Food, glorious food

Farmers' markets are springing up around the country selling top- quality produce direct to the public. The supermarkets should be worried.

Normally occupied by the wholesale vegetable trade, Southwark's 260-year-old Borough Market enjoyed a return to its glory days over the weekend. For three days, Londoners slurped oysters, sipped mulled cider, savoured smoked eel, nibbled venison, sniffed boletus fungi, chomped Bronze turkey with apricot stuffing, scoffed smoked duck eggs, salivated over rounds of Caerphilly cheese and guzzled chunks of hand-raised pork pie.

Organised by Henrietta Green, compiler of the invaluable Food Lovers' Guide to Britain, the Food Lovers' Fair drew together 50 of Britain's best specialist producers. "It's simply brilliant," declared Jennifer Paterson, half of the Two Fat Ladies, puffing on her Woodbine. "There should be one every weekend. Everyone would come. It's the kind of thing that the French, the Italians and the Portuguese never lost."

It seems that many others feel the same way. Over a dozen farmers' markets are now regularly held in the UK and many more are planned for next year. Offering an outlet for direct sales by small, specialist producers to customers, the name comes from the US, where the number of farmers' markets has grown from 300 in 1974 to 2,500 today. Each week, up to a million Americans do their shopping there. At the long-established market in Union Square, New York (one of 25 in the city), I saw perhaps two dozen stalls on a quiet Monday last June. Produce included bundles of organic asparagus, aromatic clumps of lettuce, skeins of two-tone wool from Jacob's sheep and squares of wheat-grass, providing greenery for Manhattan's apartment- bound cat population.

According to one report, Union Square traders can make up to $10,000 a day at weekend peaks, though there was little sign of such lucrative takings at the time of my visit. Of course, the idea of farmers' markets is not a new one - every one of the 6,000 weekly markets in France is to some extent a farmers' market - but they have almost completely died out in Britain since the Second World War (the Pannier Market in Barnstable is a rare survivor).

"For the past half-century, British markets have been seen as a cheap dumping ground with little emphasis on quality," said Henrietta Green, who is now the patron saint of the small producer. "In order to overturn the idea of indifferent goods at rock-bottom prices, farmers' markets have to be regulated so we know that food is locally produced and to a high standard."

The British have to change their approach to food buying, she added. "We tend to think of shopping as a chore which needs to be done as quickly as possible. That's why people go to supermarkets, though they're quite stressful and harassing. Farmers' markets must be perceived as an enjoyable leisure activity. I'd like to think we'll all be dashing to them in the next few years, but it will be quite a rocky path for traders. People have to be persuaded to go and they must have confidence in what they're buying. Integrity is vital."

New Forest cider-maker, Barry Todd, who was doing a roaring trade at the Food Lovers' Fair, stressed the financial advantages of selling direct to the public: "I was approached by one supermarket buyer who was astonished that I didn't want to have anything to do with him. `What's the point in selling to you?' I said. `You'd just grind me down on price'."

But Peter Greig of Pipers Farm, Cullompton, Devon, who was handing out generous samples of traditionally cured ham and pesto-stuffed chicken at Borough Market, insisted that the most important benefit of direct selling is building up a relationship with customers. "It's very important that we have complete control from start to finish," he declared. "We've spent 20 years building up this business - we put so much passion into our products and we want to pass it on to customers without interference. We want no middlemen."

Nichola Fletcher, a venison producer from Auchtermuchty, pointed out that supermarket regulations were at odds with traditional production. "They can't take our meat. It's hung for three weeks, so it's got a high bacteria content. What they can't understand is that it's good bacteria. The battle against industrial farming has benefited hugely from BSE. It made people stop and realise that good meat costs money."

Usually held fortnightly or monthly, farmers' markets are sometimes organised by local authorities, and sometimes by the producers themselves. With 20 to 30 stalls, the markets customarily combine organic with conventional produce. Unlike the Food Lovers' Show, farmers' markets are confined to local producers. The Bath farmers' market, held on the first Saturday of each month under the handsome Victorian arches of the disused Green Street railway station, insists that traders must be located within a 35-mile radius of the city.

Established in September last year, this self-regulated venue was the first US-style farmers' market in Britain. "It's not a massive money-spinner, but it does get the product known," said Keith Goverd, who sells 20 different types of single-variety apple juice at Bath. He added that the market has re-established an old tradition. "It's no different to what our parents and grandparents did. If you have direct contact with consumers, people appreciate what you're producing. There's now a food elite in this country. This doesn't mean they're rich, but they do take an interest in food and ask questions pertinent to health and the quality of food."

Debra Bolbot, who sells smoked meats and cheeses at Bath's farmers' market, is convinced the markets are here to stay. "I've no doubt they will catch on," she said. "There's no comparison with ordinary markets. There's always somebody who can produce things cheaper, but we're offering a totally different standard of food." Experts agree that farmers' markets have to set up their stalls well away from ordinary street markets. Any attempt to combine the two is usually disastrous.

The Bath initiative has been followed by farmers' markets at Bristol, Frome (where 5,000 attended on the first day), Glastonbury, Bridport, Gloucester and Cullompton. Breaking the west country monopoly, events have also taken place in Wolverhampton, Holmfirth and Lewes, with others planned for Ashford, Winchester, Chard, Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells. At least three are being considered for London - lslington, Notting Hill and Borough Market.

Local authorities see farmers' markets as a way to reinvigorate town centres made moribund by out-of-town supermarkets. Last week, a seminar on farmers' markets organised by the south-eastern region of the NFU drew 30-odd council officials from Surrey, Kent and Sussex. "It's not simply a question of putting a few stalls in the market," warned Harriet Festing, an expert on American farmers' markets who works for Ashford Borough Council. "You require professional management and entertainment." One US market features a cannon which fires pumpkins; rock bands, jugglers and cherry- stone spitting competitions are more conventional attractions.

Despite the mushrooming growth of farmers' markets, success is by no means guaranteed. Of the 20 set up last year, about a quarter flopped. The seminar was mysteriously informed that Horsham farmers' market collapsed due to "general trader opposition". One speaker noted that even the ground- breaking Bath operation was "not generating enough excitement at present". Gareth Jones of the Farm Retail Association stressed that farmers are not necessarily great entertainment (a fact known only too well to listeners of The Archers): "Farmers may be great at growing and rearing but freeze in front of people. But the truth is that if small producers are to survive, they have to get out there and sell."

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