Food

Roaring trade

Marylebone Farmers’ Market has been trading for 15 years. The Journal meets its founders, stallholders and regular customers to celebrate the anniversary

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili

“I can still remember being shown the site,” Cheryl Cohen recalls, wonderingly. “I remember having someone take a picture of me on the steps to the car park and saying, this is going to be a market. It’s a shock, really, to realise that was 15 years ago.” Marylebone farmers’ market is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year; London Farmer’s Markets, the umbrella company of which Cheryl is a director, is approaching 20. And with developments to the car park necessitating the move of the market (it’s not going far, don’t worry), the time feels plum-ripe to reflect on Moxon Street car park’s weekly metamorphosis from rough tarmac to treasure trove.

“I’ve lived in Marylebone for at least 25 years and I have seen all of its changes,” says local resident Renata Brady. “One of the best things to have happened is the arrival of its farmers’ market. I’ve been a regular since it started and now I can’t remember a Sunday morning without a mushroom sandwich from William.” William Rooney is one of two brothers behind Mushroom Table. When the market first started, there was very little cooked food. Cheryl suggested to William and Matthew that they sell hot mushroom sandwiches alongside their produce. “They’ve cursed me ever since!” she grins, when I marvel at the length and enthusiasm of their queue.

It’s hard to believe looking at Marylebone today, with its smorgasbord of butchers, bakers and fishmongers, but back in 2003 it was a bit of a wilderness, food-wise. Waitrose and La Fromagerie aside, the area offered remarkably little in the way of fresh, seasonal, high quality food.

“It seemed like a good location and La Fromagerie was very encouraging,” Cheryl remembers. Most Marylebone shops were closed on Sundays, leaving the area bereft of people as well as food options. The farmers’ market has brought many things to Marylebone—William’s famous sandwiches not least among them—but perhaps one of the most enduring has been the village’s Sunday retail boom.

As fresh as it gets

Support local businesses
“We wanted to encourage people to stay in shops in the area—to support local businesses, as well as come to the market. We encouraged shops and cafes to open and created a food trail with The Howard de Walden Estate around the village,” she says proudly. “Even Waitrose told us their Sunday sales had increased since we’ve been here.”

When Nanette Pigaga, another regular, was moving to London from the United States, her estate agent took her to Marylebone and, passing Moxon Street car park, said casually, this is where the farmers’ market is held each Sunday. “That was all I needed to hear,” says Nanette. “I told him I wanted to limit our flat search to Marylebone from that point.”

The first market opened on a wet Sunday in June 2003. It didn’t rain so much as pour down on the stalwart group of stallholders as they laid out their wares—yet the good people of Marylebone still came, ate, and loaded their baskets and bags-for-life with produce. “If people will turn out in the rain for it, it’s probably going to work out,” Cheryl said to herself—and sure enough, with the exception of Christmas and New Year, the market has opened without fail every Sunday since. “We open every week. We open at Easter. We open in the rain, snow and sun,” she says, feelingly. “We want this to be somewhere people can rely on to shop for their food each week.” Not only that, but by virtue of being in an open space in the centre of Marylebone, the farmers’ market has become something of a weekly meeting point for residents, many of whom only know each other through coming here.

“There aren’t any town squares in the centre of London, put it like that,” says Cheryl, when I ask her what she feels the market has brought to the community. “And there aren’t many places where you can be on first name terms with the people who grow your food, either.”

"On first name terms with the people that grow your food"

Goodwill and community
“Over the years I’ve worked in Marylebone, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by the sense of goodwill and community at the market. I’ve always felt valued: whenever I spoke about the cheeses, people were genuinely interested and listened. Often quite an audience would form,” recalls Will Nash, who for many years worked on the stall for Bath Soft Cheese.

He describes great friendships forged between traders and customers—and indeed, when I ask Corinne Gautier of Madame Gautier for her highlight of the 12 years she’s been in Marylebone, she doesn’t describe being voted the customers’ favourite stall (as it was this year), or selling to celebrities, but a family who returned from an entire year’s sabbatical to tell them how Madame Gautier had accompanied them all over the world.

“One of the children’s favourite games had been playing at being Madame Gautier,” she continues, beaming. “They took it in turns cooking dishes to sell at the market, buying them at the stall, reheating their purchases and finally serving the fictitious delights to their parents.” It was Marylebone that inspired Corinne and partner Mark to start selling their freshly made French dishes at farmers’ markets, and they are one of the few vendors permitted to sell ready-made food.

It might sound counterintuitive, but in a city increasingly dominated by street food, not having hot food vendors has become something of a distinguishing feature of London Farmers’ Markets. “People might want something to eat while they’re shopping, but it’s not the prime motivation. We want people to be able to shop for ingredients to cook with,” says Cheryl firmly. “I don’t like to use the word ‘purity’, but we’ve always been quite strict. We grow it, we sell it. It’s as simple as that,” she continues. London’s farmers markets are just that: markets to support farmers.

"We grow it, we sell it".

Time-honoured slow food
Indeed, so strict were they when they first set up, “it took a long time for us to even allow coffee”. Meanwhile, those who have been wondering when they might be able to get a stronger brew with their shop will be pleased to know the rules have been changed to allow brewers and distillers to sell here. “Vineyards we’ve always had, because you can grow grapes in this country—but hops are difficult,” she acknowledges. As a result, you’ll now find Bucks Star Beer at the market: a solar-powered, zero-waste microbrewery in Milton Keynes that produces live beers without pasteurisation, filtering, fining or adding sugars or CO2. “We move at our own pace,” she smiles—a description which seems fitting for a market trading in carefully crafted, time-honoured ‘slow’ food.

One of the most recent stalls to join the market, Heritage Cheese, is being manned by Laurence Verfaillie. “I was part of the market for two years and have missed it so much since I left Bath Soft Cheese in January, so I am delighted to be back,” she tells me happily. She’ll be selling Quicke’s cheddar: a marvel of milk that’s been two years in maturing and more than 450 years in the making. Mary Quicke is the 14th generation in her family to turn the ripe, creamy milk of her Devonshire farm into cheddar. It’s a perfect fit for a market which Laurence says reminds her “of a French street market more than anywhere else”—praise indeed for a woman born and raised in France.

In September, Marylebone farmers’ market will move up onto Aybrook Street. “We’ll be on the pavement around the car park initially, then there’ll be a market hall going up and we’ll be in there, spilling out onto the street,” Cheryl tells me. She’s not worried. “We’ve be working on that for a few years now,” she continues.

Besides, if the traders and customers I’ve spoken to are anything to go by, you don’t get much more loyal than a Marylebone farmers’ market regular. “Our customers are local. We get a few tourists, but the vast majority come from within a one-mile radius. We wouldn’t be selling joints of lamb and pints of Hurdlebrook milk if they weren’t.” There’ll be the odd tourist, lured by the scent of sizzling mushrooms or the sound of oyster-shucking at Longshore, but they are welcome additions rather than staples. “It is really important to us that we are rooted in the community.”

Smiley happy people!

Bakers, makers, fishermen, farmers
London Farmers’ Markets are important to the communities in which they are based, and Cheryl and the traders take that responsibility very seriously. But the markets are equally vital to the bakers, makers, fishermen and farmers themselves. These are small scale operations—one-man bands, in some cases—which, without the support of Marylebone and other markets, would struggle to exist.

Many of them work 24-seven. To get to Marylebone, Edwin Broad of Riverdale Organic Farm rises at half four on Sundays. “We’re a very small concern. There are only three of us on the farm, and we grow more than 105 different lines over the year. We sell our organic produce at four different markets in London at the weekend. Marylebone is my market and I love it. I really look forward to coming to work here,” he tells me.

For regular customers Ann and Carl Eastman—who are 76 and 90, respectively—being able to support “those farmers who care about their land and stock” has been twofold. “It’s revolutionised our eating—we never buy fruit or vegetables doused in chemicals and refuse to touch poultry unless it’s free range and hasn’t been routinely treated with antibiotics. This has undoubtedly helped to keep us healthier, happier and active.”

Street food markets are glorious things. I for one would not be without a good mac and cheese truck. But it’s at the city’s farmers’ markets you’ll find people of all creeds, colours and ages. “It’s really cosmopolitan, with regular customers who originate from many different countries,” Edwin says of Marylebone. “This makes us work at really giving them what they want, which is so rewarding.” Food is a broad church—and there is indeed something religious about so many people coming together every Sunday to break bread handmade by ex-offenders and the long-term unemployed at the award-winning The Dusty Knuckle bakery, stock up on garlic from The Garlic Farm and catch up with each other.

Marylebone Farmers’ Market has seen many changes. Come September, it will see another one. But I have every faith we’ll be toasting its 30th in 2033 with a live beer and some oysters—because with organic, unpasteurised beer being brewed on your doorstep, who needs champagne?