The well-worn wooden cart piled high with piles of gleaming brinjals, bright chillies and fragrant coriander leaves might still pass by your window every day. But as more and more people choose to drive their trendy SUVs to one of the massive supermarkets — springing up all over every big city in India — to buy their fruits and vegetables, it could eventually become a thing of the past.
Fortunately, in the United Kingdom, farmers are fighting back. And, perhaps it is because of recent food scares and worries about genetically modified food. Or a mounting concern for the environment. Or, a more selfish quest for food that doesn’t taste travel-weary. But British consumers are now insisting on eating and buying local produce, as they now want to know where, and how, their food originated.
Which explains why farmers’ markets are getting increasingly popular across the United Kingdom. Started in London a little over 10 years ago, these (usually weekly) markets bring together groups of local farmers, with their produce.
The National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) — which has approximately 7,000 members and 225 markets under its wings — stipulates that all this produce must be from within a radius of ideally 30 miles, but never more than 100 miles. Anything made by the stallholder, such as the bronzed crusty breads and moist carrot cakes displayed enticingly at these markets, has to contain fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. And the farmer or a direct representative must be present at every stall, to talk to customers and answer questions.
At the little Wednesday farmers’ market in Finchley, London, for example, Peter and Joan Clarke never leave their makeshift counter, set up in front of their van. As he unloads crate after crate of appealing vegetables — some plucked a few hours ago at their Kingcup Farm in Denham, which is about 16 miles away — he says their chats with customers are an essential part of their business. Besides urging them to try new, exotic vegetables, (“Baby leeks can be steamed. They’re delicious with a cheese sauce.”) the couple also get ideas about new crops to grow. “That’s how we have mooli and saag, suggested by Indians,” he grins. He grows 70 different varieties of vegetables, 30 of which were spread out in vibrant piles at the market that day.
Peter says that these markets are beneficial for both the farmers and the people who buy from them, as the food they supply is always fresh, and therefore both nutritious and tasty, with intense flavours and colours. For farmers, markets like this aren’t just a way to connect with customers. It also means they finally get to bypass the middlemen, and shun supermarket chains, notorious for their draconian rules.
Big supermarket chains place ridiculous conditions on farmers, such as insisting every apple has to have a uniform diameter of 2.5 inches. A report by “Friends of the earth”, called “Supermarkets and Great British Fruit” (2002), gives the results of a survey done with 100 apple and pear growers, who said any fruit with minor skin blemishes gets rejected, along with “apples that are either not red enough, or too red”. As a result, fruit is left on the orchard floor or simply dumped. More than half the farmers stated that they have to apply more pesticides to “meet cosmetic standards”. It’s not just fruit. Felicity Lawrence, journalist and author of Not on the Label says, that for every 30 tonnes of carrots harvested, just 10 tonnes are used.
At a farmers’ market, you see varieties of seasonal food you are unlikely to find anywhere else, especially at this price range. Peter Clarke, for instance, has five piles of carrots, each a different colour — creamy white, sunshine yellow and different shades of orange — in his stall.
“Since some fruits and vegetables don’t travel well, like some heritage varieties of tomatoes, which have thin skins, you won’t find them in supermarkets,” says Sue Thompson, Spokesperson and Certification Manager for FARMA. “So farmers’ markets around the world have been a lifeline to rare varieties of fruits and vegetables and breeds of meat.” For instance, there are more than 2,000 varieties of native U.K. apples. But in the world of supermarkets there are may be 20.
Organisers like Cheryl Cohen, director of London Farmer’s Markets (which sets up and administers London’s 15 certified farmers’ markets), actively search for farmers who offer more than the routine foods. “We have some Japanese farmers on the South Coast, who are growing lovely leafy Japanese vegetables,” she says, “And there are a group of Asian women growing Asian vegetables at the Spitalfields City Farm (at London’s East End) who call themselves the `Coriander club’, who we would love to include in our markets.” (These Bangladeshi women, who come from the surrounding borough of Tower Hamlets, grow traditional herbs and vegetables.)
Local sourcing of this sort reduces lorry and plane “food miles”. FARMA estimates that the ingredients for an air-freighted British Sunday lunch creates 37 kg of greenhouse gases. When bought from a local market, on the other hand, just 38.2 grams are released. That’s a dramatic reduction of 99.8 per cent.
But perhaps the best thing about a market of this sort is the chance to enjoy the oasis of warm “small town” community feeling that invariably springs up as farmers lay out their produce, and exchange recipes and storage tips with each other and passers-by.
On a typical day, you’ll see a cyclist discussing routes with the baker, as he balances his helmet and a slice of spongy foccaccia on one side, while the feta cheese stall owner charms a wide-eyed tourist into tasting, then buying a hunk of his garlicky, crumbly cheese. Kids run between the rows of vegetables, pulling and poking at them in fascination, and in a corner the delicious smell of barbequed burgers rises, as a farmer in a striped apron works his fragrant grill.
And sales talk is both gentle and affectionate. “You can feel the difference here,” says Gina, a young graduate who moved from Australia to the Perry Court family farm in Kent (“because this is so much nicer than the office”) holding out a gang of plump onions for a customer. “It’s in the richness of the flavours… It just tastes so much more real.”