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So apparently farmers’ markets are not always places of peace and tranquility. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at this article – what do you think?
What do a red-hot corncob, a Chinese back scratcher, and a bottle of Bennet’s Apple cider have in common? They were all used as weapons this morning, in a horrible brawl at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market. Eight people to hospital with major injuries.
“It was getting really ugly,” says eye witness, Carry Leverton. “And then someone threw a flaming pastry. That’s when shit got really real.”
What sparked this eruption of violence? The market’s planning committee’s decision to give away the last spot in the market to a dollar store instead of a vegan bakery.
The workers at one the flower shops, with the help of a cheese vendor, allegedly cornered several members of the committee while people were setting up their stalls. One committee member mentioned that every rose has its thorn, and that seemed to be the tipping point.
“It’s about integrity, isn’t it? It’s supposed to be…
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Your local market may not just be the provider of an excellent supper – keep your eyes and ears open, and you may just find it also provides you with a fabulous story as well. This turned out to be the case when I spoke to Beth Parkinson, who runs the stall Beth’s Buns at Leominster and Hereford farmers’ markets.
Cakes are all the rage these days. Anyone who’s anyone can whip up a decent sponge with a bit of fancy butter icing, and honestly I was expecting a story that could probably be replicated at any other market across Britain. Beth, however, has hit upon a culinary combination unlike any other I’d seen before (N.B. I’ve seen rather a lot – my mother runs a cake box business, so I’m regularly updated with what’s hot in the nitty gritty world of cupcakes).
For not only does Beth make and sell her own cakes – she also has a pilates business. She cheerfully explains the provenance of the name of her business, Beth’s Buns: “Cakes and bottoms are the buns that I work with. But mostly cakes!”
And apparently it’s a combination that works well. With a logic that cannot fail, she demonstrates how pilates and cake are concepts that are almost inextricably entwined: “Some people think that pilates and cake combination doesn’t work, because they kind of counter each other, but I figure if you have a piece of cake you can then work it off with the exercise and then have a piece of cake as a reward, so I think it works beautifully.
“I love teaching pilates because it’s a real feel good kind of exercise and cake is a very feel good thing as well, so generally it’s about putting a smile on people’s faces.”
If cake and pilates weren’t enough, Beth is trained as a singer and a dancer, and she also works for a Christian charity. Her work here means that unfortunately the residents of Hereford will soon have to find their cakes elsewhere, as she is about to move out to Cambodia to help set up a church. While Hereford’s tummies and bottoms may be bereft, their loss is Cambodia’s gain.
Beth says, “I’m hoping to do the pilates out there, because there are lots of hotels that I’ll be able to do that in, and I don’t know about the baking because I’ve got no idea what ingredients I’m going to be able to get hold of. The guys I’m living with are hoping I’m going to be able to make cake, but we’ll see if this actually stays as a business. But the pilates hopefully will carry on.
“I have no idea if Cambodians like cake. I hope so! Otherwise I’m going to be at a loss on how to make friends, because that’s how I make friends generally. I give people cake to make them like me. It’s bribery, plain and simple.”
Who has ever been tempted to throw some summer fruits into your trolley so that you can pretend winter isn’t here yet? Has anyone ever been able to say no to a custard-covered, homemade apple pie, just because it happens to have been unseasonably served on a dark February night?
The tendency of supermarkets to import food means that we are fooled into thinking we can eat what we want when we want. We give little thought to the carbon footprint involved in transporting these items halfway across the world. We are not even deterred by the fact that, for every unseasonal asparagus that has been flown into Tescos and landed in our refrigerators, there is a juicier and more timely carrot fairly nearby, waiting to be dug out from the soil and put our plates.
Falling for your best friend
In fact, our eating habits echo the classic romcom storyline: it is a case of ignoring the one who is right for you in favour of the cooler and more exotic option. Think Legally Blonde, The Princess Diaries or Clueless. At some stage, we are just going to have to realise that seasonal vegetables are not only our best friends, but also extremely easy to love.
For instance, the opportunity for shopping at farmers’ markets means that your relationship with seasonal fruit and vegetables can be easier and more comfortable than that you might share with their imported brethren.
Rather than shopping with a particular recipe in mind, complete in the knowledge that the faceless supermarket down the road will stock all the ingredients regardless of the season, why not browse your local market and choose what looks tastiest and freshest? You might even discover some vegetable previously unknown to you. The trader will probably be able to recommend some recipes to you on the spot, though with the readiness of smartphones and the Good Food app, it is easy to find recipes to fit your ingredients while you’re out and about. You might even meet some culinary-minded members of your local community who are happy to share a recipe or two with you.
Let your love grow
Perhaps your newfound relationship with your vegetables could turn into a real life romance – or, as one lovestruck farmers’ market shopper puts it, “Oh, how Steve could sling those 10-pound bags of potatoes!” What more could you want in a man?
What’s more, from this statement, we know that this particular couple met in either October, November or December, since this is when potatoes are at their best. Who needs facebook to track the blossoming of love when you have a handy chart to pinpoint the exact time when the vegetable you most associate with your beloved is in season?
So if your loved one’s birthday falls between September and March, this year swap those flowers for a leek! Or this Valentine’s Day, you could try presenting your other half not with roses but with a savoy cabbage, which are at their best in February. Go on. Try it.
All in all, the advantages to eating seasonally are numerous and tangible. You eat fresher food, protect the environment, and you are almost guaranteed to improve your love life. Better stock up on the celery and artichokes when you can – they are both well-known aphrodisiacs of the vegetable world.
The recent fervour for Instagram images of food pinpoints the way in which we believe a superior meal is one accompanied by a hefty side dish of nostalgia (particularly if you self-identify as a hipster). For many, food is not only a means of sustenance, but also something that connects us to times gone by.
Markets are one place where we feel we can connect with traditions that have elsewhere been laid to rest without the help of a grainy filter. Without even a hint of sepia, markets evoke the sort of world where one imagines Robin Hood might have shopped had he not been an outlaw. It is possible to imagine for a moment that the industrial revolution didn’t happen as the balance shifts towards food that is handmade, homegrown and handpicked from the family annals.
But obviously this is not 1066 and we are not characters in Game of Thrones or any other medieval fantasy (though check out this blog to see what kind of food we might be eating if we were). As one of my favourite journalists, Paul Kingsnorth, writes in his book Real England, markets today are “a strange, twenty-first-century extension of the kind of chaotic street market that has been at the centre of English life for thousands of years.”
Curry in a farmhouse
Rayeesa Asghar-Sandys, a trader at Leominster Farmers’ Market, has a business model that throws our nostalgia for the simple things into the mixing pot with the authentic foreign flavours that we also demand from the 21st century reincarnation of the marketplace. She runs Rayeesa’s Indian Kitchen, an Indian cookery school set in the heart of Herefordshire in a 500 year old farmhouse. She sells the sauces she makes at the local markets.
Her business, she says, is “a unique combination of Asian and British. It’s such a great way of learning all the basics of Indian cooking, learning about the spices and understanding the health benefits. The farmhouse that we’re in, it’s a beautiful setting high up on the hill, so it looks out over Herefordshire. It’s very remote.”
The curry nation
Britons have been eating curry for over 200 years, and the popularity of curry in Britain today has allowed Rayeesa to introduce the authentic flavours that she was fed as a child, for which there is a particular demand in rural areas.
“Britain is a curry nation, so why not make the most of it and bring a more authentic flavour to people’s homes? I do think that there is still a restaurant style curry and a real authentic home cooked curry, and more and more people are experiencing the real thing now, so people’s palates have changed. They are a lot more sophisticated about what they want to eat, so if you go in a restaurant there’s a lot more variety. You get a lot more authentic restaurants now coming up in London certainly, but not so much in rural areas like this.”
Probably most of us have at least one recipe that has been passed down to us through the generations, and Rayeesa is no exception. Her recipes are lifted out of memories of her childhood.
“Food has always been a part of my life. I grew up in a home where my mum always cooked amazing food every single day, so we were used to that. As you grow older and move away from home, you miss out on those things, so I try to keep it alive and keep those recipes going, and I just found that people loved it.”
On the premise that man cannot live on artisan bread alone, but also needs clothes, gin and automated clocks from time to time, I wrote this article for the beautiful magazine Lost In London. It turns out life is just as colourful at vintage markets as it is at farmers’ markets…
Wood Street Market is designed not for shopping, but for treasure hunting. With each corner you turn, there is a new perspective on the general disarray. The stallholders embrace the chaos, allowing their stock to sometimes encroach out of the shop units and into the covered paths. Each pile of clutter promises discovery.
Wood Street Market is a local treasure in itself, albeit a hidden one. Tucked away behind Walthamstow’s busy main road, it is a place that seems to be stumbled upon, rather than sought out. The building itself began life in 1912 as the Crown Cinema, operated by the Penny Picture Theatre Company. The space has now been used as a market for over 30 years, although its fortune and reputation has fluctuated wildly in this time.
The market thrived in the 80s, but then suffered a period of poverty and degradation. Helen Greenwood, who grew up in Walthamstow, recalled that she and her friends used to run past it as children, afraid of its tatty alleyways.
Recently returned from studying, she rediscovered the market quite by accident: “I had a bit more time, so I thought I’d come an explore the local area a bit. It was so off the beaten track, I never even knew it was here, but it was just off Wood Street. It was like a little gem.” She now works in one of the many vintage shops housed by the market.
Wood Street Market is now going through a transition phase thanks to a regeneration project launched last year. Although a smattering of the original stallholders remain, funding from the Mayor’s Outer London Fund has attracted an influx of new talent, and allowed the building to be restored to some of its former glory.
A new facade was designed for the market by architects Gort Scott, and the interior was also refurbished. In an attempt to boost business and restore the vibrancy that characterized the market 30 years ago, the architects together with the council ran a competition for three months free rent in their empty units. Julie Davis, who runs the market, recalls, “We got about a hundred applicants, lots of different people, everything from artists, flowers, cakes, creative people, and t-shirt printing. We had a selection process and we chose about 20 people.”
A diamond in the rough
With such a pick and mix of different stalls, there is no easy way to navigate your way through, and absolutely no telling what you will chance upon as you browse. It is probably best to approach this market with no specific expectations other than that of unearthing something you completely would not expect to find. These surprise discoveries are not limited to novelty purchases. It is the stories and the people that really carve out something special in this rickety building.
For me, the discovery of the day was not for sale (although it had an estimated price is £150,000). It is an automata clock, the life’s work of Walthamstow local John Rowe, who has worked at Wood Street Market since its beginning. The components of this clockwork masterpiece are laid out behind a glass window cabinet, but unlike with your typical impersonal window display, the artist behind the contents hovers around the area, ready to leap into an explanation of his work to anyone who is interested.
John patiently takes me through each of the fifteen automated functions that, when the clock is finished, will bring the fairy grotto scene to life every hour on the hour. It is a work that has been eight years in the making, and it will be another eight before it is completed. He notes, however, that he took a seven year break during the process to mourn the loss of his dog, Lucy. Work has only recently recommenced thanks to persuasion from the other stallholders.
Why all the hard work? He explains: “I’ve just done it because I love children, and I love the subject. It’s just a nice subject, like Christmas is a nice subject. And just knowing how the children’s faces will be, because I’ve seen them with it like this.” He gestures towards the various components in the cabinet.
A world of whimsy
If you prefer the sort of treasure that you can take home in a little bag, there is no shortage of weird and wonderful offerings. As can be expected, the place is a veritable treasure trove for the lover of vintage clothes and jewellery, but it also caters for those with a penchant for reupholstered furniture, rare records and antique maps.
One of the more whimsical stalls is Mother’s Ruin. Becky Griffths set up the shop three months ago, and she makes her gin entirely from scratch. She grows the fruit, picks it, makes the liqueurs and designs the overall look of the product. On top of that, she is employed part time as a social worker, and morris dances as a hobby.
She has found that the market provides the perfect location for the style and size of her business. Becky says that her tiny unit has allowed her to “go crazy with the quality”, enabling her to recreate the atmosphere of one of historic London’s notorious gin palaces on a miniature scale. From the richly patterned wallpaper to the 18th century replica dresser, walking into her shop is like entering into a sort of gothic underworld.
She emphasises, however, that despite her attention to detail, the overall effect is meant to be humorous. She points out the cartoon framed on her wall – it is Hogarth’s famous print, ‘Gin Palace’. She says that her design was “a nod towards all of that Hogarth stuff about Mother’s Ruin, which is the whole thing around women drinking too much gin. In the 18th century gin was very cheap and lots of people made it. It was all about looking at that historical context of gin in London. But it’s also a little bit tongue-in-cheek because it is just me selling my gin with my homemade labels.”
Old versus new
Wood Street market currently hangs in the balance between the contemporary vision of the new generation of stallholders, and the time-honoured traditions of those who have been here since the start. The community that has grown up around it is having to adapt to the presence of the new arrivals. As I walk and talk my way through the market, I certainly feel the influence of the old market hanging over its shiny new reinvention.
It is a time of change, and whenever great changes take place, you can be certain that there will be a philosopher not too far away to reflect on the process. At Wood Street Market, this role is filled by Guido Ratti, an Italian who moved to London for his love of punk music. He now runs the record shop Hypstrz.
He muses: “We have to live under the same roof, so it’s better to get along. It works in exactly the same way for the whole world. We all have to live in the same world, so therefore we have to support each other and be cool.”
Last weekend, I finally had the opportunity to see if the reality of continental Christmas markets matches the image I have of them in my head.
I had imagined bratwurst, gingerbread and mulled wine, each handed over with a bearded Flemish gentleman. I had pictured ice-skating and a choir of angel-faced German schoolboys singing ‘O Tannenbaum’ on repeat in the town square.
So, joined by my family, I boarded the Eurostar at some horrendous hour of the morning, and made the trip to Belgium.
I have made a short film about our adventures:
This little trip inspired me to find a bit more about Christmas markets in my own country. Are we still hopelessly indebted to Teutonic traditions, or has Britain managed to put its own stamp onto one of Christmas’s most delightful imports?
A brief history of Christmas markets
Christmas markets, or Christkindlmarkt, have been a feature of the festive season in German-speaking parts of Europe since medieval times. Dresden hosts one of the oldest markets, which dates back to 1434.
The markets usually took place around the city’s main church, with the idea that this would bring the devout to the stalls. However, by the 17th century, these markets had become so popular that, in 1616, a priest in Nürnberg complained that no one was attending his afternoon service on Christmas Eve.
The British finally got a proper taste of this tradition in 2001, when Frankfurter Kurt Stroscher was tasked with marketing his home city abroad. A company of German stallholders crossed the channel and set up for business in Birmingham. Initially intended as a one-off, the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market was met with such enthusiasm that it now takes place every year.
Shopping 19th century style
The penchant for continental markets has continued. Along with the original Birmingham market, market-goers can now visit the Newcastle Continental Christmas Market, Glasgow Christmas Continental Market and Leeds Christkindlmarkt among others.
That is not to say, however, that the British contribution towards the world of Christmas markets remains hopelessly derivative of the German’s. So we may have “borrowed” the concept of the Christkindlmarkt, but, let’s face it, stealing from the Germans is basically a Christmas tradition in itself these days – we’ve appropriated several of our most popular carols, nutcrackers, and, most unsubtly of all, the Christmas tree.
There is, however, one Christmas tradition that remains distinctively British: Charles Dickens. The author of A Christmas Carol has been channelled into almost every aspect of our Yuletide celebrations, and not a festive season goes by when there is not some new adaptation of his novels.
Last year there was a deluge of Dickens with the BBC miniseries The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, broadcast throughout the second half of December, which parodied a number of Dickens novels. This year, a movie version of Great Expectations has been timed to coincide with the Christmas season, because nothing fills you with glad tidings of comfort and joy more than a jilted woman in a decaying wedding dress.
As such, the Victorians, otherwise perceived as a fairly humorless bunch, have become synonymous with festive cheer. This is reflected in this year’s Christmas markets, where the Victorian period is adopted as a theme with growing frequency.
Ruth Wakeling, who set up the Melton Mowbray Victorian Fayre, said that her choice of theme was “something different” to all the other markets out there when it first began nine years ago, but that now Victorian markets have eclipsed continental markets in popularity.
She added: “The Victorian period and Christmas seem to go together. It adds a nice feel to the town, and I think the costumes contribute.”
But where, dear fellow, may I buy my goose?
Dickensian markets this year include Rochester’s Dickensian Christmas and Ulverston Dickensian Christmas Festival.
There is also a great deal of markets under the broader Victorian theme. On Saturday 8th December, Leominster will be holding a Victorian Christmas Market, where stallholders will be dressed in Victorian costume. Wrexham has its Victorian Christmas Market until the 13th, and Chester’s runs right up until the 24th.
Caerphilly is breaking the mould somewhat by running a medieval market. Personally, I’d like to see a reenactment of a mid-1600s Christmas market, during which Christmas was banned. Imagine having to hide all those turkeys each time someone in uniform walked past…
On a practical level, focusing on the British side of things allows vendors to sell their own produce. This means the markets remain sustainable and ethical, supporting the local economy, rather than transporting stollen halfway across the continent.
I spoke to Claire Weeks at Cardiff Christmas Market about her independent company Random Vintage, and how things are going at her stall this season.
Claire was selling the following lovely products, some of which definitely had an Old Curiosity Shop feel to them…