THE first signs of spring are visible at the Country Market, held every Monday in The Exchange at Sturminster, or rather, they should be. It’s a late one this year- three weeks late in some parts of the country, someone told me. The vegetable stall has one or two trays of sturdy broad bean plants, some bundles of leeks for cooking, rather than planting, some winter stored onions. The plant stall does have some fine pots of tulips, but they have been grown under cover, otherwise it’s still the trays of winter pansies and a few primulas trying to cheer us up.
Our friend who makes the best goats’ cheese I know, and who comes in all through the winter, is conspicuously absent, giving her girls, as she calls them, a rest. Eggs are there, as always, but fewer. I leave without anything, then go back for a piece of rolled pork – and find, of course, that I have to go through the special WI bureaucracy. Queue to buy what you want, collect your invoice, queue again to pay that, then re-queue to collect your purchases. And this is at every stall. Well, almost. Some stallholders handle their own money and so the eggs you want are exchanged for money in the normal way and off you go. When I am in a hurry all this is maddening.
Before farmers’ markets became such a feature of our lives I depended on the local Country Market for anything fresh and good (we hadn’t got the allotment up and running). In that small Surrey town there was a Sainsbury’s and a Waitrose and an M&S food store, but that was all. No wonder there was a long queue to get into the Country Market every Friday morning; after patiently waiting for the doors to open we all poured in, only to find that most of the spoils had been divided between the smallholders themselves and there wasn’t all that much left. I had been used to a much bigger affair in Shrewsbury, where there was plenty for everyone.
Each branch of these WI markets is run in its own idiosyncratic way, it seems. Opening times vary hugely – Sturminster does now open it’s doors at 9am, around the same time as the other foodstalls are up and running, so I can do all my shopping in one go. But at Shaftesbury, on Thursdays, I have bought fish from John from Brixham, and bread from the Long Crichel stall, some bags of salad leaves, some crunchy fresh spring cabbage from the organic veg stand, and still the WI market’s doors are firmly closed. I am not allowed to buy that beautiful hellebore until 9.30, or is it 10am? But I need to get back home, and I know that if I return later the hellebore will have been snapped up. How frustrating this all is. And how do people manage if they want to do their shopping before starting work?
I love the WI and all it stands for – my grandmother was a founder member in her bit of Kent, and I have a rather battered badge which I treasure above rarer jewels. I like the bossiness of it all, the high standards, the support they offer each other. My husband had to give a talk to the Cheshire branch a few months ago – the hall was packed as this was their annual gathering. As David gave his speech I looked round at all these doughty women, all solid and worthy and well-dressed and all, I have to say, of a certain age. They were delightful, funny, articulate and I would have gone into the jungle with any one of them; I wasn’t a bit surprised that it was this particular group who gave Tony Blair such a hard time when he was prime minister.
So why, I asked my neighbours, when we’d had a glass of wine, were their markets run in this bureaucratic way – why couldn’t we all turn up, as we do at a farmers’ market, and simply buy stuff, in exchange for cash, in that time honoured fashion? They didn’t know, of course. What Tarporley does differs from Dorking, and Dorking does it differently from Shaftesbury, which veers from Shrewsbury’s methods. They did say that it all depended on the Organiser. Ah, the Organiser. Now I understand. I have the feeling that my grandmother was an organiser – in fact, I know she was. I should think the market in Rye was run just as she liked it, while adhering to the country-wide rules of course. I suspect there were fewer then, and hygiene has improved (my grandmother’s kitchen was nothing to write home about), but the doors would have opened at whatever time she stipulated, and not a moment earlier. Just put up with it for the pleasure of buying the produce.
Simone Sekers © March 2015