to eat fish and chips or boiled potatoes and mushy peas every day.”

Thanks to a zealous roommate, my apartment in college had been stocked with free-range eggs in the fridge, local hormone-free pork in the freezer, and organic fruit on the table every day. I admit to having become one of those self-righteous people who think a lot about food—where it comes from, how I buy it, and how flavorful it is. Now, I was getting ready to spend two years of my life in a country that wasn’t, you could say, obsessed with such issues.

My first trips to Oxford’s supermarket chains only confirmed my fears. While the selection of meat and produce was more exciting than I had expected, after too many ventures with mealy smoked fish and lackluster root vegetables that all tasted like potatoes, I knew something had to give.

That’s why I was so excited to discover Quick Turnover. During my first visit, I was beaming as I filled a basket with hearty yellow bananas, organic salad greens, Braeburn apples from an orchard a few miles north, turnips and beans and peppers from Oxfordshire farms.

I immediately felt at home, despite the differences between Quick Turnover and Union Square—a chic labyrinth of tents and tables where it was hard to find anyone (aside from the farmers) who wasn’t wearing slim jeans and scarves.

By contrast, Oxford’s Quick Turnover Fruitery seemed so… well, normal. There was dust and rainwater and an earthy, ripening smell. And there wasn’t a hipster in sight.

In fact, Chris White laughed when I described the Union Square Greenmarket. Our conversation had moved on from cabbages to the differences between my home and host countries. I admitted to Chris my fears about the “food culture” in the UK and told him how happy I had been to find his market. “Is ‘buying local’ becoming a trend here?” I asked him.

Chris laughed again. It’s mistaken to talk about a local food “movement” in England, he explained, because for much of the country’s modern history, producing, selling, and buying food has been a local interaction. “But now,” he said, “there’s a trend toward buying cheap. I’m 70 years old. I’ve been running this market right here in the Green since 1952, and I’ve never been more afraid than I am right now.”

I watched Chris place a basket of apples on the table, taking care to arrange them just right. His hands, I thought, were gentle, as though they were cradling not fruit but a child. “Everything’s changing,” he said. “Places are so clinical now. You used to see the food, feel it. You got to move around, you could hold an apple in your hand like this. There were hawkers, vendors—you interacted with people, you knew who you were buying from. Now, with supermarkets it’s all fluorescent lights and tile floors and white boxes.”

“It’s weird,” I said. “A lot of people back home would think you’re a radical.”

“Me? Hardly. I just sell fruit.” Chris said he considers himself “not a complicated man.” His priorities are to make a simple living and to know the people who are buying his food.

He glanced around and cleared his throat. “All right!” he said. “Braeburn apples! Eight for two pounds! They ain’t gonna be here all day!”

I picked one up and added it to my shopping bag, along with the cabbage. I felt good. Not only because I had found a place to buy fresh, healthy, and tasty food, but because I could do so without pigeon-holing myself into some trendy social niche. But I also felt worried for Chris and his livelihood—and feared for the day when shopping at a market like Quick Turnover would be considered countercultural.

I returned home to hear the North London lilt of one of my roommates. “Look at all that!” she exclaimed. Making the sign of a cross over the bags she intoned in half-jest, “Dear God, may Chris White and the Quick Turnover Fruitery please keep delivering us from the evil of terrible food.”

“Amen,” I said.

And the cabbage? I prepared it with some salt and a dash of balsamic, just as Chris had instructed. He was right. It was divine.

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