Words are powerful things. The Bible says God spoke the world into being with them and according to author Roy Williams: “Words start wars and end them, create love and choke it, bring us laughter and joy and tears… our world, as we know it, revolves on the power of words.”
It’s a sentiment that Lorna Jackson wouldn’t argue with.
It was a short but potent conversation that was to change not just the mum-of-two’s life but those of countless others too.
A passionate foodie and director of the family-run Real Meals café and delicatessen in the Victorian coastal community of Saltburn, Lorna recalls: “A local resident came into the shop one day and asked very politely if I would feel threatened if a food market was launched in the town.
“Rather than feeling worried I thought it would be a great idea to have a really good market, even more so if it was a food one.”
It was a ‘what if’ kind of chat that was to prove a Eureka moment for the 42-year-old.
“I’d moved back to Saltburn after working near Reading a few years earlier – a buzzing town with lots going on – so a light bulb went on. I thought it would be a wonderful way to increase the amount of good food available locally.
“I asked who was going to be running the market and it turned out the person who had had the idea didn’t have anyone in mind.
“So, having all the contacts for local producers through the deli, I set about inviting them to form a market. The rest is history!”
Seven years on and Lorna is somehow managing to juggle working at Real Meals with looking after children Éirinn, 11, and Florence, five, and running Saltburn Farmers’ Market and what will be the town’s third food festival on August 2.
Stockton Farmers’ Market was also added to the mix exactly five years ago, with both monthly ventures bringing not just the best local food right into the heart of their respective town centres, but up to 10,000 shoppers apiece too.
Indeed, Saltburn – whose first outing survived blizzard conditions at Easter 2008 – has become not just one of the most popular gourmet outings of its type in the country, but in 2014 was shortlisted for the prestigious National Farmers’ Market of the Year title.
From its humble beginnings with just a handful of producers on board, Saltburn is now regularly parading 35 stalls drawn from a 50-mile radius, including local fundraising groups such as the town’s Allotment Association.
Stockton, meanwhile, has 17 stalls, but Lorna expects that number to rise to 20 in the coming months.
Estimates suggest that Saltburn Farmers’ Market attracted an additional 100,000 people into the town last year. Such is its success there is a waiting list to trade.
It puts Lorna at the forefront of the North East’s local food revolution, which against the odds has grown rather than flagged as the worldwide recession has crippled economies and tightened purse strings.
Lorna admits to being surprised. “Retail has suffered over the last few years, but we’ve seen our customer base increase steadily at both the markets and the delicatessen.
“It bucks the trend, but I think it comes down to the food being really good quality and value, and also the personal touch. We have gone down the path of opening huge retail outlets and ever bigger supermarkets, but my experience is that people want smaller, to be able to chat to the producer and have that individual interaction and friendliness.
“Come to any market and you will see people chatting and there is a real buzz and a sense of community which you just don’t find at a supermarket.
“Also, thanks to campaigning TV chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and others, people are more aware of the food they eat these days.
“We like to know where our food comes from and are concerned about how it’s produced. We are also more aware of how larger stores can force farmers and growers to mass produce food – with profit coming before the quality.
“I think foreign holidays have helped too. People go to France, for example, and enjoy wandering around the markets and they want that same experience now when they come home.”
Thankfully, the quality is there to sate the public’s appetite.
There is little the region doesn’t now produce on the artisan food front from breads and cheeses to excellent (often organic) meats, free range eggs, preserves and chutneys, seafood, real ales, spirits, cereals, cakes and biscuits.
Almost everything you could need from a weekly shop.
There are some areas the North East does still fall down in, however – most notably dairy and fresh fruit and vegetables. “We have a lot of cheesemakers, but butter is an issue,” Lorna says. “We have Acorn Dairy (from near Darlington) and another producer down in Yorkshire who do butter, but other than that it’s a no.
“We suffer with basic dairy and fruit and vegetables. It is the way farming has sadly gone.
“But things are getting better. Ten years ago we didn’t really have all these farmers’ markets, but their growth has encouraged a lot of new producers to come on the scene
“One exciting area is the number of micro-breweries and distilleries that have launched. We have taken on lots of new producers and we are steadily growing the markets.”
Lorna’s passion for good food goes back to her childhood and watching her mum, Sheila Beswick, cooking and working in the garden. Now Sheila, 65, Lorna’s stepdad Tim Beswick, 68, and younger brother Dan Jackson, 36, help run Real Meals.
Lorna’s partner Craig Hannaway, 45, can often be found working behind the cheese counter, which stocks around 60 varieties, two thirds of which are British with a third of those coming from the North East and Yorkshire.
Even Éirinn and Florence help out, especially on market days where they often team up with the children of the stall-holders to run their own charity-inspired cake and biscuit stalls or take part in cookery demonstrations.
It wasn’t until Lorna studied ecology at university and went on to work as a farm manager in White Waltham near Maidenhead, Berkshire, that her love of good quality, home-produced food and drink really came to the fore, however.
“It is the whole philosophy about being more efficient on the food front, how that food is produced and cutting back on the air miles that I’m really interested in,” she explains.
“I like my chicken to be free range and my beef to have been reared outside. I believe the quality comes across in the taste.”
Her return to her native North East saw her teaming up with her family at Real Meals, which opened 16 years ago and stocks everything from cheeses and cold meats to speciality breads, wet fish, biscuits, jams and preserves, with an emphasis on supporting local producers.
That’s not to say everything has a North East bias. The delicatessen has become renowned for its South African foods catering to a sizeable ex-pat community who have made their home in the region.
“I’m not really sure why there are so many South Africans up here,” Lorna says. “It’s probably something to do with our mining tradition and possibly the nearby Boulby potash mine.
“We have built up a good reputation for our South African foods with people coming from across the North East to stock up on things like biltong (dried, cured meat) and cereals.
“We also sell Mrs Ball’s Chutney, a sweet and spicy South African sauce which was a favourite of Nelson Mandela.
“We’re now getting two deliveries a week from South Africa. It’s not local but it’s serving our community, in the same way that the markets are.”
Stockton Farmers’ Market is celebrating its fifth birthday with a new home on the town’s revamped High Street. It was Stockton Council that invited Lorna to launch a farmers’ market in the Teesside town.
“It’s very exciting. We have taken on new producers and Stockton has developed into a very nice town. I love the fact it still has all the quirky back alleys.
“The new High Street is looking great but, more than that, people make places and there’s a real sense of positivity around the town that I find inspiring.
“I find something new every time I visit Stockton. There’s a whole bundle of small new independent shops, cafes and micro pubs that have emerged over the last couple of years – both on the High Street itself and up and down the surrounding alleys and yards.”
Stockton is not a carbon copy of the Saltburn market. “Both are very different,” Lorna says. “Saltburn can’t really grow any more, but Stockton has moved locations three times and each time we’ve increased its size and brought on new producers.
“Anyone coming to both of them would notice a difference. You won’t necessarily find the same stalls and both have their own unique atmosphere.”
It’s all a big commitment for Lorna, but one she finds gratifying.
“I love running both the markets and the deli. We wanted to encourage people to get an appetite for good food – and we have.”
And as she says, that’s something both she and the people of Saltburn and Stockton can be justifiably proud of.
Saltburn Farmers’ Market takes place between 9am and 3pm on the second Saturday of each month, and is based just outside the town’s railway station. For further information and updates see Saltburn Farmers’ Market on Facebook.
Stockton Farmers’ Market takes place on the last Saturday of the month, except August and December, on the High Street near the Town Hall clock and water feature, between 9am and 2pm. Once again, check Facebook.
- Saltburn Food Festival will take place on August 2.