ONE of the great pleasures about shopping at farmers’ markets is that you get to know the people who make the food you are buying. This is stating the obvious, I know, but it never ceases to amaze me that there are those out there who are prepared to work punishing hours, to forego holidays, to risk everything in order to produce something they believe in.
We have been up to Northumberland recently, to revisit old haunts and find new ones. The last time I went to Newcastle there were still rooks for sale in the covered market, vital ingredients for rook pie, and that was a very long time ago indeed. This time we never even got near to the market as the weather was too hot for city centres, and we headed out towards Vindolanda on the Roman Wall instead.
This is an amazing place for seeing the collection of shoes worn by those long ago inhabitants (Roman centurions had pretty big feet, judging by their sandals, which looked almost exactly the same as those strappy things for sale now, 2,000 years later), and reading the notes they wrote to each other, inviting the recipients to a birthday party, or telling the commander at the next fort just how many helpers were being sent to build up a wall but there was nothing to tell us what they ate. By the number of jars found they managed to import the olive oil they must have been so homesick for.
But it did occur to me, when we talked to the curer of mutton we met at the Alnwick farmers’ market, that what she was offering us must have been very like the delicacy enjoyed by those Roman families. In spite of finding that we had been stupid enough to fly north and so had no means of taking anything back with us that needed refrigeration in temperatures of 28°, she gave us slivers of flavoursome and tender meat to try as the three of us listened to her story of setting up her business. I wondered whether the dry, cold climate of Northumberland was especially useful in allowing for a dry cure for her meat, but she said no. That in fact if the surface of the meat dried too quickly, it formed a seal that prevented the interior curing evenly – bang went another theory of mine. She admitted that she found Caproleus, our own charcutiers down here in Dorset, a great source of inspiration, and so another link in the good food chain was forged.
Back home, and at our local market in Sherborne, I was greeted with some degree of disbelief at the Fussells oil stand when I admitted that for a long time I had admired the useful qualities of rapeseed oil – it’s excellent talent for producing really crisp roast potatoes, or fried squid, because of it’s high burning point, but that I hadn’t really enjoyed the flavour when it came to using it raw on salads and so on.
However, at an otherwise unremarkable pub lunch somewhere near Corsham, we had been brought the now ubiquitous bread with a dish of dipping oil and balsamic vinegar. Why is it, when you just want some good bread with your meal, they insist on bringing you this starter-sized elaboration? And charging you quite a lot for it too. Never mind, the bread was good and the oil was too. No, it wasn’t poor quality olive oil (which it often is, to add insult to injury) but good quality rapeseed, and I began to taste what it was all about. So I came away from the stall with a range of products – some smoked oil for using as a base for, say, a paella type dish with peppers and shallots and broad beans, some mayonnaise to use for a potato salad to go with cold roast beef, an oil spray for when a drizzle is too much, and a bottle of the horseradish relish which goes very well with barbecued sausages.
There’s no such thing as a quick trip to a farmers’ market. By the time you have tasted the month’s best cheese from Wootton Farm, and discussed the effect the dry summer was having on pasture, and picked the heaviest crab, the juiciest radishes, the chicken which will do the two of us perfectly from Mark at Angel Cottage Organics and discussed the problems of taking the last remaining of his beef boxes if you have a largely vegetarian family to cater for on their next visit, you could have done a week’s worth of shopping in the supermarket.
You wouldn’t have got all that straight from the horse’s mouth information about exactly what goes into each product and why, and how.Yes, you do need time, but that’s well worth it under the circumstances. You come away armed with knowledge, and admiration, as well as food that tastes as it should. It’s what food shopping should be about.
Pictured are part of the Roman site of Vindolanda and stalls in Sherborne Farmers Market.