Tuesday, 15 December 2009

For and against farmers' markets

Went to the local farmers' market with Dad on Sunday. It's always amusing to take him as he enjoys looking at the prices, which I think he reads as fascinating works of fiction.

He derives huge comfort from the prices for lamb. He sells organic lamb to some of the tonier joints in the Cotswolds at prices he believes are reasonable but full. After seeing what the good burghers of Islington are paying for meat direct from the producer, he feels like the sheep farming equivalent of Lidl.

A couple of beauties:

First up, a Christmas cake, 6" diameter, covered in nuts and cherries. Price: £44. Yes, you read it correctly (I had to go back and check). Not much bigger than a tea plate and fourty. four. pounds. But don't worry they had a 'credit crunch' version (as it was advertised) for a mere £22.

Secondly, a poultry product called 'boiling fowl'. These are chickens that have stopped laying eggs due to old age. Typically, they go into cat food if industrially farmed or are cooked up and fed to the dogs where free-range eggs are produced in a smaller way - these ones were free-range. They would make a flavoursome broth, without doubt. But this is resorted to not as choice but as necessity; there is no other way to enjoy the bird. Price: between about £14 and £16 each.

I found this offer even more staggering than the cake. At least with the cake you could imagine it had been decorated with gold leaf and was soaked in spectacularly expensive vintage brandy. But this bird? Its main function was the production of eggs. It is now unable to do so. Essentially speaking it is therefore a waste product. I had to admire their chutzpah and was tempted to hang around to see which idiots were taken in. By all means buy a tough old bird to stew up but don't pay £15 to £20 for it.

So why do we go? Veg is cheap, bread pricey but not beyond. Some meat products - sausages and pies for instance - are reasonable value. But as for cuts and joints of meat, even if they were reasonably priced I wouldn't be persuaded to buy them: keeping them for days on end on little blue blocks taken from the freezer can't be enough to keep them fresh, even at this time of year. As for summer, you can actually smell the rankness on some stands. As Robert Fisk - who always seemed to be in its presence - would describe it: 'the stench of death'.

The most compelling argument for going is that it looks nice and it's a good venue for people-watching. You'll never see a greater number of expensively-dressed scruffy people than at ours.


worm said...

ahhh the good old farmers market - was there ever such a gulf between expectation and reality? I don't think I've ever been to a really good one in the uk

edit: and on the subject of markets - who on earth buys fudge? you always see those fudge stands, and I think to myself, well, fudge is moderately ok as a food stuff, but I never ever would want to buy and eat a big block of it.

Brit said...

Bristol has quite a good one but I never seem to buy anything except immediate lunch, eg. a poncey hotdog (organic Gloucester Old Spot sausage in multiseeded bun etc).

Been to a few amazing ones in France but the casual attitudes to hygiene and animal cruelty are off-putting.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Good grief, where do these farmers in your farmers' market do their farming? I suppose if rents are high in Chelsea or wherever they are then they have to charge those prices!

Sir Watkin said...

Boiling fowls may be "waste products", but it's impossible to make a proper chicken stew/casserole/etc. without one.

Ordinary chickens (bred for roasting) are useless because they disintegrate before they have been cooked long enough (it's the equivalent of braising fillet steak).

Choice and necessity are not in opposition, but go together. You choose a boiling fowl because it is best for the job of making a richly-flavoured, slow-cooked stew (and you couldn't use it for anything else). cf. lamb shanks, oxtail, etc.

Yet b.f. are almost impossible to find (unless one knows someone who keeps hens), so ironically there is a certain sense in the high prices asked.

Bunny Smedley said...

Harmless, though, isn't it? If there are people out there who are willing to pay £44 for cake plus ambience plus 'authenticity' - let alone a properly Fisk-certified 'stench of death' - their money is as good as anyone else's, surely?

'Adding value' is a mysterious business, admittedly, but I am always delighted when I find people who are able to do this, and hence enrich the communities wherein they spend their own money.

Brit said...

Which comment, Bunny, raises an interesting philosophical question: absent outright fraud (eg. passing cheap metal off as gold), is it actually possible for something to be inherently "over-priced"?

Bunny Smedley said...

Personally, Brit, I don't believe in 'over priced' as a concept - as long as the vendor isn't actually lying about the product itself (e.g. isn't claiming it's actually made of solid gold, by Santa's actually, contractually-bound elves) it's really just a matter of letting the market itself figure out what it's willing to bear. The transactions here are all voluntary ones. Just let people get on with doing the silly things people do.

On the other hand, I am pretty sure that Gareth is a better economist than I am, so perhaps he'll sort this out ...

Sophie King said...

Best farmers' market I ever went to was the French market in Haverfordwest a couple of years ago. Fantastic proper poulets and all sorts of other French loveliness with an accordion player thrown in for good measure. Local producers were also selling their stuff and from what I could see, they weren't marking it up hugely. It's a bit odd, isn't it, when people would choose a smelly farmers' market over the already existing excellent fishmonger, butcher and patisserie (I'm assuming they're still there in Islington), but as Bunny says, it's what the market will bear.

Gaw said...

Worm: Fudge, it's me and the missus. Both partial to a few chunks.

Brit: The difference is that the French markets aren't known as 'farmers' markets'. They're simply markets. This tells you all you need to know about them.

Gadjo: 'Local' is defined quite widely: from Norfolk down to Kent is local to London, it seems.

Sir Watkin: As a long-time exponent of the chicken stew, I beg to differ. A decent free range chicken makes a lovely stew. The remains of our Sunday roast often gets converted to a Monday night meal. The key is to take the carcass out and pick the meat off an hour or two into the simmer, then add back the bones. You add the meat back last minute. This stops it disintegrating.

However, I'm all in favour of making use of boiling fowl. But I would never pay that sort of money, just like I wouldn't pay a lot for oxtail, neck of lamb, etc. Anyone who asks you to do so is gouging. They've made an economic return off the other bits.

Bunny: I wouldn't make it illegal or anything! After all we do end up at the farmers' market most weekends we're in London. Re the local community point though, I'm pleased to direct my business to the local (and better value for money) butcher.

Re the over-priced debate, I'm not sure I could rise to such objective heights. It would be very unfair if we couldn't laugh occasionally at how people who have got buckets of money go about (mis)spending it. In fact, isn't it a traditional consolation for those who haven't got any of the stuff?

Sophie: I wonder if the Sioni Winwns men made it as far west as Haverfordwest?

Re Islington's shops: indeed, one of the joys of living near Essex Road are the excellent local shops (one of my earliest posts celebrated them).

Sophie King said...

Gaw, believe it or not, the only person I ever saw buying onions from a genuine French onion seller was my mother-in-law - who lived just off Upper Street.

Gaw said...

I can well believe it. 'Market Garden' the greengrocers on Essex Road has strings of French onions on sale but only occasionally. I'd like to think they go up shortly after a moustachioed gentleman in a striped top has called!

Sir Watkin said...

I recall fondly the winter in my boyhood when for a shilling or two we bought a dozen old hens from a neighbour. Their carcases hung, gruesome yet fascinating, in an outhouse for several weeks whilst we enjoyed a succession of stews, daubes, casseroles, curries, etc. - the like of which I have never eaten since. As the days passed and the birds hung longer the flavours grew ever richer and more gamey.

One can of course make a decent chicken stew with a roasting bird by adopting expedients such as the one you suggest, but it is not the ideal.

Could not agree more, however, that high prices for boiling fowl are outrageous, as the scarcity (and thus the premium) is a result solely of suppliers failing to release them onto the market.

Gaw said...

Sir W, you have beautifully conjured up something of an idyll. I was hoping to get some old layers from my brother in due course, but reynard intervened as I recounted some weeks ago.