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June 29, 2016

Food for traditional thought

Handmade cheeses, exquisite silky chocolate, fragrant honey, tender dry-aged beef, succulent mountain lamb, traditional bread freshly baked by hand, Irish salmon smoked over woodchips from noble oaks felled in local woods.
This is not exactly the usual fare on a supermarket shelf. At any of the farmers’ markets that have sprung up around the country in recent years, however, you might be able to fill your basket with everything on the above list and a wealth of other high-quality, artisan produce besides.

With rising retail rents in towns and cities on one hand, and a growing demand for organic goods with traceable origins on the other, these local food markets work to the advantage of producer and consumer alike.
h4. Deserve the opportunity
“Country markets have long been an integral part of Irish life,” said Seán McArdle, who has set up almost 20 produce markets around the country in the last seven years under the company Irish Farmers Markets. Not all have thrived, but McArdle believes that consumers deserve the opportunity to shop local: “Market day has always been an opportunity for local producers to sell some of their wares.”
He believes that the resurgence of local markets over the last few years is different, however. “This country produces food of an incredibly high standard and it’s a labour of love for many of these small producers. Their operations are too small to supply supermarkets because of the painstaking care and attention to detail involved in their work. At the same time, there’s a growing demand among customers for top-quality food that isn’t mass-produced. This is where farmers’ markets come in.
“I’m trying to encourage markets outside of special days. I want to create a real market on a proper shopping day. If you go to France or Italy, they have markets every day of the week and it’s a normal shopping experience for people there,” he added.
h4. Commerical draw
McArdle currently operates markets in Leopardstown, Ranelagh, Powerscourt Townhouse and Howth in Dublin, along with Blessington and Greystones in Co. Wicklow; Maynooth and Celbridge in Co. Kildare; The Hub in Kilkenny City; and the Park Centre in Belfast.
A market is a major commercial draw into an area. On just its second day of trading, on 4 December last, the Blessington monthly market had over 50 stalls set out in the car park of Russborough House and over 2,500 people attended. “The market at the racecourses in Leopardstown every Friday also attracts about 2,500 people,” said McArdle. “It’s a big, well-established market that you might often see on television- we’ve even been on ‘Fair City’ a number of times!”
McArdle has been involved in organic farming for over 30 years and set up markets in the UK before turning his attentions to Ireland. “Over the years, I’ve come into contact with a lot of people growing and producing food,” he said. “Food has become very exciting in Ireland, particularly over the last six or seven years. At produce markets, you get the very best of Irish food, such as organic meat, fruit and vegetables, handmade sheep and goats’ cheese, homemade jams and chutneys, fudge and chocolates, and also sausages, soups, sauces and smoked fish and meats.”
While many of the available products are traditional Irish goods, an interesting development is the growing numbers of non-Irish nationals at the markets, both as stall-holders and as customers. “A lot of immigrants come to the markets; countries like Spain, Italy and France have very strong food cultures and they appreciate high quality. But also, they can produce food really well and it’s great to see them setting up stalls of their own.
“It creates this wonderful mix of traditional Irish food, which farmers markets have always encouraged, with unique foreign food, whether it’s Chinese, Korean, Polish or even Welsh. It creates a really interesting and unusual market situation where you can buy goods that aren’t available in any shop.”
Paul McCormick, owner of Gortnamucklagh Organic Beef Products, sells his wares at his local market in Fairfield, Skibbereen, Co. Cork. “About five years ago, when genetically-engineered food was being proposed for Ireland, a group of gardeners and farmers got together and decided they wanted to do something practical to raise awareness of the issues, so we established a farmers market,” he recalls.
At the time, McCormick was selling his beef to factories and also sold some vegetables to a local shop. “We were struggling a bit, to be honest. It didn’t encourage you to develop because there was no room for expansion. As soon as the market started, it allowed people to expand their production and have an outlet for it. The market started off with seven stalls, but now there are nearly 40.”
h4. Organic tomatoes
McCormick has witnessed an increased consumer demand for organic produce, and the Fairfield market provides these goods at very inexpensive prices. “Our market is the cheapest in West Cork, guaranteed. Local producers sell fruit and vegetables for as cheap as you can get. A friend of mine sells organic tomatoes that are cheaper than in any supermarket, including the low-cost stores that arrived from the continent over the last few years. I can’t understand why anyone would shop anywhere else.”
McCormick sees regular customers returning every week, and even every year. “Tourists come back to the area every year and they always return to the market too, because of the price and the quality of the produce.” The quality has also resulted in some national successes from the market.
“People have really built up their businesses from the market. Gubbeen Smokehouse and Farmhouse Products has done very well, as has Glen Island Dairy Products, whose produce you can see in shops all around the country. The first place they both sold was in our market. They got a foothold here.” McCormick’s own business has also expanded, and now he runs Woodkerne Nurseries, specialising in nut and fruit trees, from the market.
h4. Personal touch and traceability
It is not just price that makes markets so successful around the country, he believes. “It’s also the personal touch and traceability. People like to know where their food comes from, and we’ve lost that connection to the producer these days in many shops. It’s very gratifying when people come back to me and say that our beef is the best they’ve had in years. As a producer, that makes it all very worthwhile.”
“Anything sold in these markets is really someone’s labour of love,” agreed McArdle. “These producers are never going to make millions from it. They do it because they enjoy it and want to stay on the land so that a traditional way of living isn’t lost.”
McArdle believes that one of the single biggest reasons for the markets’ popularity is the atmosphere they generate. “Why would anyone want to go to a clinical-looking supermarket when you can buy top-quality food at reasonable prices in a lovely market atmosphere? Look around at any market and you’ll see producers chatting to their customers, telling them how to get the best out of what they’re buying, the best way to cook it or even asking if they escaped that bad flu that was going around. That’s the kind of places that markets are.”