I always leave a farmers market more knowledgeable than when I arrived. This Sunday was no exception and I learned all about Transylvanian chimney cake and what goes into a ‘Vulcan Munch pie'.

It’s such a hot Sunday, and it seems that I’ve woken up late again. I may have already missed the bustle of the market although it’s not even 1pm yet. We start at the top of the high street at a stall awash with beautifully presented vibrant West African cotton fabrics. We meet Jill, who enthuses about the hot colours and bold designs of the textiles. I take a closer look and marvel at the burnt oranges set against opulent golds and deep forest greens, tropical flowers, fruit, palms and geometric patterns.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:

Jill at her stall selling West African cotton fabrics

Jill has made a variety of accessories using these fabrics, including cushion covers, face mask pouches and yoga mats. I wonder where her enthusiasm comes from and she explains how her home city Manchester was once the centre of the cotton industry in the 19th Century. As a young teenager out and about on her shopping trips, she developed a fascination with exotic designs on display in wholesale units. I pick up a design splashed with dark plumes dramatically set against a brilliant fuchsia and deep turquoise background and imagine what an amazing wrap dress it would make!

We walk further along towards a dark green marquee selling Brockleby’s award-winning pies. We chat with Matt, who tells us about the Jalland family who have been farming in Melton Mowbray for many years. When they first opened their farm shop, they were known for their glorious pork pies. These days they produce thousands of handmade pies every week using local ingredients and are stocked all over the UK. They even offer pie-making workshops.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:

Matt at Brockleby's Pies

I pick one up and can see how well made they are. They look so hearty and deep-filled. I must have one! It’s such a difficult choice but we go for the ‘Moo and Blue Pie’ in the end. We’re aware that the ‘Vulcan Munch’ would be the healthiest option, packed with sweet potatoes and chickpeas, but for now I thank the vendor and put up my hand and form a “Long Live and Prosper” Vulcan ‘V’ sign with my fingers and say goodbye.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:

I’m enjoying chatting with friendly farmers and traders, especially after the social desolation of lockdown. It was such a dramatic event that for many people felt like it would never end; but thankfully St Peter’s Street has been transformed into a vibrant high street once again where farmers and bakers, foodies and craftspeople, although socially distanced, are mingling with the community.

Farmers’ markets undoubtedly link urban and rural populations and there has been huge growth in the sector, with more than 500 markets now in the UK. A revival occurred back in the 1990s when consumers began to demand fresher food, more variety and a desire to buy directly from the growers, reacting against the huge advances in food processing and packaging at the time.

For the past 20 years at least, many Londoners head to these markets once a week as part of their routines. The advantages are obvious: farmers retain the profit for the organic food they have grown with less packaging, less handling, less refrigeration, less storage, so the food is inevitably fresher and tastier. Switching to seasonal eating is an education for city dwellers, consumers clearly no longer want to eat strawberries that have been frozen for months in the wintertime or sprouts in the summertime.

My daughter enjoys Indian food and makes a mean biryani; she is attracted to a colourful display of sweet spicy pickles arranged in compact jars. The stall holder Joss can see her interest and they start chatting about how these pickles from Gujarat and Northern India evolved.

As a child, Joss’s mother taught her how to make lemon pickle, a very popular sweet and tangy Gujarat condiment often mixed in with rice and yoghurt. When she first came to England, she couldn’t believe how some companies were getting away with selling inauthentic and bland sauces and pickles, then have the audacity to name them after very specific pickles from her home in Gujarat. Now the proud owner of Indian Orchard, Joss prides herself on her pickle-making, creating home-made sweet, sour, tangy or hot rustic flavours.

Many of these types of pickles are delicious served with flatbread or mixed in with rice and yoghurt. Joss explains the process admitting that it can be tedious, time-consuming and take a lot of preparation especially having to source and use a wide variety of ingredients then sun-drying and soaking the ingredients overnight. We compliment her on her achievement and buy a lemon pickle, the perfect accompaniment with our curry on our next Indian dinner night.

The sweltering heat is getting to us, so we make one last stop at Melinda’s Strudels. The scent of freshly baked cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar lure us into a tent decorated with a huge historic Romanian flag with a Transylvanian coat of arms. We start chatting and discover that Melinda has a foodie background and now owns her own successful business supplying artisan pastries to cafés and restaurants.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:

Melinda's Strudels

We try a delicious chimney cake, fresh out of the rotisserie oven! Apparently, it is a traditional Transylvanian/Hungarian recipe. Melinda is ultra-enthusiastic and I can see why. It reminds me of the enticing street food you’d have at a Viennese Christmas market. As it is already lunchtime and she has run out of cinnamon sticks and apple strudels so I go for a plum strudel which is sweet and slightly spicy. They are oblong shaped, covered in a layer of latticed pastry and served warm with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Totally delicious!

That night we have dinner in the garden. I light a candle and decorate the table with some fairy lights. The meaty pie smells amazing as I take it out of the oven. We stir fry some kale with soy sauce and garlic to put beside it. Later on, we have strawberries served alongside the plum strudel we bought with a drizzle of single cream. We sit back and enjoy our food as the evening draws in. I feel tired out by the heat and take in the cool air completely inspired by the people I met today.

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at www.radioverulam.com/smallcitylife .