Farmers' markets offer rich pickings for the Christmas table, says Richard McComb.
With 13 shopping days to Christmas, thoughts are dominated by an overriding concern: festive food.
Naturally, there is turkey and the stuffing, but what about the plum pudding, fruit and spice chutneys, fruit-packed jams, earthy swedes and carrots, golden ales and scrummy puddings for Boxing Day?
And where can you get celebration cakes – proper homemade celebration cakes – toffee apples, ice creams, pastries and pies, lemon curd and meringues and blow-your-head-off mustards for Auntie Maud?
A miserable trek to the supermarket, scowling at cut-price Baileys and two-for-ones on plastic mince pies, has become a ritual in many households. You stand in line and survey the pre-pack. It is shopping devoid of joy – shopping devoid of Christmas.
Fortunately, there is an alternative and it’s not that far from your doorstep. Despite the worst efforts of price-slashing multi-nationals, it is still possible to get the best of locally produced foods and drink thanks to a plucky rearguard action being fought by the farmers’ market movement.
City dwellers need only take a short bus ride to get their hands on top quality, unadulterated produce in the heart of Birmingham. And if you haven’t been before, there’s never been a better time than Christmas to pop along to an urban farmers’ market.
Moseley’s is the granddaddy of them all and is basking in the glow of being named the National Urban Farmers’ Market of the Year 2009. The award comes from the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association, which certifies farmers’ markets across the UK and ensures the produce is made locally, not shipped in from a dodgy wholesaler or the back of a lorry from Krakow.
When Moseley farmers’ market started in 1999, there were just seven stalls. By the first Christmas, that number had swelled to 15 but no one, not even its fiercest champions, could have foreseen how successful the market would become.
David Isgrove, who helped to set up the market with the Moseley Forum, says: “Initially, local traders were very nervous about what would happen but we found that Moseley people loved the market, not only for the food but because it has provided a meeting place. The market has helped Moseley rediscover its sense of community.
“It has taken 11 years since my wife and I had the idea of starting a farmers’ market and over nine years since the first seven farmers came to Moseley wondering if they were daft and it would work.”
Today, Moseley is very much a market of the people, for the people, drawing 5,000 shoppers to the suburb on the fourth Saturday of each month (Christmas is the exception, falling on the third Saturday). Any profits are ploughed back into the local area – for projects such as art displays, music festivals, the Christmas lights and Moseley in Bloom – via a not-for-profit organisation with designated status as a Community Interest Company.
When the market holds its final pre-Christmas gathering on Saturday, December 20, there will be 55 stall-holders – including four of the original “magnificent” seven, featuring apples and juices from Worcestershire-based Old Sandlin Fruit and home-reared pork from Berryfields Farm, Meriden, near Solihull.
“Among the 55 stalls you can get almost everything you need for your Christmas meal,” says David, who is markets manager. It is no idle boast. The market has fantastic organic smoked salmon; there is pheasant, rabbit and other game; turkey, duck and hams are among 13 different meats; there are award-winning liqueurs and spirits, real ales, wines, ciders and apple juices; and the three cheese stalls include Fowlers of Earlswood, Solihull, the oldest cheese-making family in England.
Then there are the irresistible extras that make Christmas feasting so enjoyable, like smoked chutneys; jams; chocolates and fudge; sauces and dressings; and cakes and pies.
“There is such a community feel to market day. It is a social event and it is fun. People can taste all sorts of different products, such as cheeses, sausages and honeys. You just can’t do that at a supermarket,” adds David.
Moseley is one of three farmers markets in Birmingham approved by the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets
Association (FARMA). The others are at Kings Norton and the University of Birmingham while a fourth, Birmingham farmers’ market, held in the city centre in New Street, is seeking certification.
Overseas farmers’ markets, say in France or Italy, are seen as the shopping territory of the working man and woman as well as the gourmet dilettantes. Yet in the UK the markets have attracted an unwarranted reputation as middle-class foodie playgrounds. It is an image FARMA is keen to dispel.
A FARMA spokesman said: “Like all good businesses, farmers’ markets and farm shops cater for budgets large and small. So, for those that want to splash out a bit, they are ideal places to buy a free range, corn-fed, well-hung, dry-plucked bronze or rare breed bird.
“For those wanting to spend less, there are excellent barn-reared white turkeys or chickens, all fresh from local farms. All will taste great and, rather than the anonymity of the supermarket, you will have bought from a real person and a local business, and helped them to thrive through these difficult economic times.”
These views are echoed by Duncan Ross, co-founder of Kings Norton farmers’ market, which is held on the edge of the suburban “village” green. Duncan says the markets offer good value for quality products. Organic meat can be bought for half the price of the supermarket equivalents, he says.
“Our fruit and veg is as cheap as the supermarkets but it is much fresher,” adds Duncan. “If you go to a farmers’ market in the countryside people shop there because they want to support farmers. In the city, it is more about people wanting good food and knowing where it has come from.”
What’s more, there is the opportunity for banter and bartering. “If you go to a supermarket, you can go round it in silence. At a farmers’ market it is all about asking and talking to the stallholders. They are naturally noisy places.”
Henry Wormington will be selling his earthy root vegetables and wife Cas’ homemade jam, produced from their own soft fruits, at Bromsgrove farmers’ market tomorrow. He will then head off to Malvern the following weekend for the final countdown to Christmas.
Henry is chairman and co-ordinator of Worcestershire Farmers’ Markets Group and says direct sales to the public have helped him and other small and medium sized farmers (he’s got 100 acres at Stoke Prior) to survive.
“We used to take our produce to the wholesalers and it was being sold below the price of production,” says Henry, who now only sells direct to the public at his farm and at markets.
The Worcestershire Farmers’ Markets Group comprises 90 producers ranging from traditional farmers and market gardeners to bakers and producers making ready-to-eat homemade meals. The organisation was set up in 2000 as a non-profit making organisation run by farmers in partnership with local authorities and market operators. Its work has become, in a comparatively short space of time, an accepted part of local retailing and cultural life, safeguarding the future of fragile rural businesses.
Henry says: “Nearly 10 years on, the novelty of farmers’ markets has gone. The customers are happy with what we are doing. We are not looking at the bottom end and the bottom price. We are looking to sell our quality products at good prices.”
Shoppers are no longer inquisitive or reluctant to try out the farmers’ “wholesome food” because “they have tried it and they are happy.” “People appreciate a home-made product,” adds Henry.
His wife’s jam only costs £1.50 a jar – and has three times the fruit content of most shop-bought imposters.
Still mulling over where to shop for Christmas?
* A selection of the best Christmas Farmers' Markets in the Midlands
Saturday, December 13: Kings Norton; Harborne; Kenilworth; Leominster; Wem; Stafford.
Wednesday, December 17: New Street, Birmingham.
Thursday, December 18: Hereford.
Friday, December 19: Warwick; Oswestry.
Saturday, December 20: Moseley; Stratford-on-Avon; Atherstone; Malvern; Leominster.
Sunday, December 21: Leamington Spa; Pershore.