Wednesday, September 15, 2010

From Farm Gate to Dinner Plate - Wild Tomato

From Farm Gate to Dinner Plate

Freshly roasted coffee, delicious local produce and Marlborough’s who’s who | The Marlborough Farmers’ Market has become the essential place to be on Sunday morning By Toni Gillan | Photography by Jim Tannock

On Sunday mornings I wake up in high spirits because the farmers’ market is being held. And I’m not alone. Taking time out from their busy weeks, an increasing number of Marlburians are grabbing their recyclable shopping bags to buy into farmers’ market mindfulness.

From farm gate to dinner plate, the Marlborough Farmers’ Market has evolved into a celebration of the good life – a feel-good Sunday blessing of the simple values of our community.

Held at the A&P Showgrounds – come rain, shine, blistering heat or chilly southerlies – from spring until late autumn, the farmers’ market takes life and living well beyond the enjoyment of an organic breakfast while imbibing a fair trade coffee fix. As we buy up locally-grown produce from enthusiastic stall vendors, we can catch up with all and sundry at the same time.

The atmosphere is sensational. Around the jumble of stalls, adults and kids colour the view, coffee and cooking aromas travel with the wind, and music gently drifts by in the air.

We are happy to be here. It’s impossible to shop quickly – particularly if one of the resident buskers like Peter Bargh starts to play his saxophone. For him, we’ll gravitate to a picnic bench to give him the time of day and a small thank you in his instrument box. It’s so laidback that, lest we miss out, we stiffen our resolve and get down to shopping for the real deal.

For many locals, the farmers’ market is an indispensable part of their week; with its sentiment and values reflecting their way of life. Defined as “those who eat locally”, these people are more interestingly referred to as locavores.

Chris Elphick and his partner Hazel Kirkham regularly travel from Picton to buy as much of their week’s food from the farmers’ market as possible. Chris says buying seasonal, fresh, locally-grown food means less transport energy is used. The couple believes it is important to support the local economy and to buy directly from growers. By doing this, their food is cheaper and fresher than when it’s passed through a number of middle people.

“We come to support small Marlborough producers and to have direct contact with them. It’s great when things come round like yummy cherries. As much of the produce at the farmers’ market is (at least) spray free, we aim for organic wherever possible. Plus it’s a good way to spend Sunday mornings – social and relaxed – and enjoy breakfast and coffee. With plenty of variety throughout the seasons, we eat whatever is available. And we believe that the more we shop here, the more local growers will be encouraged to try new things.”

“We purchase very little from supermarkets – just occasional hardware and processed foods, which we keep to a minimum. We still try to get most of those products from the local organic shop in Blenheim. Our aim is to not need a supermarket at all,” says Chris.

The idea of a Marlborough farmers’ market began in 2000 with an initiative spearheaded by Marlborough’s tourism marketing arm, Destination Marlborough. It sponsored Australian food writer and farmers’ market advocate Jane Adams to hold workshops and speak at a fundraising dinner. An enthusiastic founding committee (Chris Fortune, Charlie Jacobsen, Christina Mackay, Sandra Morritt, Geoff Swift, Bob and Jennie Crum and Stefan Browning) was subsequently formed.

A fact-finding trip to the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market, personally funded by Chris Fortune, Christina MacKay and Geoff Swift, ensued. On the recommendations of these so-named “three musketeers” (and the working model they had acquired), the Marlborough Farmers’ Market was inaugurated.

Tina Fortune is the manager of the Marlborough Farmers’ Market. Her partner, Chris Fortune, is the market’s breakfast chef, the chairman and an acknowledged driving force of the market since its inception. Tina recalls the early days when, of necessity, some committee members personally funded the market initiative to progress its development.

The market, now in its eighth year and seventh season, is regarded as one of the most progressive in the country. With strict operating guidelines for grower participation (to ensure the authenticity of the market and its produce), vendors are only permitted to sell primary produce, fresh food and value-added processed produce. The only exceptions are fresh-cut flowers and self-propagated plants, compost, natural fertiliser and worm farms.

Under these terms of engagement, the market presently sells organic fair trade coffee, breakfast food on potato plates, organic and processed meats, craft breads and baking, olive oils, nuts, seasonal berries and fruit, salad greens, herbs, saffron, vegetables, seedlings, flowers, mussels, crayfish, wild game, free-range eggs, cheese, goat’s milk, honey, wines, preserves, cordials and chutneys.

Tina says, “One of the key principles of a farmers’ market is for the consumer to have a direct relationship with the producer. So the stall must be operated by the producer or someone directly involved in production. When it comes to organics, any produce labelled as such must be certified under the Bio-Gro, Demeter or Certenz labels.”

Along with her other responsibilities, Tina’s job is to look after the stallholders, as well as oversee the information stall and the two breakfast tents, which she believes are the pulse of the market. She lists fun, family resonance and social interaction amongst her objectives.

“The picnic benches are purposely sited in the middle of the market for interaction and, I hope, for new Marlburians to relax and chat to locals. Oh… and to Nos Fletcher who is our market crier,” she adds with a laugh in her voice, “and Katrina Oliver – our very own quirky tales storyteller. She tells a very entertaining story about stone soup.”

“It’s all in our weekly newsletter, along with items urging people to think about what’s in their food – like where raw milk is coming from – and who to talk to around the stalls if they want to know more about specific subjects or concerns?”

Tina nurtures her stallholders; particularly new participants who often (as primary producers with little public interaction) find it a little daunting to engage in conversation. “We teach them to talk about their product, take ownership and be independent. From closed and shy, they blossom to open, confident, smiley people. We encourage them to socialise, and to attend our forums and barbecues. We even give an annual award for ‘stallholder of the season’.”

Sherrington Grange cheese maker Lisa Harper, her brother (beekeeper Rob Harper) and his wife (Sabine) work and live together as part of a family cooperative. Travelling from Mahau in the Pelorus Sound via Havelock to get their produce to market, they were keen to get home but allowed me a quick five-minute interview. In the telling, their passion took over and we were still talking 40 minutes later.

Lisa Harper, reeking of strong cheese in the afternoon heat, says coming to market is the highlight of her week. She has her regulars and is always happy to answer questions, provide cheese tastings and corrupt young three-year-old palates with an aged blue. She brings eight varieties, as well as seasonal cheeses when available.

Lisa applauds the market’s strict operating guidelines. “We need to protect our environment and our life balance. The free-trade agreement with China (and all that it entails) highlights the necessity for people to be more aware of the origin of their food. It’s just safer to buy locally,” she states. She loves the commitment shown and the idea of growers standing together behind their products.

Rod Harper sells high-grade manuka honey gathered from his 300 hives. He talks at length about the relationship between the placement of his hives and pollinating trees, and about the uniqueness of the product. “We’re selling a strained, unblended, straight-from-the-bee, completely natural honey. It has a different texture, inconsistencies, a strong flavour and a sharp aftertaste that reflects regional nuances (as opposed to, say, Coromandel manuka honey).”

“People buy it as a spread, to cook with or as a medicinal tonic. Increasingly, it’s being used for health reasons. Manuka honey has recognised anti-bacterial wound-healing properties for burns, he earnestly tells me. Encapsulating dried honey as a lozenge (produced locally in Havelock) is a new direction for us and we’re trialling the market response right here,” he enthuses.

Other growers also see value in exposing their products to locals and visitors for market research. Committed to the Marlborough Farmers’ Market from season one, Hilary Clere (from Tussock Garden & Olive Grove) talks up the virtues and uses of her six different varieties of extra virgin olive oil.

Hilary gives out recipes based around usage suggestions, offers tastings and explains why (in her opinion) extra virgin olive oil shouldn’t be heated – it defeats the purpose of cold pressing… “especially after all the trouble we’ve gone to”. She worries about the origins of imported olive oil, particularly Italian varieties.

Hilary loves swapping ideas and product with her fellow stallholders, and says that it’s all worth getting up early for each Sunday.

Riverina almond growers Graham Farnell and Gill Smith enjoy the market’s one-on-one interaction. With their home-engineered nut roaster in situ, giving off arresting caramel aromas, they’re committed to the farmers’ market concept.

They want to broaden people’s knowledge of how food is produced, and speak about the importance of a traceable food chain. “Discerning market goers want to know where their food’s come from… they’re entitled to know with all the imported, blended, cheap stuff coming into the country,” says Graham.

With a premium almond range that includes salt roasted, garlic chilli and candied nuts (harvested with an almond-tree shaker Graham engineered), almond oil, crunchy almond butter (made in yet another machine engineered by Graham) and its by-product, almond flour, they are a busy enterprise.

Chris and Tina Fortune’s working partnership at the market attracts high praise from many stallholders. They are seen to be approachable, calm and well organised. I’m told they arrive first and leave last, they’re keen and they’re enthusiastic, which is evident in their friendliness and the calibre of the stallholders they attract.

As a chef, Chris talks on Radio New Zealand National, and mentions products and promotes the market in his The Marlborough Express cooking column. Respected for his leadership on a bigger scale, as chairman of the National Farmers’ Market Federation (which he, Jennie Crum and Ian Thomas founded), he’s also outspoken on issues that touch his heart and philosophy.

There’s no getting away from the work Chris has undertaken on behalf of, and in support of, farmers’ markets both locally and nationally… or the sphere his influence. He sits on the committee of the newly-formed local Slow Food convivium (seeing it as the retail arm of farmers’ markets as it satisfies consumers who want to understand and experience local food production). He’s also a judge for the Cuisine Artisan Awards, which recognise the efforts of talented artisan food and beverage producers.

As a self-checking process, Chris has entered the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards. He won recognition three times for the Marlborough Farmers’ Market and its contribution to the community.

As the regular market breakfast chef, Chris mentors the young kids he employs – teaching them about food and life skills on the job. Fifteen-year-old Alex Judd has worked on breakfast preparation and cooking since he was 10, starting as dish boy and sausage turner before progressing on to omelettes, caramelised figs and the like.

Alex has saved for a car and will drive himself to the market this season. He believes he’s learnt a lot and intends to continue his chef training when he leaves school, as well as study business management.

Chris says he appreciates the big picture and realises it’s important to think ahead… to pass on what he has learnt and become an open source of information for others to utilise.

This year, the Farmers’ Market New Zealand annual conference was held in Blenheim. The opening speaker, Green Party MP Sue Kedgley, said she sees farmers’ markets as part of the antidote to rising food prices, and praised farmers’ markets as a “diversified, low-carbon food economy, where dependence was reduced on oil and global food prices”.

With 42 farmers’ markets around New Zealand, seven defined market regions will now be formed for networking purposes and to provide the best locations from which New Zealand food producers can sell.

There are many other matters that also need to be considered. To ensure a positive future, the authenticity of farmers’ markets must be protected – particularly from supermarkets that are trying to win back customers by emulating home-grown visual effects found at farmers’ markets. And the buy-local initiative, with member contributions being equalled by the government, will culminate in a national promotion of farmers’ markets in February/March 2009.

Looking to the market’s future, Tina Fortune says she’s still got a few ideas in the oven. With an attendance of over 3,000 (and rising each Sunday), she says it’s evident that farmers’ markets are increasingly becoming a focus of community life – reflecting the food of the region. Perhaps a year-round market for stallholders whose livelihoods depended on it could be on the cards… or a Thursday market held in The Forum during winter.

Tina and her committee are also keen to support initiatives such as schools’ educational involvement in edible gardens. “Perhaps we’ll plant one outside the A&P Showgrounds… under our farmers’ market sign,” she suggests with a smile.

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