It’s pitch black and freezing cold when the first stallholders arrive to unload their produce. A single orange rectangle of light glows in the frosty gloom, which is the open doorway of New Ferry Village Hall. Once inside, there’s already a quiet bustle of activity gathering pace, as haunches of meat are hefted on to a butcher’s block; boxes of dark purple beetroot, curly kale, wild mushrooms, big fat leeks and bunches of onions are carefully displayed on a large stall; and a table heaving with just-baked cakes wafts the scrumptious, sugary aroma of vanilla through the chilly morning air.
Bill Neale, of W&EF Neale in Burscough, is busily setting up his vegetable stall with help from his daughter Claire. This is one of 13 farmers’ markets he sells at each month, and the sheer quality of his veg knocks spots off anything you’d find in a supermarket.
“We pick everything just the day before it’s brought to market, and it’s me, my wife, my other daughter and my son who get out there and do all the digging and that,” he explains. “We used to sell everything to the wholesale sector, but now we’re just growing for farmers’ markets – people seem to like those big bunches of dirty carrots the best – so it’s only any surplus that goes to catering. Financially, selling direct makes a big difference.”
A little way along the row, Barbara Cunningham of Neston Pies is carefully displaying her selection of homemade baked goods. It’s only her second time at this market, but from the vast selection of pies, cakes and biscuits she’s brought, it’s clear she’s anticipating doing cracking business. Her Poachers Pie, “with a bit of everything in it: smoked bacon, mixed game, chicken, ham and black pudding,” looks very fine indeed with its shiny golden crust. Nothing on her stand, she declares proudly, has been out of the oven for any longer than 12 hours, which means she’s been baking
The market is only meant to open at 9am, but the first shoppers are already rooting around, sniffing the air keenly for the pick of what’s on offer. A queue’s already begun to build by the Anglesey-based Welsh Black Beef Direct – one of Rick Stein’s Food Heroes. Here, four people in blood-spattered pinnies are working like the clappers to satisfy demand, and not inconsiderable amounts of cash are changing hands. The noise level in the hall is steadily getting louder, the ladies who run the cafe are busily frying bacon in preparation for the imminent run on butties, and there’s a growing crackle of excitement in the air.
By now the place is heaving, and if you want a nice piece of Welsh Black beef for your tea, you’ll need some patience as the queue now reaches around the corner. But what makes a hunk of Welsh Black worth all this standing about? “Quality and freshness,” says customer Eleanor Lyons decisively. “I’ll be buying some big pork chops, lamb steaks and a piece of sirloin today. I live five minutes down the road, and when I first came here two years ago I saw the queue here and thought it must be good stuff, and so it was.”
“The meat in particular is wonderful here,” agrees Susan Hill, just behind her in the queue. “I’ve been coming since the beginning, and I’ll stock up with chicken from the stand over there – they don’t taste anything like the ones you get in the shops – some eggs and a bit of fish… mind you, the bread’s quite expensive, so I tend not to buy that!”
It’s Ffiona and Brian Thomas who own Welsh Black Beef Direct and, cheekily, I wonder aloud how much they turn over on a day like this. Brian chuckles but won’t tell me – though given the rip-roaring trade going on behind us, it can’t be bad.
How did he get into selling at farmers’ markets? “A few years ago, in 1998 or so, there was a lot of protests about the low prices being given to farmers for their lamb and beef, and producers were throwing beefburgers in the Irish Sea in protest,” he explains. “Rather than using brawn, I decided to use my head a bit instead: if meat prices paid to farmers were so low but supermarkets were making so much money on it, I thought I’d try to get a slice of what they were getting, so I started selling like this. My intention is to take as many customers off the supermarkets as I can!”
There’s nowhere to sit in the cafe anymore, a school choir is singing to keep everyone entertained, and the aisles are packed with families, couples, older people and a few children being carried high above the crowd on their dads’ shoulders. Halfway down the hall, traditional apple varieties are for sale heaped in wooden boxes, all grown by the Cheshire-based Eddisbury Fruit Farm. There’s Ashmead’s Kernel, a yellow apple with a delicate pink blush which was originally produced in 1700 by a Dr Ashmead, the bigger red, yellow and orange dappled Kidd’s Orange Red, as well as more familiar Coxes and Bramleys – just four of the 26 apple varieties this family-run business grows throughout the year. In summer they’ll bring strawberries, tayberries, raspberries and loganberries to market, and autumn sees the shoppers of New Ferry stocking up on damsons and plums.
At the far end of the hall there’s a line of people queuing 20 deep for Ian the Eggman. Luckily they’re all grinning in good humour rather than fighting over the last few double yolkers. These seem to be the most popular sort and to some people’s dismay, there’s none of the large ones left.
“If you want the big double-yolkers, you have to get here early,” warns the Eggman, otherwise known as Ian Lloyd of Leadgate Farm near Chester. He’s niftily popping eggs into boxes and is so busy taking orders and money he barely has time to think, let alone chat. “I’ve only got the small double-yolkers left from my young pullets, laid just yesterday. Will that do you?” he asks Michael Savage, who wants three-dozen.
“These are far better eggs than any you’d get in a shop,” says Mr Savage as he waits for his order. “Much tastier, and very reasonably priced, if not cheaper than what you’d get in a supermarket.”
He’s spot on. Round the corner in Somerfield, medium free-range eggs are going for £2.90 a dozen. Ian the Eggman is selling his for £2.20 a dozen – 70p less. Next up is a lady wanting duck eggs: “They make a lovely custard, they do,” and another who fancies getting Mr Lloyd to sing. “Oh, he’s got a great voice, he has. He’s the Singing Eggman!” she laughs. “It’s much more fun buying from people rather than from shops, isn’t it?”
I’d never thought that anyone could make their fortune from eggs, but on the evidence of this morning, I might be wrong. Is business at Wirral Farmers’ Market always as good as this? “Yes, always,” confirms Mr Lloyd, his fingers shifting eggs in pairs from cardboard trays to portable boxes. “I reckon this is the best farmers’ market in the country.”
By the front door, the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse is flogging whole sides of smoked salmon for a tenner, and they’re going like, well, half-price smoked salmon. Running the stand, Keith Law says that out of the 20 farmers’ markets his company goes to a month, New Ferry is one of the best attended. “People like buying fish we do offers on, but things like the smoked swordfish, tuna and marlin, well, they’re not so used to that, but some do give it a go,” he smiles.
There’s still two hours of the market left to run and Mary’s Homemade Scones have clean sold out. Stallholder Mary Walton tells of one occasion when she was frantically baking batches of scones and biscuits in her home kitchen while friends ferried them to the market where they were snapped up before they’d barely been unwrapped.
“I was at home and the phone kept going while I was rubbing more butter into big bowls of flour – and all by hand – with people on the stand saying ‘we’ve only got 17 left, are you doing some more?’ I’d only just sent them off with another hundred!” she recalls, grinning with pleasure.
Doing her own shopping in the mad melee is the volunteer committee chairperson Anne Benson, who went to the awards ceremony in Birmingham with several of the stallholders to collect their BBC Food and Farming Best Farmers’ Market prize.
“I told myself no, it wouldn’t happen, and then it did, we won it and now customers are coming in saying they’ve heard and congratulations! It’s just great for the team who’ve put so many hours in and for the stallholders who’ve believed in us from the start,” she beams.
“And though it’s now become a real draw for the area, this isn’t all we want to do – we’ve got plans to expand the village hall, get more stalls in, draw more people to the market through events and email updates, and make the cafe facilities even bigger.”
As I finally make for the exit, my tummy is growling hungrily and I buy a raspberry yoghurt from Tiresford Yoghurt before walking reluctantly away from foodie heaven and across the cold car park. Suddenly, the man from Tiresford Yoghurt is rushing out after me, brandishing a bagful of plastic spoons.
“My wife said you’d not picked one up, and I though you might need one,” he says, smiling as he runs over, waving his spoons at me. As I spooned, rather than poured my yoghurt into my mouth, I reflected that you
don’t often get service like that at a supermarket.
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