No longer content with shopping being a weekly chore, we now want it to be a gastronomic experience. One in which scents and smells envelop us – encouraging us to try new things. Standing in the middle of St George’s Market in Belfast, I know I have found an ideal place.
Here, shopping offers us choice, value for money, great service and expert advice from people who care about their produce. It also offers the satisfaction of knowing where our food has come from and the pleasure of shopping in a fabulous atmosphere.
St George’s was originally a fruit market and has been a well established feature of everyday life in Belfast for over a century. Constructed in 1890-96 by JC Bretland, in the once thriving markets’ area of the city, it is now the only surviving original market building in the Belfast.
Following the regeneration of the markets in the 1990s, Belfast City Council refurbished the market internally and externally. Re-opening in May 1999, St George’s has gone from being underused and overlooked, to one of the city’s best known and most vibrant retail, cultural and conference venues.
The market, held on Friday and Saturday mornings, attracts hordes of people all vying to sample some of the best gastronomic delights that Northern Ireland has to offer. From fruit and vegetables to cakes, breads, meats, cheeses and freshly made juices – there is every smell and flavour you could ever hope for.
The Friday market is a frenzy of activity. You can buy everything including the kitchen sink – the choice is remarkable. For many of the traders, there is a family connection to the market because, more often than not, pitches have been in the same family for generations. It is an increasingly valued alternative to the high street chains and supermarkets, which is reflected in the fact that it receives 5000-7000 visitors each week. You can pick up a lavender plant, eat a crepe, and browse some vintage jewellery, and buy some remarkable cheeses, breads, meats and fish for your dinner, all within moments of each other.
As I wander through the stalls buying ingredients for a dinner party with friends, I notice that all the stall holders want to stop and have a chat with you.
I buy some Dubin Bay Prawns from Alan Coffy of ‘Something Fishy’. He has been a trader at the Market since the 1970s. He believes the new food markets at the weekend are great for business. Many of his customers are local office workers – either looking for something tempting to buy for dinner or an interesting walk during their lunch hour. Coffy clearly cares about his produce and his customers. He always takes the time to listen, advise and suggest interesting recipes.
I buy bottles of Apple juice for my cocktail of the evening – Appletini’s from Co Armagh fruit farmer, Ken Redmond, who grows over 30 varieties of eating apple. Throughout the year he presses, blends and bottles their juice to produce his wonderfully refreshing and incredibly healthy range of Barnhill apple juices. Later he sells them at St George’s, where he offers eight varieties to choose from and lots of samples to try.
Redmond told me ‘There’s a great buzz seeing something through from start to finish and meeting the customers. I wouldn’t want to produce something that I wouldn’t drink myself. The best bit is watching customers enjoy something you have created.’
The market is not just a place for shopping. Children, adults, and even dogs, are able to relax with a coffee and a newspaper, and listen to jazz, or other live music. Wonderful breakfasts are also on sale, bowl of creamy organic porridge, homemade bread and jam.
At ‘P& P Produce’ I buy duck eggs, perfect for making a huge pavalova, and some of the first strawberries of the season.
‘Mullan’s Organic farm’ specialises in lamb, with many different cuts to choose from – I buy some racks French trimmed in front of me. Not one ever to resist a cocktail sausage at ‘Culdrum Organic Farm’ I buy several types of sausage – lamb and mint, pork and pear, spice and fruit. All of these come with little notes attached telling you what breed of pig they are produced from. It is meat provenance at its finest.
I stop at Belfast’s oldest tea importers ‘SD Bell Tea & Co Ltd Belfast’ to buy some gunpowder grey Lap sang tea, and just beside them is the most remarkable cheese stall ever with delights from all over Ireland. I buy some Gubeen, from County Cork, and smoked Oat Cakes.
Dean Irwin, from Greenmount Butchers in Co Armagh was the first farmer offering a butchery service to have a stall at the market when it opened after refurbishment in May 1999. He told me that the market allows ‘the country to come to the city.’ He has amazing chicken livers, which I am planning to turn into pate.
At Miller’s bakery I stock up on Belfast Baps – perfect crusty bread, to be filled with bacon for breakfast tomorrow.
The market has slowly but surely expanded over the years and is the perfect place to hang out on Friday or Saturday. I hope if you are ever in Belfast, you will swing by.
To find out more about St.George’s market in Belfast: http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket/
Nicky Cahill’s website: www.saltandsparkle.com
To follow Nicky Cahill on Twitter: @saltandsparkle