Forget our woes, it’s Galway markets that pay dividends...

Smells from Provence:  Olives, oils, peppers and cheese with sheaves of lavender, add a unique flavour to the Galway traditional market every Saturday.

Smells from Provence: Olives, oils, peppers and cheese with sheaves of lavender, add a unique flavour to the Galway traditional market every Saturday.

Thanks -be -to -the -hooky that when we speak about markets in Galway we are not talking about the financial markets that have us all singin’ the blues, but about our successful food, and craft markets that are money winners for the city. The Galway Christmas Continental market on Eyre Square is an astonishing success. On the weekend it opened more than 70,000 people walked through it. Those high numbers have kept up. Last Saturday the clickers counted more than 25,000, and admit they only managed to count about 75 per cent.

Realising that the retail trade in the city was sinking below the Richter scale of survival, the Galway City Business Association decided there was no point having shop keepers and staff wringing their hands and blaming uncle Tom Cobley and all for their empty shops. Something had to be done. A visit to the continental market in Belfast last year, and the fact that Irish people happily travelled to Europe to enjoy Christmas markets there, convinced the association that markets was the way to go. The idea was that if new shoppers were attracted into the city for a new kind of market, few would go home without visiting the rest of the city shops. So is it working?

It’s early days yet, but the numbers are impressive. Alan Hartwell, of Market Place Europe, a hard working north of England man, has created this successful taste for European markets. He is bowled over by the success of Galway. “Opening figures were every bit as good as Belfast,” he said. “ Galway figures were a bit down mid-week, but soaring again last weekend. I have a list of traders who are watching Galway carefully. They will want to be here next time; but I’ll be giving preference to the stall-holders who took the chance this year. It was a chance well worth taking.”

Several retailers that I spoke to have seen a positive difference compared to last year. But what about the impact of the continental market on our traditional Saturday market, who brave the wind and cold all year round? In its own way our Saturday market is every bit as funky, spirited and cosmopolitan as what’s happening at Eyre Square. Alan says that markets are crowd pullers; and good for any city. In Belfast the St George’s market opens every weekend. It was recently voted the second best food market in the UK. It has established a free cycle-rickshaw trail between the two markets, and have made no complaint that we are taking business from them.”

A fight back

But some stall holders at our traditional market have suffered. It is felt that the continental market is very food heavy, and that has decimated cooked food stalls at St Nicholas’. Craft stalls have also suffered, which I am surprised to hear, because some of the continental crafts are not up to the standard of the Galway market.Susanna Silke of ‘Yummy crepes’, said that she has been campaigning for 10 years to increase the size of the Saturday market, but has been repeatedly refused permission. Her committee has a waiting list of prospective stall holders who wish to come on board. At present the market space is full.

Nevertheless it plans a fight back. The continental market ends on December 19; but on Sunday December 12 the Galway market is launching its own Christmas fare, beginning with a parade led by a piper, and that popular man in red at this time of year, to a marquee and a celebration, at the market place at St Ncholas’. The Galway Christmas market/fayre will run until Christmas Eve.

A slice of Galway

I know that the city council has indicated that early in the new year it will review the Christmas market scene. Mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, but it is quite clear that markets are a winner. As a city we should look again at the requests of the Saturday market people. It offers an unrivalled spread of foods, and organic vegetables are piled high all year round. As well as the choice and colours, and the warm smells of food cooked and sizzling before our eyes, it is a friendly place. It is a slice of Galway that you’d like visitors to enjoy and remember.

In a sense McCambridge’s of Shop Street, one of the finest independent grocers in Ireland, have adapted their shop to accommodate the stall-holder concept. As well as their meats, wines, and general groceries they promote at least 12 national and local companies, which specialise in producing food of the highest quality. What a good idea. On Thursday these companies filled the banqueting hall at the Ardilaun hotel, with all the razzmatazz of a Casablanca market. I am continuously impressed by McGeough’s Connemara Foods, and their dried and smoked beef, pork and lamb, all of which are prepared in Oughterard. These are prepared with skill and pride by James McGeough, and I believe he is the only butcher doing this in Ireland. In a unique process James first of all cures the meat, using what local herbs he can get, and makes up a magic potion with garlic, juniper berries, mint, lemon orange and cloves and lets that gently baste for more than five weeks. Once cured the meat is hung for up to six months to dry. Finally it is smoked over beech chips for a day. The result is the most delicate flavoured meat I have ever tasted. James is a wizard.

If you are entertaining anyone this Christmas, try the Green Saffron’s mulled wine. I don’t usually like mulled wine as I think it’s always bitter; but this is a perfectly spiced, sweet blend of deliciousness. And the recipe: One sachet per one bottle of wine. Easy. Green Saffron is an Indian family business, run from Middleton, Co Cork. Finally I had piece of Tara Breen’s Christmas cake from Tara’s of Waterford, and was immediately transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen. And she was the best Christmas cake maker ever!

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