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In Praise of Birmingham’s Markets

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I’ve been spending every other weekend in London of late (the husband has moved there for work) and as a cash-strapped bucket-list, I’ve made it my mission to visit all of London’s most favorite market places, just to soak up the atmosphere, browse the wares and take colourful photos.

I’ve been to the trendy one (Spitalfields), the crowded one (Portobello), the gourmet one (Borough), the sneezy one (Columbia Road Flower Market), the spicy one (Brick Lane) and I intend to get round as many as I can – I’m even going to the stinky one (Billingsgate – by 5.30am most of the stock is gone leaving just the fruity language).

Trawling the London market stalls has got me thinking about Birmingham’s markets. I’ve always loved visiting the huge Bullring market complex that comprises the Indoor market, the Rag Market and the Open Fruit and Veg Market just outside.

Because of Brum’s rich cultural diversity, the market stalls contain items be they sari material, spices or fruit from all over the world. The home grown stuff is also fab and I particularly enjoy popping down to the Indoor Market whenever I’m in need of fish.

In other ways, I feel the markets could ‘tweak’ some aspects that would make them a destination in themselves and not just a delight to be discovered by those who live in town.

Things I Love About Brum Markets
The Banter – particularly at the fish stalls and the Open Market, the stall-holders will vie for your attentions and that means they are in the mood to haggle (hooray!).

At Columbia Road a couple of weeks ago I heard this gem: ‘Do you know where you’ll be in an hour? I’ll be at Heathrow getting on a plane and I don’t wanna take all these lover-ly flowers. So quick, buy em!’ While another seller just yodelled like Tarzan…

Fresh Produce – There’s nothing like getting up early and getting down to the market. The earlier the better (as I learnt living in Florence, the flies sleep in a bit). Also, the fish will be properly gutted, even filleted for you if you like and at a waaaaay better cost than you’ll find at the supermarket.
Fish Stall
As we’re having a bit of a heat wave, wouldn’t these bad boys look good boiling away in a broth on the barbecue?
shell fish
Cheap as Chips – I used to come here if I had to dress up for one of those dreaded themed bar-crawls. And it didn’t disappoint. There are loads of cheap materials for budget-conscious dress makers, cheap make-up (a British market staple), and a fabulous haberdashers Pete’s Sew Good which I’ve often used.

Pete's Sew Good: thank God for haberdashers in these times of make do and mend.

Pete’s Sew Good: thank God for haberdashers in these times of make do and mend.

Also the market helps no end on my wedding anniversary because we do themed gifts each year with a £10 budget. This year was leather (no sniggering please) and I found some leather shoe insoles for £2 (yup, romance is definitely not dead) at the always surprising hardware stall – something which every market worth its salt should have btw.

If you've never had to buy a plunger you're not as independent as you think you are.

If you’ve never had to buy a plunger you’re not as independent as you think you are.

Diversity

Scallions next to mooli - this sums up the role of the veg market.

Scallions next to mooli – this sums up the role of the veg market.

No not the dance troupe (honestly)… Markets should always pair the familiar with the exotic and Birmingham does a great job with this. Otherwise, how would we find out about new things? But you can still find all the comforting staples of traditional British cooking such as root veggies:

All you need for a good stew: leeks, parsnips and swedes.

All you need for a good stew: leeks, parsnips and swedes.

and er, tripe…

Although it's THE street food in Tuscany, I dare Glynn Purnell to come up with a way to make tripe appetising.

Although it’s THE street food in Tuscany, I dare Glynn Purnell to come up with a way to make tripe appetising.

The Relationship between chef and produce – the area around Borough Market in London is a foodie paradise. The ingredients travel straight from the stall to the kitchen in next to no time. One person who understands this is Adam from Sushi Passion which stands in the Indoor Market. I remember Adam from his time at Yo Sushi in Brindley Place and he was always busy and industrious. His efforts going solo seem to be paying off as there are always customers queuing for his beautifully presented sushi, especially on Saturdays.

Sushi Passion: I took this photo when it was still a very new business but it has since taken off (hooray).

Sushi Passion: I took this photo when it was still a very new business but it has since taken off (hooray).

Recently on Facebook, Adam said he had received criticism for setting up in the market but I actually think this is a wonderful place for a food stand – it’s a hard-core foodie move, like including a ‘chef’s table’ and customers will certainly feel the connection between what is on the plate and where it comes from. I for one, would welcome more restaurants inside the market.

Things I Wish Brum Markets Would Do
A Weekly Gormet Market – We get some good periodic food festivals here in Brum, although in recent years there hasn’t been a sure-footed direction in terms of what should be celebrated – which in turn has led to less food fests.
Why not sort this out buy using the Open Market on Sunday and Monday when the regular stall-holders have their days off? Sunday markets are a London tradition which has continued from the days of Jewish immigrants to the present (think Brick Lane and Columbia Road which both occur on Sundays).

Let the bi-monthly Farmer’s Markets become a weekly event and centre it here. Let some of the fab Birmingham delis such as Lewis’ and Nima out in Moseley bring some of their offerings to the centre. Likewise, we have wonderful bakers such as Lucky 13 Bakehouse and Frost & Snow (who I know do stands), not to mention the baked goods on display at the Brum Uni farmers market. Borough Market attracts huge Saturday morning crowds for this very reason.

Dairy and bakes at the Indoor market

Dairy and bakes at the Indoor market

A Weekly Street Food Market – street food has become a British success story in recent years. Birmingham has some brilliant permanent stands itself such as Chilacas in Brindley Place (would we have seen street food take up a high profile restaurant spot even 5 years ago?) and our curries are internationally celebrated.

The Digbeth Dining Club operates a small but thriving street food market on Friday night under the railway arches in Digbeth, but they currently have to rotate the stalls (I’m not sure if this to prevent the club stagnating or if they just don’t have the space) but why not expand it and bring it to the city centre? As visitor figures for the German Christmas Market have shown, there is an appetite for this type of event.

Display Food like a Renaissance Painting –
This is how mushrooms are displayed at Borough market:photo (46)
and this is how veggies are displayed at one stall in the Open Market:
photoNot quite the same effect, is it? I like fruit and veg to tumble in abundance (oo-er, getting a bit Nigella food-porny here). It begs you to reach out and touch the produce (which is good market practice to check for ripeness).
Don’t get me wrong, Birmingham’s markets are doing just peachy without making any of these changes. It’s just my fantasy market, that’s all.

But who knows, maybe they could increase Brum’s fortunes…
fortune teller

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