The Country Comes to the City

Nicky Cahill knows where her food comes from - St George's Market

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 Georges 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 products. It also offers the satisfaction of knowing where our food has come from and the pleasure of shopping in a fabulous atmosphere.

Alan Coffy of ‘Something Fishy’ 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.

St George’s, 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.

St George's MarketThis is Northern Ireland produce at its best. Furthermore, there is a great mixture of authentic ingredients from a large variety of other countries. It is this eclectic mix that attracts thousands of 'punters' to probably the best market in Northern Ireland.

Co Armagh fruit farmer, Ken Redmond, 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 Georges, where he offers eight varieties to choose from and lots of samples to try.

‘Making juice started as a hobby. Now it's a vital part of my business, helping to keep good men on the farm. People think it's romantic, but there's a lot of hard, physical work involved, and not just in growing and cropping the fruit.

‘There's a great buzz seeing something through from start to finish. We avoid buying in any extra fruit. Everything apart from the cinnamon is grown on our farm - and everyone is involved in the tasting and blending process.’

Redmond sums up the feelings of many of the market traders ‘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. Some wonderful breakfasts are also on sale, ranging from an Ulster Fry to a bowl of creamy organic porridge.

The astonishing selection of stalls includes 'P& P Produce' where you can buy, in season, locally grown vegetables and a wonderful selection of eggs - including duck eggs, which, I am told, are excellent for baking. The traders here told me that recently they have also noticed an increase in Asian customers and tourists.

‘Mullan’s Organic farm’ specialises in lamb, with many different cuts to choose from. Whilst ‘Culdrum Organic Farm’ sell eggs, chickens, proper sausages, (with little notes attached telling you what type of pig they are made from) and seasonal vegetables. Tempting recipes arranged around the produce made my mouth water.

‘Millview Farm’ sells huge bunches of organic herbs and vegetables as well as some homemade soups and salads. ‘Urban Treats’ and ‘Wee Buns’ have an excellent selection of baked delicacies.

There is tea from Belfast’s oldest tea importers ‘SD Bell Tea & Co Ltd Belfast’ and a huge selection of Irish cheeses from Carrick-on-Shannon.

You can buy bunches of flowers, pot plants and greenery, pots of locally produced honey and jams, soups and pies. Everything is here, even tempting foreign produce.

St Georges 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, it is now the only surviving original market building in the city.

Following the regeneration of the markets area of Belfast in the 1990s, Belfast City Council saw fit to refurbish 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 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.

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.’

Miller’s Bakery, have been coming to both Friday and Saturday markets for over four years and has built up a loyal following among the restaurants, regular market customers, tourists and business people coming in for lunch from local offices.

Their bread is all made by hand to traditional Northern Irish recipes. From crusty rolls to muffins, potato bread, soda farls and pancakes to rustic crusty wholemeal bread, as well as delicious sweet breads.

The market has slowly but surely expanded over the years and has become a magnificent concoction of fantastic quality foods, obscure foods and entertainment to make a perfect weekend trip whether you decide to buy anything or not.