The Tunbridge Wells farmers’ market runs twice a month in the town centre, bringing local produce to shoppers. Adam Wells met some of the faces behind the stalls…
Fresh, affordable, local produce. No need for refrigeration or long-distance transportation. Supporting local families and businesses. Guaranteed quality and traceability.
The list of positives goes on and on, so it’s something of a surprise to think that it was as recently as 1997 that the first UK farmers’ market was formed. Perhaps even more surprising, is the fact we borrowed the concept from the Americans.
The ever-growing popularity of farmers’ markets however, comes as no shock at all.
The Tunbridge Wells famers’ market, founded by the borough council in September 1999, can be found outside and around the town hall on the second and fourth Saturday of every month.
And though Civic Way, Mount Pleasant Road may be an aptly named place for such a positive community event to take place, you could hardly call the setting perfect.
As rain runs down her face and wind threatens to blow her words away, market manager Laura Flanigan confesses ‘we definitely have location envy up here.’
The object of this friendly envy is the Pantiles, whose food and craft market, which takes place on the first and third Saturday of the month, is protected from the elements by its low elevation, and sheltered by its corridor of shop fronts and colonnades.
But once you’ve made your peace with the weather, it’s clear there’s nothing else to be jealous about. In fact, the enthusiasm of stallholders and customers here is all the more laudable given that the elements are so often against them.
One trader whose enthusiasm comes as no surprise is George Botterell. Running Botterell’s Fresh Fish with brother Jasper and dad John, George is a seasoned fisherman.
“This is our weather” he says. Fishing out of Rye Harbour in a small day boat, George is no stranger to the wind and rain. He splits his time between catching fish and selling them, and they’ve had a stall here for 15 years.
“People’s approach has changed over the years,” he says. “They were used to seeing things in the supermarket and thinking they’re in season.
“We can only offer what’s in season. This gives them an idea about what’s really available. We do scallops in the short season then don’t touch them. That’s the way it should be.
“Sometimes we have a lot of different stuff here, sometimes we have less. You can only sell what you bring up in your fishing gear.”
One the stall are scallops, crabs, prawns, oysters and a selection of fish, varied but not too big, with the emphasis firmly on freshness. Because George uses a small boat, the fish he brings up are never out of the water for more than eight hours. It’s an approach that’s proved popular.
He says: “We get quite a few customers coming in from outside town. They make a point of coming in on the certain days they know we’re here.”
A small, family business offering locally sourced, quality produce, Botterell’s Fresh Fish typifies the spirit of the farmers market.
Nearly as long in the game, is Green Apron UK. Run by Louis Robinson with the help of mum Josephine, Green Apron makes marmalades, curds and preserves, as well as most other things you can spread on bread or dip a cracker in.
“This is only our third time here”, says Josephine.
Until recently Louis was working as a chef at the luxury Langham Hotel on Regent Street. Fed up with the ‘mad hours’ and encouraged by the enthusiastic reaction he’d had to a homemade chutney, he started the business last summer.
“His granny Sylvia used to make jams for the WI”, says Josephine.
“She gave him some of her recipes.
A few years ago he made this chutney. Everyone said it was so wonderful, he had to go into business.”
“It was a slow building process”, explains Louis. “Recipe testing, finding the best suppliers for jars. It kicked on in January, we started to build the range. We waited for the marmalade season to have that as a cornerstone.”
The marmalade in question illustrates the effort Louis goes to, to ensure his products are of the best possibly quality.
“I try to get the best quality oranges you can get,” he says. I go to the big fruit market up in Spitalfields. Everything else I try to source as locally as I can. We grow some ourselves and there are several big fruit farms around us. We’ve got friends who grow fruit for us as well.”
“They all seem to have big gardens!” adds Josephine.
Like the Botterells’, the Green Apron range changes with the seasons, ensuring everything is fresh and at its best.
Louis says: “I’ve just done rhubarb as it’s the end of the season. In summer, there’s a greengage jam and a summer berry preserve.
“The range adapts and changes for the season. We had people coming and asking for some more summer berry preserve and we had to tell them to come back next year!”
One thing that’s never out of season is chocolate. It’s been a lifelong passion for Ira Harris, who’s been trading at the Tunbridge Wells market for a little over a year, as Patisserie Lingaud.
Long childhood summers spent with French godparents Monsieur and Madame Lingaud in the south of France, nourished a love of cooking and left a lasting impression. And as the couple didn’t have any children, she carried on the name with her business – but puts in all the work herself.
“It’s all me”, she says. “I make everything.”
Growing your own ingredients isn’t a realistic option when it comes to chocolate, but Mrs Harris uses UK suppliers and, for her delicious mint chocolate, home-grown mint.
Having established herself at the farmers’ market, Mrs Harris now also sells her wares online, and is active on Facebook and Twitter. The long-term dream is to use the market as a stepping stone to a shop of her own.
She says: “I’d really like somewhere to produce and sell from. Somewhere where people can see me making the chocolate.”
Someone who has already made such a step is Claire Forster. With business partner Sally Black, she runs award-winning gluten-free bakery Oast to Host, and, though she’s moved on from the market, she was full of praise for its qualities and its impact on their business.
“I joined the market on the back of an advert looking for a pudding stall”, Mrs Forster reveals.
“We found it a great platform to launch our products. You’re dealing directly with the public and we found them incredibly helpful with feedback on new or changed recipes.
“The market attracts a discerning group of foodies who appreciate talking to the makers and are interested in the processes getting from farm to fork.”
“We are now supplying more than 20 shops on the back of our start at the market.”
Rain or shine, the town hall farmers’ market is clearly a hit with the locals and the traders.
The only possible downside is that it isn’t on every week.