Why do people still visit their beloved local markets? Is it the convenience and reliability of having a baker, butcher, fishmonger and greengrocer all in one place at the same time? Is the friendly rapport you build with your local sellers? Or is it just an ever fading traditionalist concept? Are we all in fact just slaves to food globalisation, as supermarket usage grows?
Growing up in a small market town, the bubbly atmosphere of the Saturday market has always been a comfort to me. Walking through the town in the morning, watching the market sellers, who have had their stalls pitched since god-knows-what-time in the morning. They create that ever recognisable soundscape, the usual jargon; ‘get your fresh vegetables here’, ‘3 for £1’ etc. I visited my local market in Framlingham, Suffolk to ask market sellers why we should shop local and what it’s really like for them.
I spent a long time speaking with Darren Smith, a regular fishmonger who’s been working in the trade since he was 13. He had an interesting take on why coming to the market is still so important. As I gazed upon the large selection of fresh fish lying on a bed of crushed ice, Darren proclaimed ‘People get a better choice than in a supermarket’. Whilst this was certainly true from a first look, he went on to explain that the large volume of customers allow him to move his produce around and shift what he brings to market, based on what he observes. Not only that, but this large variety gives him the edge on supermarkets.
Other store holders made points about the competitive nature of supermarkets; Nicky at Etheridge Nurseries acknowledged that their farming business is competing against supermarkets who provide the same produce all year round. Others had interesting comments about the quality of market produce vs. supermarket produce.
‘The supermarkets can batch produce it, but you don’t get the same quality as a homemade product’ – Gemma (Doodles Donuts)
The stall holders growing and selecting their own produce to sell makes the market buying experience far more personal, as you’re not only supporting a local business, but showing your appreciation for the hard work and long hours they put into their trade.
Customers at the market know and respect that they are not always going to get everything they are expecting. As with the nature of markets; providing fresh food straight from the earth and ocean results in seasonal goods.
‘Etheridge Nurseries’, a local farm which produces fresh fruit, vegetables and plants for every market day acknowledge that whilst the time of year affects what they can provide for customers, it also affects what the customers are looking for, and therefore few are left disappointed. For example, ‘in the winter people want root vegetables for warm stews, whereas in the summer people expect leaves for salads, and fresh summer berries’, Nicky, a market seller with Etheridge Nurseries, divulged.
Unfortunately, the British weather can leave some customers unlucky, as the possibilities to grow successful produce all year round relies significantly on the sun and rain. Luckily the season, and customer expectation, usually match up. As a fishmonger, Darren has a similar experience, choosing what produce he takes to market, based on the time of year.
‘Any sole, Darren?’ / ‘I haven’t today’ / ‘Oh, not sole time’
It’s this level of experience and expertise that brings in the customers – they care more for the sustainability of the product. Another way you can check to see if fish products have been sourced in a sustainable way, is checking their Environmental Labels. During my time at the Fishmonger van, Darren held up a fresh fish, signalling to its blue tag. According to ‘Fish Labelling Regulations 2013’, buyers must be informed of method of catch, as well as many other important details which illustrate its sustainability.
After learning a bit more about the reliability of local, fresh produce, I was recommended to go speak with Lise, at ‘Silver Rocket Cafe’. I walked over to a bright, silver, shiny food truck, advertising itself as ‘gluten free, vegan and vegetarian friendly’. As soon as I spoke with Lise, it was obvious how passionate and invested in her business she was.
She showed her plates, made from palm leaves, making them 100% compostable. Her plant starch cutlery, boasting the same qualities. It was incredible. I loved listening to her talk about the cutlery and crockery she uses, with a real passion for reducing waste. Silver Rocket Cafe also buy in their coffee from a local business just a stone’s throw away from where the market takes place.
Something I personally love about food markets is the ‘freshness guarantee’, as you know what you are buying has been handpicked from the seller, and is far fresher than something you’d find in a supermarket. This concept of ‘freshness’ was also confirmed by Etheridge Nurseries, as they declare they aim to ‘bring produce straight from the fields to the customers’.
Doodles Donuts’ Gemma upholds the same values, as she collects seasonal flavours for her produce from ‘local fruit and veg stalls’, or what she can find on her own allotment. Talking to stall holders allowed me to get a far better idea of who they were and why they did what they did, which is such a significant part of market selling – the approachability.
Gemma acknowledges, ‘it’s a people person job, and you can interact with your customers and sell your product/business personally – not just be a faceless brand’. Despite the early starts, long days and extreme shifts in the weather, the stall holders all seemed very content. Patrick at ‘The Cheese and Pie Man’, enjoys the casual atmosphere that comes with working on the market – something you don’t find working behind the till of a shop. Fishmonger Darren is fond of the other stall holders, sharing that the working environment is very friendly, and allows you to see your friends and have a laugh at every market.
Whilst the market environment is a joy for both buyers and sellers, like any job, there are always downsides. For market sellers, on the whole, it’s the unpredictability. Olivia at ‘The Cheese and Pie Man’ is very aware that the weather and time of year affects the popularity of a market, and therefore you can spend your whole day trying to sell your produce, and find that in the cold and snow of the winter, no one is interested.
‘You have good weeks, and you have bad weeks’ – Gemma (Doodle Donuts)
Despite this, market sellers can rely on loyal customers. If you haven’t visited your local market before, there’s no time like the present! In the summer, markets are buzzing with customers, and the friendly atmosphere and sustainable produce make it a wonderful experience.
Is there a future in markets? Yes. Simply from the range of market stalls I visited, and the different people I spoke to, you know there’s something available for everyone. ‘Brownbread’s Priya had a fantastically positive outlook – ‘big retail shops are going downhill due to the rise of online shopping, but they’ll never be anything to replace shopping at a market’. Getting to know your local market sellers is a fantastic way to build up rapport, and support an independent, local business. Shopping local also reduces food miles, which is more sustainable. For as long as people share those values, markets will continue to grow and expand.
So switch your trolley full of branded goods, to a basket full of sustainable fresh produce.
Find out what local markets are near you using this handy website by the National Market Traders’ Association.
About the author: Emily Ellerby-Hunt. Theatre Student at the University of York, and Food & Drink Editor at WILD.