WHY WE MUST EMBRACE OUR INNER FOODIE, FOR THE SAKE OF NORWICH MARKET
Regular readers of this column will know that I am something of a fan of Norwich Market, which has dramatically improved over the past few years, to the point where it was voted the Best Large Outdoor Market at the Great British Market Awards earlier this year.
I love that it is packed full of locally-owned, small, independent food traders – the kind of traditional butchers, fishmongers, fruit an veg sellers, and bakers which anyone passionate about food will want to support, as well as a host of street food stalls selling everything from ramen to fish and chips.
It is very sad, then, that one of the market’s two butchers has decided to call it a day, citing not lack of demand, but difficulty in finding young people to learn what is admittedly a tough trade. I have had many fine pieces of meat from R.S.Baker over the years, and the stall’s closure will leave a big hole in the market.
Good though Norwich Market is, I have come to realise that we are unlikely ever to have a really great food market in Norwich – not because there aren’t some really talented and committed traders, but because of the British attitude towards food in general.
Put simply, the term ‘foodie’ is generally perceived as a bit of an insult. To be interested in what you eat, let alone to put food and drink at the centre of your life, is regarded as ‘poncy’. For too many people, food is something to be wolfed down as fuel, not one of the main pleasures in life. And it is this prejudice, deeply ingrained in the British psyche, which means we will never enjoy a truly world-class food market in our city.
I have just got back from three weeks in the southwest of France, and have seen for myself what food markets should be like. It’s not just in cities like Toulouse, home of the famous ‘Halles Victor Hugo’ indoor market where you will find vibrant and well-supported markets; most decent sized towns have them.
Let’s take as an example the city of Narbonne, which has a population of less than half that of Norwich. Its Halles (indoor market) is home to half a dozen excellent fishmongers, around a dozen butchers, and a cornucopia of other stalls selling everything from beautiful fruit and veg, fresh pasta, mouth-watering cakes, and the freshest of bread.
And you can eat here, enjoying the very best the market has to offer. Order a steak and frites at one of the market bars, and the waiter will pick up a loud-hailer and shout your order to one of the many butchers. Seconds later, your just-cut steak, wrapped in wax paper, is flying through the air to be caught by your waiter and despatched to the chef to be cooked. It doesn’t get fresher than this.
This is a world-class market, one which would get any foodie’s taste buds twitching. And yet the people who come here are not food snobs. They are ordinary men and women, intent on spending their hard-earnt cash on the very best food they can afford.
Seemingly half the population of the city shops here on a daily basis. They don’t regard themselves as enthusiasts – they simply see food and drink as something to be celebrated. And while the Narbonne Halles is a particularly good example, you will find something similar in most French towns, always well-supported.
Until that kind of attitude becomes mainstream, UK markets will never reach these heights. I would love to see such a bustling, vibrant food hub here in Norwich. But in an age when we are so in thrall to the supermarkets and the fast-food merchants that a city the size of Norwich can’t even support two butchers on its main market, there is little hope.
Norwich Market may never scale the gastronomic heights of the classic French Halles, but nevertheless it is such an important part of the food and drink culture of our county that we must do everything we can to support it. And above all, we must get rid of this silly idea that having a passion for food is odd, snobbish or something to be mocked; on the contrary, it is the most natural thing in the world.
This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.