Where do you stand on the issue of farmers’ markets? Some years ago they became the bougie foodie’s only place to shop. You could just sense the smugness from the Bugaboo set with their hessian bags walking down to a car park filled with stalls thinking “Fools! Think of the food miles and all those farting cows that are going to spell the end of humanity! I’m not going to be part of that!” as you head shamefully into the local Tesco. Well, the shoe is on the other foot now. Books like An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen and A Greedy Man in a Hungry World by Jay Rayner have called shenanigans on the locavore movement, pointing out that higher animal welfare standards, greener farming practices, lower carbon footprints, or whatever other policy might govern your shopping decision, are not entailed in buying food that is local/organic or whatever the latest buzz word is down at a farmers’ market. To the contrary, the most responsible decision in many cases is to shop at the supermarket. Now the message is “No! It is you who are the fools! Didn’t you know that the comparative advantage of New Zealand in producing lamb means buying English is actually worse for the environment?”
I’ve basically given up worrying about it. Not because I don’t care, but because you pretty much need a masters degree in food policy to even enter the argument whether local biodynamic spinach is the more responsible choice than the normal stuff in the supermarket, and I am just a normal guy out to keep myself fed. My priority is to source the best quality product I can, and I think it follows from that that I do tend to buy locally and in season where it matters (imported asparagus and unripe tomatoes in December just don’t taste good), and organic free range meat, because I think happy animals make for better eating. There is a separate set of questions about what to be buying in the first place e.g. less meat because it’s terribly bad for the envonment, or less of certain types of fish because there might be none left if we continue as we are. But you have given your answers to those questions well before you set foot in any type of market – be it super or farmers’.
So today I am going to give a big plug to the Stepney City Farm, the Farmers’ Market held upon it and the associated Farm Cafe. I’m not going to claim that this new (in parts) local institution is going to solve the world’s food sustainability problems, nor am I going to condemn it on the trivial basis that it might be more efficient to ship a truckload of carrots to Sainsbury’s than a carload to the farmers’ market. It’s just a good thing all round and deserves some support. And not just because I am a Stepney citizen hoping that the area will one day be known for more than just its fried chicken shops.
The first good thing about it is that, unlike most (or even possibly all) farmers’ markets in London, it is held on a farm. You can go and look at the sheep and the goats and the quails while you do your morning shopping, and chat to the allotment owners about how their raspberries are coming along, and who wouldn’t want to do that? Not a lot of the produce sold at the market is from the farm but some of it is, lately broad beans, corn, kohl rabi, and plenty of eggs of various sorts.
The second good thing are the market traders themselves. Now I won’t lie, this is no Borough Market. It’s pretty basic. There are normally about 8-10 stalls selling bread, meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit, and latterly fish (BIG plus in my book) including a few that I think of as hangers-on perpetuating the idea of “farmers’ market as luxury food rip-off merchant” – the hummus stand (why wouldn’t you make your own?), the chutney stand (ditto – here’s a good start – and hardly a staple in any event), the biltong stand (ah, yes, we’ve run out of biltong dear, nip down to the farmers’ market, would you?). You can’t count on it to have everything you would need for your weekly shop, but that’s not the point. If you have to shop for food, you might as well make it a pleasant experience, and this is. It has good stuff, the quality is excellent, and my local Sainsbury’s didn’t sell rainbow chard, rye flour, or Doddington cheese last time I checked. (You must try Doddington by the way – it’s my new favourite cheese. Made from unpasteurised cow’s milk, it’s like a less hard parmesan, tangy and strong. It makes a good rarebit. And the cheese guy is hot). The meat counter is particularly to be commended, where you can get such delights as chicken hearts, gizzards, and even lamb breast. Now I have been laughed at in the face at a respectable Islington butchers for even asking for lamb breast (ha ha, mate, it all gets sold for kebabs!), but it is a fine cut and the fact that you can get it here reasonably regularly without raising an eyebrow is reason enough to go. The fish guy’s selection is limited but top quality, and he sells the sort of stuff we should be eating more of – squid, whiting, gurnard. I made an outstanding fish curry from the gurnard (if I do say so myself), and whiting makes excellent fish and chips, although sadly you never see it sold as such over here.
The third good thing is the cafe. You can now officially get good coffee in Stepney. And tea, if you like. And a good lunch – handsome bacon sandwiches, frittata, soup, vegetarian mezze plates, that sort of thing. I had a smoked trout sandwich the other week, with pickled radishes, and it was bloody delicious.
So I commend the Stepney City Farm/ers’ Market/Cafe to you. Not because you will sleep better at night knowing that your money hasn’t gone to an “evil corporation”, not because locally sourced chickens are going to stop the world from burning to a crisp over the next hundred years, not because it’s a good place for little Jamie or Saskia to learn how to pronounce “ciabatta” (although it is), but simply because it is a good, community spirited project that makes our little corner of London a better place to be.