Open air market is tasty delight

PUBLISHED: 01:15 23 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:43 03 March 2010

FOOD crises such as BSE, swine fever and foot-and-mouth in the past few years have dented our faith in the way we come by our daily meat and bread. As supermarkets sweep the board clean of other outlets, is it time for a rethink? James Fraser went to taste public opinion (and some very nice wild venison).

FOOD crises such as BSE, swine fever and foot-and-mouth in the past few years have dented our faith in the way we come by our daily meat and bread. As supermarkets sweep the board clean of other outlets, is it time for a rethink? James Fraser went to taste public opinion (and some very nice wild venison).

CHOICE is always good thing, we're told. Well I choose to differ and pose a a few questions.

As shoppers are greeted at our beloved superstores by an ever increasingly dizzying kaleidoscope of goods, can too much just be too much of a good thing?

Despite their undoubted convenience, surely there is something more to shopping than the windowless charm of your average supermarket (think hypermarket, think food-lined aircraft hangar)?

Surely we deserve something better than rushing around trying to follow partially obscured aisle directions (whose bizarre angle of hanging aloft behind a myriad of special offer boards only serves to aid a directionless meander through the store where the knee-jerk response of the uninitiated is to buy, buy, buy.)

And you won't find a clock anywhere, so you have all the time in the world to feast on all the choice on view. And oh my, isn't there a lot of it?!

But this peptic cynic feels there is something missing. And his stomach settler was a farmer's market.

I visited Alder Carr Farm, near Needham Market, in its third anniversary year of holding markets for the small-scale producer and the check-out jaded customer. Here was a comparative consumer heaven.

Hams, poultry, ciders, apples, raspberries – goods liberated from the tyranny of shelves, simply arranged in bursts of colour on trestles.

Children didn't scream as I've seen them do, dragged around in the gruesome artificial light of the temple of choice. Not because kids weren't there, they were – in spades. But they were transfixed by the live animals on show. Bizarrely, among the egg-hunts and mini-fair ground, a chicken and her fluffy chicks frolicked and pecked while just a few feet away lay Uncle Chuck in his birthday suit, all ready for the oven. Other relatives sizzled gratifyingly on a nearby barbeque amid vapours of lemon and thyme.

Isn't that a little macabre, I asked organiser Joan Hardingham? "They enjoy it and I think it is important they are educated about the connection between livestock and food," she replied.

With her husband Nick, she farms 40 acres of horticultural land, growing soft fruits and vegetables. They started hosting markets three years ago – and now are one of the mainstays of the farmers' market circuit that encompasses a large number of villages in the Ipswich area.

"We started as a way of attracting people to the farm shop and then after a couple of years we decided we needed to do something different," she said.

"More and more people are now coming as it rapidly became established as a regular shop. We've built up a regular clientele but now people are coming from further afield and this year has been the best year so far. People come to support their local agriculture. We are taking up a niche that the supermarkets can't fill except in a very artificial way simply because they will never get producers to come and stand in their supermarkets and sell their stuff. Farmers want to sell to the public rather than perform faceless transactions."

There are generally two types of customers, she said: the 'foodies' who venture far and wide turning over stones in the course of their gourmet pursuits. And there are the people who "realise what we've lost" with mass production.

Ah yes, food scares. When mad cows started dropping like flies and our television screens began to fill with images of cattle burning onpyres, of dead sheep sliding from dump trucks, many began to pay a little more attention to what we put on our tables – and how they got there.

Critics of mass production say that the relentless drive for large yields to feed the supermarket's insatiable desire for cheap food to sell to the masses less care was given to the product. There was always lots of stuff – at the expense of notions of quality and the tricky question of properly nurtured taste (one cider-maker at the market described how supermarkets only buy, in his view, underripe apples).

Over the barbeque Terry and Jenny Bush, of Hillside Poultry, Billericay, who sell free-range meat, agreed.

"It's nice to meet the public and to tell them how we take a bit more care overall to produce food. It's an extra outlet and gives small producers like us a chance trying to convince people there are alternatives to supermarkets. Not that there's anything wrong with them, we're just different," said Mr Bush.

"I think people are becoming more concerned about how their food is produced. And we've noticed that the mass producers are getting less and less return for their products."

It is important to remember that these people aren't saints. They are driven by the same motives to make money on their goods as the next farmer and the price of authentically rearing and growing produce is necessarily passed on to the paying customer.

But, as they say, you pays your money, you make your choice, it's all relative. As one commentator has already pointed out, if unhealthy extras to our diet such as chocolate bars and biscuits were excluded from our shopping lists, then the price of a free-range chicken isn't really all that much.

Nostalgia plays its part in the draw as our love of home-made cooking makes an unhappy marriage with our desire to gorge on the microwave-meal of convenience.

But that's yet another pickle jam-maker Jenny Gibbons has thought of.

"People haven't got time to make their own jam," she said behind an array of jams and chutneys from her Fruits of Suffolk range. "But they still like the old fashioned way of making jams."

Local produce need not be dull. Rob Couch, of the Wild Meat Company, which still in its first year of business but the take-up of its seasonal wild game produced from across the coastal areas of Suffolk, has been good.

"We are trying to reintroduce people to game, its taste and flavours," he said,

describing the three species of wild duck, partridge, grouse, rabbits, pigeons, and hares on show. "More than a century ago this was all people would get. And you'd get transported to Australia for poaching a rabbit."

As eighty per cent of the game produced in Suffolk is exported because people don't eat it he said that the aim of this game is "to get people in this county to eat their own game" And there's even venison burgers. "I don't think we'll ever get to the point where we see McVenison burgers," sighed Mr Couch. "But we're trying to make it easier for people to deal with."

Nice sales pitch, but is there customer satisfaction?

Grandmother Jean Squirell, of Little Bealings, near Woodbridge, who came with three generations of shoppers – her daughter Jenny and 13-year-old granddaughter Anna – certainly thought so.

"I like the food and the quality – and the ambience. I prefer the idea of farmers' markets and the quality they provide.

"It's largely no antibiotics and GM free, and even though the supermarkets claim all that, I prefer to see the breeders and the producer's – it's a more personal service.

Jenny Squirell, a staff nurse at Ipswich Hospital, said; "I've been brought up with home-grown vegetables and I like to but seasonal vegetables. I buy organic vegetables in supermarkets – not always, but when they are on special offer.

"I'm not sure if it can be cheaper because we've got small farmers involved in organic food and realistically that's what you're paying the privilege for."

Ours is the consumer society where the corporate-led applause for quantity drowns out the tiny voices clamouring for quality over quantity but in the end farmers markets' do not look at themselves as a sepia-tinted Eden against the brash new world of supermarket mania.

They are simply more fun. Try them – or you can always choose not to.

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