by Simone Sekers
MARCH saw us trawling Macclesfield’s Treacle Market, and by great good luck April found us in my home town of Lewes, in Sussex, looking at another range of local foods.
My family left the town for a nearby village when I was ten, at an age when food was, well, just food. Sweets had recently come off ration and our greatest treat was being allowed to buy a few with our precious pocket money – Lewes had a proper sweet shop then – and as I grew older I changed my tastes from sherbert dips to a wonderful pink confection called Raspberry Noyeau, a sort of soft nougat. I haven’t seen it since, and it probably wouldn’t appeal now. Anyway there was no sign of it at the market.
Unlike Macclesfield, Lewes is within easy reach of the sea, even nearer than we are here, but it wasn’t fish we found. There were fantastically good goats’ cheeses, so like the ones we used to buy in France, and which we were told were indeed made to French recipes, underlining just how close we were to Normandy.
There were some bountiful vegetable stalls, selling unusual salad leaves and joy of joys, sea kale. The sight of these blanched white stalks, like baroque celery, took me straight back to the days when my father, discovering he had a garden much larger than the back plot of our terraced house in East Street, took to growing not just sea kale but asparagus too. Sea kale has a delicious flavour, rather like a brassica but with extra subtlety. We used to eat it steamed, with melted butter, just as we ate the asparagus which followed it a month later. We grow it ourselves now, and enjoy eating it raw, with very good olive oil and some crunchy salt. The customers of the vegetable stall were full of admiration but shy of buying it – we talked one lady into buying some (it comes expensive, but you don’t need much as a taster). I’d love to have known what she thought of it.
Lewes is a feisty town, the home of Thomas Paine, and one of the most anarchic places to be on Guy Fawkes’ Night. When it was badly flooded 16 years ago it was Harvey’s Brewery which was one of the chief victims. We went there to buy some bottles of bitter to take to my mother in her care home as an antidote to the sweet sherry offered to the inmates before meals.
Back at her cottage, in the process of being sold, we unpacked the spoils of our market shopping, then went across to the pub opposite to have glasses of Harvey’s best. We took some back to partner the charcuterie, the cheeses, the salad leaves, some nicely natural looking apples that had been stored through the winter, and a loaf of spelt and rosemary bread, and had a truly Sussex lunch before tackling the endless sorting of family memorabilia.
Lewes still doesn’t have a really interesting restaurant – it never has had, why I can’t fathom. It was the birthplace of Bill’s, which has now spawned many a franchise, none of which have the élan of the first version, part greengrocer, part provision merchant, part maker of interesting light eats which have now become the ubiquitous brunch.
You can buy good food, but you have to cook it yourself. No bad thing, I suppose. With careful planning, next month might find us at the farmers’ market in Cockermouth, another victim of appalling floods. What we will find there will be further indication of exactly how varied the foodstuffs are these days, as you travel the length and breadth of Great Britain.