Cheryl Cohen, dubbed ‘The Queen of Markets’ by The Evening Standard, organises Farmers’ Markets around London – including the much loved Marylebone Farmers’ Market that takes place in Moxon Street car park every Sunday between 10am-2pm.
What is the background and history to the Marylebone Farmers’ Market?
We have been operating for over ten years now. It started three years prior to that when I got a call from Westminster Council and was shown three different sites in the Borough, one being Moxon Street car park and being asked, can I do anything with this? Hardly any of the shops were open on a Sunday at that time. La Fromagerie had just opened but not much else.
How did you come to be involved in Farmers’ Markets?
I have been running farmers’ markets for about fourteen years. Before that I was doing various things: producing food based independent television programmes, making the occasional radio feature about food. I have always been passionate about markets, what we eat and where our food has come from.
Did you envisage it getting this big?
If you look to America they have been going for twenty-five years or so, it was pretty clear to me that they could grow here and indeed, they are still growing.
What is the main focus?
Fresh food, direct from the farm, sold by the people who grow it. Each producer has to be a primary producer, so they can’t buy any product in. We check this by doing site visits; this is a part of the job I really enjoy, getting to go to individual farms. It is a challenge, as many farmers have never sold direct before so they need help and encouragement.
It is hard work but rewarding; they get the full price for their product, which is great.
How have you seen the scale or focus change?
The focus is largely the same. We’ve always had secondary products on sale, like soups, jams, ice cream and cakes. Over the last few years we’ve had more calls from people with a street food background but we have largly resisted this, as it doesn’t fit with our ethos.
There is some cooked food, but on the whole it is mostly from primary producers. They’re what farmers markets are about after all.
What are your own food principles?
There is growing realisation that food grown closer to home is tastier and fresher. Within reason I keep to this, it is not as if I don’t ever buy foreign grown foods. Life would be dull without mangos! But if it is an choice between an English and a South African apple it’s a no brainer for me.
I can’t remember the last time I ate an imported apple and the idea of Argentinian or American steak, or Peruvian asparagus is anathema. What’s the point?
I’m one of those scary/annoying people who questions the provenance of food in a restaurant. Personally I think that more people should do it.
How do you feel about the proposed redevelopment of your current site?
We could wait and see what happens with the new owners, but we want to find a suitable alternative now. We are proposing that we move to part of Moxon Street and Ayebrook Street. We have consulted with businesses, shop owners, local people and with traffic engineers. We know it works there from our time there during the Marylebone Summer Fayre.
The local shop owners have been great with their letters of support.
What would you change about the area if you could?
My wish would be for food establishments, from pubs to restaurants, to have to list on their menus where they source their ingredients and to state the provenance and welfare standards. I know it’s a wish with lots of holes in but still…
I’d like to see local pubs and restaurants buying at least some of their produce from the market. In America I’ve seen chefs at farmers markets with trolleys, loading up with fresh produce. There are restaurants that have sprung up on the strength of a weekly farmers market. I want to see that here.
How much is a farmers’ market about than people than the food?
It has become increasingly rare for people to make food shopping a community event, but that is exactly what happens at a farmers market.
How often do you see people smiling at each other across the aisles in a supermarket? Or children running around tasting things and asking their parents if they can buy something themselves.
Farmers markets are the pinnacle of interactive food shopping. We recently held a favourite stall competition at each market and the comments from customers about their favourites were amazing, so wonderful. Lots of people know their favourite stall holders by name, they love the banter, the relationship, the occasional freebies and bargains they get.
It’s something to look forward to every week. Who could say the same about their supermarket shop?
Outside of being the Queen of Farmers’ Market, what do you do in your free time?
I organise events in my local community, write a very occasional blog (Queen of Markets) and do the usual London things; theatre, restaurants, galleries. And explore markets of course. And I never have enough time to walk around Marylebone.
I love Paul Rothe and Sons on Marylebone Lane, the only place in London I know of that makes Lipteur cheese! I take visitors to The Wallace Collection and La Fromagerie, and Daunts Books is dangerously, deliciously addictive.