The possibility of juicy pears and sweet parsnips makes my mouth water. I am an urbanite foodie, I grew up watching Hugh F-W, I know that I need to get in there; smell the fennel and grope the plums to know what is in peak condition. I want to ask the stall holder how they would use this variety of beetroot and what method of pickling they favour. This is the hands-on joy of the farmers market.
This is not joyful at all; in fact, the horrible feeling that is creeping over me seems to be guilt, snobby, foodie guilt. It’s the same feeling I get when I use tomato ketchup to sweeten my braised lamb shanks. It seems to me that we are being bombarded by the ethical, organic; grow your own crowd whose latest, most fashionable cause is that of the farmers’ market. For the most part I am with them, but there are times when these choices just don’t seem practical. In my mind there is no doubt that farmers’ markets are superior in terms of quality, interaction and environmental impact but I can’t help but wonder; how do they fare against the modern day beasts of constraints; time and money.
There are times when my local famers’ market is just not there for me, for instance, anytime other than a Sunday morning. So there is the first major stumbling block. The producers are off culturing and nurturing all things seasonal and delicious for me to buy next Sunday, and for this I am grateful, but I am hungry now. The free range chicken that I bought last week is a bit whiffy and I have my grandparents over for lunch on Saturday. I could plan better and freeze ahead but let’s face it; sometimes there is just too much going on. We are a consumer society, so used to eating curry at 1am or having our veg boxes delivered to our doors, that we cannot fathom having to shop only once a week. So off to the supermarket I go, with a heavy heart and a soggy hessian bag.
It is also worth taking into consideration that quite often the farmers’ market produce simply doesn’t last as long as its non-organic supermarket counterpart. This is a seriously double edged sword; the chemicals that are used to extend the shelf life of a lettuce are the very reason that the organic brigade steers clear of them, but this isn’t a discussion on the merits of organic food. The notable fact here is that my sordid Spanish iceberg lettuce lasted for three whole weeks in the salad draw. But this is not cut and dry, the flowers that I buy at my local market always out live their distant supermarket relatives, but we shouldn’t be cruel; an economy flight from Kenya would dishevel even the chicest of travellers.
Farmers markets certainly do fresh produce well but what of the tins, cans and UHT cartons that we depend on? My hankerings for an organic, seasonal, sustainable life that Nigel Slater would be proud of collides disastrously with my desire to have the best stocked store cupboards in the whole of North London. It makes me feel proud and secure when my cupboards are full to the brim (although having committed those words to print I just feel like a bit of a saddo). Come nuclear meltdown my cellar would be the place to hunker down in, we would feast on canned beans, condensed soups and tinned tuna. For many people this isn’t just a primitive desire, it’s a necessity, the stereotypical single parent, the elderly and the terminally over worked all rely heavily on store cupboard ingredients. I see no problem with that, but if you want to fill your trolley high with long life products, the supermarket is your best bet.
Price comparisons between farmers’ markets and the supermarkets can be misleading as they do not take into account quality of produce and experience or environmental and economic impact. From what I have seen, if you are willing to go with the seasons and you are happy to veer off the shopping list piste then you can pick up some bargains. For some, this is a genuinely enjoyable aspect of a farmers’ market, the diversity and uniqueness is exciting. But any budgeting householder worth their salt will tell you that the shopping list is king. And unless you can conjure up a swede gratin at the drop of a hat, going off list could dash the best laid plans.
The farmers market is full of people who are proud of and knowledgeable about what they are selling. Blood, sweat and tears have been ploughed into their businesses and you can taste this in the superiority of the products (not literally, that would be a health and safety nightmare) but sometimes price considerations out weigh that of quality. I wish that I could fill my fridge with these delicacies but at £3.80 for a focaccia it is just not plausible. The focaccia in question was certainly a thing of beauty but at over double the price of the supermarket offering it was a doughy extravagance.
Supermarkets thrive because they allow us to shop in a way that suits a modern lifestyle, we can go when we want to, everything is under one climate controlled roof, we can pay by debit card and we can pick up everything from bin liners to biryani. For most people the farmers market is an indulgence, we can’t all plan our lives around them or afford to shop solely at them. They cannot be all things to all people and until this changes (and I truly hope it does; a farmers’ market just outside of my work place that is open until seven thirty would be ever so convenient) I don’t think even the biggest foodie wannabe should feel guilty about their dalliances under the bright lights of the supermarkets.