Mugged by a mud-caked spud

Farmers’ markets are a rip-off aimed at food snobs and posturing fools with more money than sense

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On my way back from getting a Covid test, I stumbled on a scenario deep in North London woodland that made me want to rush back to the makeshift clinic and shove another sharp stick up my nose — the local farmers’ market I usually manage to avoid under pain of death. 

The first thing I saw was a number of individuals taking photographs of purple carrots and multi-coloured tomatoes to doubtless upload them to Instagram. Customers were shoved out of the way so they could achieve the perfect shot. I can imagine the description that would be added to the images: “At my local market. Buying all organic produce to juice and buying a load of Guatemalan coffee beans to support local farmers. #FoodIsMood”

Carefully navigating the Bugaboos, words leapt out at me from the stalls: “gluten free”, “vegan”, “no added sugar”, “no saturated fats”. It was more like advice from a doctor than things to eat. At the cheese stall I admit I was tempted by the chilli jam accompaniment, as it was described as “rich, tangy tomato with purple shallots and plump sultanas”, but all I needed to do was look at the price — a startling £10 for the small jar with a handwritten label — to decide that the Branston pickle sitting in my store cupboard would do just fine.

An older woman standing by the cheese stall looks as if she is about to pass out. It’s not the heat; rather she has just been informed by the vendor, a young woman with green hair and several face piercings, the price for a piece of Brie and a couple of small goat cheeses. And to add insult to injury, when the customer hands over the £20 to pay she is told, “We only take cards.”

So much for a local, friendly community space. The truth is, these markets are a rip-off, aimed at posturing fools with more money than sense, and food snobs that believe if food isn’t prohibitively expensive for the masses, it’s not good enough to take home and store in their gigantic Smeg fridge.

Like many, I have always preferred to buy my groceries at a market rather than a shop. But by “market” I certainly do not mean so-called artisan bakers and growers flogging overpriced tat to gullible chattering classes willing to spend a tenner on a cauliflower. 

Instead, I mean the good old-fashioned kind, such as Chapel Street Market in Islington where you can do a weekly shop for a fraction of the cost of Waitrose. The traders are warm, friendly, and the opposite of judgmental. I have actually had my pronunciation corrected at one farmers’ market when ordering ’Nduja, a spicy salami spread from Calabria. 

I asked if the vendor was himself Italian, and he smugly informed me that he was not, but took the time and trouble to “know all of my produce”. I asked what his role was in producing the ’Nduja (“na-doo-yah” if you are interested) and he seemed fazed by the question.

When I was ranting about the snobbery of such markets recently one friend responded with the usual, “You should support your local traders!” But how does she know that those rocking up with huge trays of samosas and pakoras that they haven’t simply stopped off at the Asian cash and carry on the way and tripled the price by the time they set up stall?

I see one stall advertising organic veg boxes to be delivered and asked what I might expect for £25 if I were to sign up. “It depends on what we have ready,” I am told by a man wearing sandals and a man-bun. “You have to take what’s on offer,” before turning away to tidy up his heritage tomatoes priced at £12 for half a kilo. 

Although I support a reduction in the use of plastic packaging and pesticides, I fail to see why I should pay more for fruit and vegetables that are half rotten or unwashed. 

Of course, the market does not just sell potatoes caked in mud for a fiver each: there are also butchers’ stalls selling meat from animals that were treated so well in life they signed up to be slaughtered. We are all but told the name of the pig and are assured it was fed on nothing but acorns and gold leaf. 

Everything is labelled “authentic” at the farmers’ market

Everything is labelled “authentic” at the farmers’ market, despite some of the produce being as mundane as sausage rolls or rice salad. Then there is the cultural appropriation, such as the posh white English folk selling Moroccan tagine and quinoa salad to those who like to think of themselves as multicultural and, for some reason, eco-friendly. 

In fact, those avocados so loved by smug vegans are not quite as harmless as they tell us. According to Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, avocado production tripled between 2001 and 2010, resulting in a loss of approximately 1,700 acres of forest land per year. And quinoa, Peru’s main staple, has tripled in price since the knit-your-own-muesli set got hold of it.

The worst moment for me came when a street performer rocked up, wearing face paint and what I can only describe as comedy pyjamas. Why are there children’s entertainers at a market? How bored must the little blighters be? Imagine if a clown started performing down the household goods aisle at Lidl. 

I spot a café in the park beside the market, and desperate to get away from the little Ollies and Oscars demanding a soy milk babyccino to wash down their smashed avocado on sourdough toast, I approach to look at the menu, hoping for a decent bacon roll or cheese omelette. But it would appear that the proprietor — bushy beard, rolled-up chinos, faded retro shirt — is a farmers’ market fan, as the board simply listed what he didn’t sell: “No sugar, no Coke, no fried food, no crisps.”

As I was laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, he came outside and told me to “go to the greasy spoon if you don’t like it”.

Walking away from the café and back into the throng of shoppers I heard a teenager ask her mum, “Can we have fish and chips tonight?” The mum replied, “No, we can’t. We eat fresh food, not junk.”

The notion that fish and chips is junk food is absolute rubbish

The notion that fish and chips is junk food is absolute rubbish, despite it possibly not being a supermodel’s first choice. And then, lo and behold, I spot a stall at the market advertising “line-caught, sustainable cod, pan-fried in organic peanut oil, served with locally grown organic potatoes, and crushed, minted peas”. For any commoners reading this, that’s fish, chips and mushy peas. And here, it would have cost you £14, compared to £7.50 a mile away at my local chippy. Why is this food presented as somehow superior to what we can buy in supermarkets or an old-school market? 

The idea that everyone can afford to buy artisan, organic, “small batch” products every day is a snobbery that has made idiots of so many people. Just because an apple resembles a goblin’s face does not mean it tastes good. If carrots are knobbly, chances are you have just been sold, for four times the price, what a supermarket rejected. 

Farmers’ markets scam people who use food as a status symbol. They are where those who drop a tenner for a bag of kale can look down on mothers struggling to pay the weekly grocery bill, let alone find the time to cook. 

Supermarkets are great levellers in many ways because those on tight budgets shop alongside people with plenty of disposable income. They are accessible, usually friendly places, do not judge what you have in your basket, or whether you flash a platinum Amex or scramble around for loose cash at the bottom of your purse. Farmers’ markets are great for those with money to burn but I’m afraid they have helped create a nation of smug food snobs. 

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