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Dig For Local Victory

Cheltenham’s Farmers’ Market has expanded and added a fresh local produce market on the first Saturday of each month. crack

If you fancy some real potatoes, you know, the ones which came out of the soil, not months but just hours ago, or real carrots which don’t look like they’ve been cloned from the most photogenic carrot of the century, then look no further than ten minutes from your front door. And what about the meat, the fish, the fine oils, balsamic vinegar and the wine to top it all off? And the hand-made bread in all shapes and shades of bronze, the cheeses, the honey, the cup cakes to die for? All of these can be found on Long Gardens on the Cheltenham Promenade on the second and last Friday each month and now also on the first Saturday each month.

Cheltenham’s Farmer’s Market has become an institution ever since its creation some years ago. Many such markets began as a reaction to the dark days of the foot and mouth crisis, during which produce could not be moved from one end of the country to the other. Suddenly shoppers became aware that there were local products, which were much better than those which had crossed half the globe. That is when the battle between the ‘fresh from our cold store’ and ‘fresh from the farm’ kicked in. A smaller version of the colourful street markets so enjoyed by the British when in Italy and France sprang up here.
It is a sad fact that in Cheltenham the supermarkets killed off not only the High Street food shops, but also the street markets. Of course there are days when one simply doesn’t have the time or the inclination to drag bags from one shop to another, with an ever increasing load pulling on the arms. And sooner or later one runs out of hands.

Shopping like our grandmothers can seem a little more time consuming, but the rewards in terms of pleasure and quality are enormous. For a start you don’t have packaging. A week’s packaged vegetables will fill half your car boot, but the same bought fresh and loose will not fill two normal carrier bags. Supermarkets design their packaging so that your product looks bigger than it actually is. I once taught packaging and advertising design on degree courses in London and in France, so I know what goes on behind the scenes …. With the exception of soft fruits, most vegetables are packaged perfectly by nature. Cucumbers and sweet corn have the perfect natural packaging – who ever thought that these would be improved by being imprisoned by a plastic skin? And have you ever noticed how much nicer food tastes and smells when you cook and eat outdoors? Out in the open air your brain receives more oxygen which sharpens your taste buds. Just seeing and smelling vegetables, fruit, fish or meat in a street market has a psychological and very beneficial effect on your mood.

A few weeks ago I met Doug Cotton, the market’s organizer for a long time. On market days he could always be found having a chat with producers. During his time the Cheltenham market won the ‘Best Farmer’s Market’ award. Many farmers’ markets, such the one in Stroud, Cirencester and Cheltenham still have a rather posh label, as if they were only for people who can afford to care about the provenance of the food. I have compared prices between supermarket vegetables and fruit and found that in fact there is very little price difference, but the difference in quality is enormous. Among shoppers in fresh produce market, especially in big cities, I have seen a growing number of customers from around the world. Asians look for vegetables, the Polish for dark bread and fish, the Italians for fruit and tomatoes on the vine and the French spend much time on the cheese stalls. Here in Cheltenham’s market the cheeses receive much praise from both Italians and French people. Who would have thought that? With the young there is a current craze for cup-cakes and books with cup-cake recipes are flying off the shelves. However, anyone browsing in Cheltenham’s market last Saturday would quickly throw in the towel once they discover the cup-cakes of Cheltenham’s own HomeSweetHome Bakery. The cakes look and taste divine. HomeSweetHome Bakery also cater for parties and you can find their internet site very easily. Other organic producers are the dairies, such as the Wootton Organic Dairy, as well as Simon Deaver of the Cotswold Dairy from Upper Slaughter who, along with his excellent produce, dispenses a great recipe for grilled sirloin steak with quince jelly, pears and organic Cotswold blue-veined Brie. You’ll find the freshest trout beside a lovely goat cheeses and hand-made Scotch eggs. Herbs to enrich your flavours are there too. On Fridays and Saturdays David and Paula Jenkins from St. Anne’s Vineyard bring wines produced from their own grapes, as well as many fruit wines. In Cheltenham, Gloucester,Cirencester, and Stroud, I notice that these markets are getting more crowded. Could it be that all the programmes on TV about farming, cooking, baking and growing food are finally making an impact among more and more consumers?

Supermarkets have surreptitiously excluded many varieties of fruit and vegetables for marketing reasons. There are dozens, if not more varieties of apples in Britain. Next time you go to a supermarket have look how many you can find - plastic bags saying ‘apples’ don’t count. Why do cucumbers have to be straight? Because then they can pack more of them to a box … I could go on. Local produce markets are full of wonderful food which has not been washed in bleach or travelled thousands of miles. At the height of the asparagus season, although there was excellent asparagus available locally, the supermarkets undercut our local producers with asparagus from Peru.

A producer’s market can be a bit intimidating for someone brought up solely with supermarket shopping, where there is no relationship between the nameless customer and the equally anonymous cashier who is either encouraged or hell-bent on breaking the speed record for barcode reading. Whether the box in her hand contains washing powder or the finest Italian truffles makes no difference to her, the blip still sounds like a stunned goldfish. To top it all, we are bombarded with thousands of labels per minute saying ‘cheapest,’ ‘freshest’ or even recently ’better than half-price.’ How do they still make their huge profits - and what can they be paying their producers if they are cutting their price by more than half?

So what can we do to eat better food? The answer is to buy local whenever possible, so that our own farmers and producers receive enough income to expand. And yes, it is true – you are what you eat. Make a list for what you must buy from a supermarket and another for what you can buy in a farmers’ market. I can almost guarantee that your health will improve as a result – and the farmers and producers can go on producing. For them it is a question of survival, not of huge profits for the shareholders. It’s up to us to do our bit. And fif you work on Fridays you can now shop on the first Saturday of each month now. - and take your children and show them what real vegetables look like.