Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Whitstable Farmers' Market

It was eleven o’clock before the family were all in bed, and two o’clock next morning was the latest hour for starting with the beehives if they were to be delivered on the retailers of Casterbridge before the Saturday Market began, the way thither lying by bad roads over a distance of between twenty and thirty miles, and the horse wagon being the slowest.’  Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
Shopping at a market is an adventure of sorts. Not an earth shattering adventure but one which brings unexpected surprises; strange shaped vegetables, not fit for supermarket shelves; the appearance of old friends (of the human variety, in case you’re wondering); new faces; emerging community projects; and ideas, if anything, ideas on something different to eat.
Farmers' markets are not really anything new, wherever we’re from, they’re in our DNA. Skip back just a few generations, and markets were the rhythm of the community. Our ancestors saddled up before dawn had broken, and headed off to the market,  horse drawn carts laden with wares.  Or maybe they just waddled off with a string sack and a few pennies in their pockets. People went to market and they bartered and traded and paired off and settled scores.

Markets are talked of in the press as if they’re something new, a quaint but slightly rebellious alternative to superstores. If you’re a working person, it’s practically impossible to avoid a superstore of some sort or another. Occasionally I may run into someone I know in a large store, but it’s rare. Rare, because I’m not looking around. I go in with a list and I hurry. And I’m pissed if they moved things around because, no disrespect, but I just don’t want to hang around in there any longer than I have to.
At the Whitstable Farmers' Market, this Saturday, it’s not the same. It will never be the same as a store, even if I was retired and shopped exclusively at the market. At the market I’ll find something to talk about because it’s impossible not to.  Because food is delightful and interesting and because there’s a story with the food, whatever it is.
I’m buying cheese from Ashmore, and I’m after a Camembert to oven bake, melting it into a fondue which I’ll try our later with a glass of red wine. ‘Oh stop it’ says a stranger who overheard. I buy more cheese, hard cheese. No idea what I will do with it but it tastes so good. And I pass a Camembert to the stranger next to me, so he can try it too.
I’m after pheasant to slow cook with red onions and garlic cloves, in their shells. So I move on to Godmesham Game, ‘We’ve also got some whistling duck you might like to try.’ The whistling duck stares up silently. I pick it up, turn it over but give it a miss. It’s a pheasant I’m after.
And then there’s the vegetables from Ripple Farms, a parsnip the size of a child’s forearm. ‘It can’t be that big, it’s just not possible.’ But it is. Its lying on the stall for all to see.
I’m stocking up on free bay leaves and the stall holder tells me about ‘Transition Town’ an environmental group with a with a community garden in Stream Walk. So I’ve volunteered to go along.
I run into John and Sue owners of Temple Foods. We’d  met at the supper club and he’s cooking a vegetarian meal for the club Thursday evening. I buy a ticket even though I’m supposed to give a lecture early on Friday morning and I thought I’d keep Thursday night  free to prepare. I prepare this Sunday instead.
I’m leaving and a chocolate seller assaults my taste buds with dark homemade chocolate, seasoned with lavender, and cognac.
If you'd like to try it, the Whitstable Market runs on the second and last Saturday of each month at St Marys Hall in Oxford Street. Food is local with stalls no further than thirty miles from Whitstable, no more than Tess had to travel in Thomas Hardy’s town of Casterbridge.
My message, if there is any ' Eat well, live well and support your local Farmers' Market.' Here's ours at
p.s. An idea for pheasant. It’s a rich taste, ideal on a cold day. The stall holder told me that this was good, an end of the winter catch. I’ve had it before but never cooked it myself.
So this is what I did; started by frying it lightly in butter, just for a few minutes, to glaze the skin, rubbed in some rock salt and pepper, then added it to a slow cooker with a red onion, white wine, about 10 garlic cloves in their shells, bay leaves, a bit of fresh beetroot. After about five hours in the slow cooker, I roasted it in the oven, 200 degrees Celsius for half an hour, in the slow cooker casserole dish to crisp the skin. Had it with mashed potato and butter.

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