This is a good sandwich. Fresh bread, earthy spinach, smoked cheese, and a thin slice of lomo, a Spanish style ham. I met each person who made, grew, or produced each part this morning. I know that the spinach was grown 15 miles away, the cheese has come by ferry from the Isle of Arran, the lomo is from a free range Mangalitza pig with a thick curly coat and a diet of woodland plants, and the thick sourdough bread was baked this morning. It tastes all the better for these morsels of information.
A few Saturdays each month I work at a farmer’s market in Edinburgh. I love many things about those days: setting up the stall so it looks appealing, seeing what delights other stalls have on offer, picking out fresh bread at the end of my shift, but most of all I enjoy watching the customers. All kinds of people come to the market: tourists, locals, the ‘regulars’ who come through wind and hail, people on their way to somewhere else, young people, old people, foodies, photographers, and families.
A relationship exists between the stall holder (often the farmer) and the customer, on equal terms. The customer can ask for a particular product, and the stall holder can tell them all they wish to know about it, or explain why it is not on offer. As an example, one stall sells rare breed pedigree Belted Galloway beef for two weeks of the year. It is not available the rest of the time as they have a small herd, and they slaughter at 3 years old rather than earlier, unlike most commercial beef.
Often the customer knows exactly what they want, and it is heartening to hear many more people than one might expect asking for liver, heart, and kidneys. They have fantastic recipe ideas for these sometimes neglected pieces of meat. Undoubtedly their adventurousness is aided by their skills in the kitchen, but this need not put off people new to cooking; the stall holders have plenty of hints and tips.
Many people coming to market are on holiday and are curious to see what produce is on offer that is different to their home country. Haggis is always a talking point, but so is the biltong which is a best seller on the stall I work at. Biltong is a South African delicacy, a strip of meat which is dried, cured, and seasoned. Traditionally made from wild kudu or springbok in South African plains, the pieces I sell are venison from deer which have roamed the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. Many people try it for the first time at the stall and enjoy its chewy texture and gamey flavour. However, I particularly enjoy it when people from South Africa taste a piece. Their eyes light up when they see it, and then they look suspicious – will it taste as good as the real thing? Sometimes they find it not dry enough and enjoy telling me how it should be done, but often it is satisfying, and they are reminded of home. One lady told me it is used for teething babies, the taste of a food stretching back to before it is possible to remember trying it for the first time.
Families come to the market for a day out and, in general, the children will try all manner of different produce. It was wonderful to see a father showing his son some fresh shellfish, both agreeing how monstrous they looked, but clearly relishing taking them home and cooking them together.
Shopping at the market can also provide very good value for money. There is a wide variety of produce on offer and you can pick smaller vegetables or cuts of meat which wouldn’t make the grade on supermarket shelves. The stall holders may make you a deal if it’s the end of the day, and loyal customers often get a discount or an extra little something slipped in.
Markets provide a connection between producer and customer which is badly lacking in supermarkets, and this connection makes shopping, cooking, and eating so much more enjoyable. You know the story of the food, and it’s a story you have a part in.
Halcyon, SFYN member