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All the fun of the fare

The Times
Can you do a weekly shop for a family of five at the farmers’ market? Helena Pozniak ditches the trolley and converts the kids to fresh produce


You could hear the sharp intake of breath as I told the other mothers: I’m going to try to feed the family for a week solely on produce for sale at the farmers’ market — no frozen peas, cheese twists, mini rolls or other foods of convenience that are the devil’s work to local farmers. “So expensive!” “Think of all that cooking”, “What, you’ll have to do a menu plan.”

I am a dyed-in-the-wool supermarket shopper. Our children — Louis, 4, Ruby, 3, and Nicholas, 1 — are creatures of habit (it’s sausages so it must be Tuesday) and suspicious of strangers on their plates. We’re on a tight budget and eat nearly all meals at home. I’m not up on what’s in season and the freezer is full of special offers. Only one friend — who admittedly makes her own fish fingers — believes it’s a goer. Find seasonal recipes, she says, and don’t buy more than you need.

“It’s realistic to do a week’s shop,” says Toby Bowtell, a meat farmer and a member of Hampshire Farmers’ Markets. “It takes a bit more planning before you go, and it’s impossible to compare the prices with supermarket prices, as the quality is so much better.” The market in Winchester, where I live, has 50-odd stalls and is the largest of its kind in Britain — virtually an open-air supermarket. Pork and watercress feature large, as Hampshire is a great producer of both, and there are rare-breed meats, speciality bakers, cheeses, pickles, curds and pies. Shoppers range from regulars to recreational grazers.

“The hardest thing people have to get to grips with is the fact that things are seasonal,” says Andrew Turner-Cross, a master baker, and a stallholder at the market. May marks the end of the leanest time of year, the “hungry gap”, and bad weather this spring has scuppered the strawberries and raspberries. But there’s a whiff of excitement that asparagus and rhubarb are finally available, and even a new potato or two is coming through. Everything is produced locally — you’ll never see a banana here — so it’s fresh and nutritionally at its best.

To get the cream of the crop, I learnt to arrive early, when the farmers, butchers and bakers still have the time and inclination to talk. We snatched up the first mackerel of the year, caught that morning in the English Channel. “Still twitching,” says Ron Connors, who has fished with his brother Sean for 36 years. “Just gut and grill them, and the meat falls off the bone.” The fish tastes great and is rich in skin-nourishing essential fatty acids.

Menu plan in mind, I resist pricey delicacies such as watercress pesto, smoked-trout mousse and elderflower wine but taste them anyway, another joy of the market. When my son gags on a piece of garlic goat’s cheese, I cross that off the list. Our Sunday roast is a free-range guinea fowl which, on the advice of Bowtell’s Farm Shop, I cover with streaky bacon, roast like a chicken and serve with fresh asparagus, spinach and minted new potatoes. All traditional meats are here: beef hung for three weeks, rare-breed pigs and lambs, all humanely farmed.

I buy rabbit and pigeons, all shot in the woods around Andover. Janet Lane, of Hampshire Game, is on hand to give me the courage to joint a rabbit (£2 each). I can put it in a pie, a casserole or roast it with mustard and garlic. Flash-fry pigeon breasts in butter, she advises, and serve on fried garlic croutons with salad.

Winchester doesn’t lack for sausages or burgers and I bought some award-winners (the butcher had brought his trophy to prove it). But shop around, as some contain rusks and preservatives. The organic meat is flagged as such, but not all of it is officially recognised by the Soil Association.

If you pay a little bit extra, you can eat like kings on ready meals. Hand-made pies, trout fishcakes, quiches, pasta sauces and mushroom ravioli, all made, where possible, from local fare.

If you’re used to strolling supermarket aisles at your leisure, buying from a busy market can be unsettling. I’ve never before been asked about the preferred girth of my leeks, and the “try-before-you-buy” samples make me feel obliged to purchase. Not that stallholders wish this, urging you to breakfast for free on their enticing dips, breads and chutneys. I sorely missed the trolleys to restrain the wayward children (they ended up at McDonald’s for a pit stop, the only place open at that time on a Sunday morning). And have you ever tried carrying a week’s shopping? But the flip-side is meeting the people who have farmed your food. They can vouch for the pedigree of their wares, tell you when it was caught, shot, picked or plucked, and give advice on how to cook or store it.

And we did it! We fed the family three meals a day for a week and threw nothing away. I usually end up binning a few soggy veg and mouldering cartons from the back of the fridge, but this week the cupboard was bare. I spent £120, about £20 more than a normal supermarket shop and I cooked more than I would have liked (“Sorry, can’t go out, I’m making soup”). And the children, who thought peas grew in the freezer, ate their hearts out. Rabbit stew, fresh mackerel, asparagus, spiced fishcakes, duck eggs, smoked fish, yoghurt with bits in it, rhubarb stewed with dates and mixed with cream — all for the first time. They were beside themselves with glee at the sight of fish heads and guts, and whole skinned rabbits.

And having raved to the other mums about the quality of the market food, I suspect I’ll now have some stiff competition to get first pick at my favourite stalls.

For your nearest farmers’ market call 0845 4588420 or click on www.farmersmarkets.net

Garden Salad With Cider Dressing (recipe from Mr Whitehead’s Cider Company) Serves 4

The salad:

Arrange the salad ingredients in a bowl, whisk the dressing and pour over; toss gently and serve.

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