A lazy bank holiday weekend has been punctuated by several excellent cake and pastry pit stops. An iced pain au raisin from the Blackbird Bakery in Crystal Palace kicked off a sunny Saturday, with greedy forethought to bag a Chelsea bun encrusted with sugar for afternoon tea. Both were delicious, however the star of the show was waiting in The Albion deli, attached to its hearty English caff in east London. Multi-checkered layers of rosewater sponge cemented with raspberry jam amounted to one of the finest pieces of Battenburg I’ve ever tasted – only to be seconded by one of the signature all-star chocolate brownies.
In hindsight, I should have saved some cake space for the Crystal Palace Food market, which saw a tiny back street off the Triangle alive with home-made produce for the second week running – pedaling everything from home-grown herbs and local honey to organic meats and Moroccan soul food. I took home a box of biodynamic eggs that had been laid at Brambletye Farm in East Sussex, about an hour’s drive from south-east London. After poaching and popping creamy yolks the colour of sunshine on toast – and looking up the term biodynamic: (like an extension of organic where holistic methods of farming are applied to nourish the earth) – I’m not sure there’s any going back to Sainsbury’s for my next half a dozen.
The purpose of the new market (see a little piece I did for the local Crystal Palace mag here), is to champion local food, unite a burgeoning food scene and provide a one-stop-shopping place where locals can make new decisions on where their food is reared, sourced and made. In the last few years independent market numbers have spiked in London and school playgrounds, alleys, parks and halls are now host to heaving tables of home-baked goods, mirroring the traditional country market set ups still going strong, many from the worn comfort of the British village hall.
One of the most established national markets rurally is Country Markets; a fantastic co-operative social enterprise that looks after 350 independent markets across Britain, geared towards producers home-making, baking and crafting wares on a small scale to sell as part of a weekly local market. The organization was originally set up in 1919 as ‘WI Markets’ under the watchmanship of the Women’s Institute as a way to use surplus food and for WI members ( as well as non-members, the unemployed, housebound and even men), to boost the domestic kitty. Consequentially, this fostered new relations and goodwill between community producers and buyers, as Simon Goodenough explains in his pictorial documentary book Jam & Jerusalem (1977);
‘…the markets are the shop front of the WI, the point at which members and non-members mingle to buy and sell their own produce and spend a pleasant hour or two in friendly chatter….the few extra pence brought in from surplus blackberries, from a glut of curly kale or some fresh, home-baked scones were often, in the beginning, the first money a woman could call her own – an important step in self-esteem and a feeling of independence if all her money had hitherto come from her husband.’
In 1966 The Times described WI Markets as ‘one of the most successful and valuable of British institutions,’ and the legacy lives on to this day. Although the WI separated from the markets on amicable terms in 1995, the social interests and geographical overlaps means many WI members are still cooking and baking up a storm on a weekly basis for Country Market stalls across England, Wales and the Channel Islands – along with a growing list of young mums, retired food enthusiasts and passionate foodies who can hold down a full time job while baking, cooking, crafting or bottling their way to a decent side income.
Best of all, if you can’t make market day or you want to send a gift to friends or family, you can order a hamper full of home-made biscuits, fruit cakes, jams, pickles and treats for delivery. No sensational mark up prices, gimmicks or fancy frills, just real wholesome home-cooked produce ready for the eating. And if you think you can do better? Put your best cake forward – Country Markets are always looking for new producers.
For more information on where to find your nearest market, how to become a producer or how to order a hamper, visit www.country-markets.co.uk