I’ve always had a passion for markets – as a teenager in my mid Cheshire town, the market was a cool place to hang out on a Saturday. Shows how little imagination we had I guess – or maybe our lives were a touch restricted back then! I can remember seeing old ladies with a box of eggs and even a chicken to sell – and farmers prepared to chunk of a piece of Cheshire cheese so you could sample it. At university I used to wander round Nottingham’s legendary market and sample their white stilton or even mushy peas served hot with mint sauce (Always the gourmet at heart!) In France I lived in super market town plus Carcassonne- every Saturday at 7.30 as I opened my shutters I would see my neighbours staggering home under the weight of fresh produce – yes they had already done their shopping! Its closeness to Spain meant that olives, chorizos, oranges and lemons would vie with the purple garlic, peppers and leeks that were grown locally. Connections with Algeria and Morocco meant that spices, pickled lemons and even pottery tagines were always available.
So, when I became completely crackers and joined my local market – I was in some kind of baking Heaven. In fact, we marketeers are a motley crew. There are the biscuiteers, the caketeers and the pie makers as you would expect. Then we have the preservers, the plant lovers, the die-hard veggie growers, the egg -layers, the crafters (both knitters and stickers) – even a bee expert and finally there is ‘Sandra the meat;’ who brings in her wares from a real live farm – in the country -with mud. We are a happy tribe of producers who give each other a hand with unpacking, sorting and stacking goods. Our motto is ‘co-operative’ we are not each others’ rivals or enemies and sometimes on a quiet day ( when the foggy foggy dew prevents our customers from venturing out) – we have been know to wander round and purchase from our friends! this is known as ‘recirculation of funds’ amongst the marketeers. it normally involves and outlay of £1.50 or even £2.00 !!!
we meet once a week at what seems like dawn. Ladies of advanced years are seen hauling trolleys laden with jams. chutneys and pickles, all quantified and measured out according to the Country Market stipulations. we label with a ‘lot’ number for the week we have made the product and of course we have special yellow warning labels if anything contains nuts. It is quite amusing to see a ‘walnut cake’ covered in white icing with walnuts all around – bearing the label ‘contains nut products’. however. rules is rules and we must abide and so we do. Everything is checked in and counted out before it is displayed. We have our own little foibles – some like displays in baskets – others dislike them and can be seen lurking round the counter, ready to shift their oatcakes to a more favourable venue when nobody is looking! Some like the fruit cakes lined up like a regiment – while some like things mixed together. We rosy cheeked ladies of Dorset are not as soft as we seem – those floury hands and smiling faces are our front. Beneath that we are a seething mass of marketing ideas and artistic sensibilities. However, at the end of the day we are all mutually helpful and count out what has sold and what hasn’t and vow to do better next week – or even to go home and start baking all over again for the market tomorrow. Some of us indeed have been known to stay up all night to finish baking – these are the BO’s (Baking Obsessives)- others arrive a bit late with all the wrong packaging ( we are very particular about this so that our market looks professional); some have even been known to do their labelling as they arrive – while the really virtuous good girls have everything just so and leave home with their kitchens pristine and not a floury door handle in sight.
Our customers are of many kinds. The faithful queue outside the door at least fifteen minutes before we open. Opening is quite formal – the allocated opener shouts ‘ Everybody ready?’ and some of us shout ‘yes’ – the rest of us put our coffee cups down and try to remember where we put our pens. I have never done an average age count of customers ( well, it would be rude wouldn’t it?) I would guess 60 is around the mark. At an outside event where we were doing particularly badly, one of the producers remarked. ‘The trouble is that all the people here are too young – they don’t appreciate home-made cakes’ ! It was indeed a ‘family Day’ somewhere in Dorset and the hot-dog and candy floss stands were doing a stormer!
Normally our customers know exactly what they are looking for – there is a regular fight over the ‘Dunking Gingers’ and sometimes over chocolate cakes – though next week it might be coffee or simply plain. So cake makers have to sit gazing into their crystal balls to know what to cook for the next week. Crackers and cheese biscuits are relatively simple in this respect – customers either like them or they don’t. Our customers do appreciate us and and often pass on compliment which is very cheering – though some may be tempered ‘ I just love your date slices – shouldn’t you mention on the label that there are oats in there? Some people don’t like oats. ‘ Our customers have spent years making and testing products of their own and definitely know what they want.