On two recent Saturdays the curious and the hungry have congregated on Armstrong Bridge in Newcastle for the Jesmond Food Market.
Some of those who were just curious might have found that, all of a sudden, they were also a mite peckish. On these days, you see, the air has become infused with tempting aromas.
Jesmond Food Market is a new and very welcome kid on the culinary block.
It is the latest enterprise bearing the hallmark of Anna Hedworth, an innovative food entrepreneur who blogs as The Grazer and organises supper clubs while also serving breakfast and lunch at her Cook House kitchen – fashioned from shipping containers – in the Ouseburn Valley.
“I’ve been organising food markets on a small scale for about four years in Jesmond and the Ouseburn,” says the former architect who loves to cook.
There were spring and autumn events in places including a tennis club and a pub and among those who visited were members of the Jesmond Residents’ Association (50 years old last year).
“They approached me and said they wanted to do something regular in Jesmond and could I help them,” recalls Anna.
“We started discussing it last autumn and there was talk of closing Acorn Road – the busy little shopping street off the main thoroughfare of Osborne Road – and other roads and it didn’t really seem feasible.
“Then we thought of the bridge and we took it from there. We approached the city council and they have been really helpful.
“Felicity Mendelson (councillor for South Jesmond) has been involved with myself, the residents’ association and Ellie Dowding of Food Newcastle, which has drawn up a Food Charter for Newcastle.”
The council gave approval for a three-month trial, with the Jesmond Food Market making its first appearance on May 16 and its second on June 20.
On the first occasion it was sunny; on the second it was a bit drizzly and damp. But on both occasions, says Anna, people seemed to be having a good time.
More to the point, there was plenty of buying and selling going on.
“At the first market one stall sold 300 packs of sausages in one hour,” laughs Anna incredulously.
Well, there’s no arguing with that kind of demand.
With the third of the initial trial run of markets to come on July 18, it seems the council is already convinced of their value and popularity. Anna says she has been told she can keep going and that’s the plan, with roasted chestnuts and mulled wine in the run-up to Christmas now a very real prospect.
Funny how the best ideas can elude you even when they’re staring you in the face.
For years, decades even, Armstrong Bridge was home to a Sunday craft market before it dwindled and died. Many people will have fond memories of it. A signpost still signals its existence.
The bridge, reputedly built because Lady Armstrong, back in the day, couldn’t bear the sight of horses lugging big loads up the bank out of Jesmond Dene, has, for the past few years, been nothing but a crossing and a vantage point.
“It wasn’t until we thought about it that we realised we’d been looking at all the difficult options but the bridge was just there,” says Anna.
“It works really well because of its location. We’ve had people streaming down from both Jesmond and Heaton.”
The market is in good hands, as becomes clear. Anna says: “I started with my contact list of everyone I’ve worked with in the past and got some really good people for the first one.
“Since then we’ve been receiving applications from other people wanting to take part.
“We had 18 stalls the first time and 22 the second. The next one will probably have about 26 but I think 20 is probably the maximum we’re comfortable with. We don’t want it to become too congested.
“The first time I was worried about having too many bread makers but they sold everything they brought with them in a couple of hours. The second time we had four bread stalls and they sold out. There seems to be a huge appetite for it.”
Getting the balance right is key, according to Anna. She has a good idea how many street food stalls to incorporate and how many produce stalls with bread, chocolate, sausages and suchlike.
And the purpose of a food market, obvious though it might seem?
“I guess I want to promote the interesting, talented people who are making food and drink in this region but are maybe not so accessible.
“For instance, there’s a bakery operating out of Wylam Library and they’re trying to teach people about baking and how to do it themselves but they don’t have a particularly big platform there.”
Then there’s Riley’s Fish Shack, a conspicuous presence at the second Jesmond Food Market, whose website promise is: “Fabulous fish, locally caught, simply served.”
“They’re opening a fish restaurant at King Edward’s Bay (Tynemouth) and are keen to meet people and tell them about that and where their fish is caught. It’s about promoting our North East fish rather than having it shipped to Spain.
“My idea is that people who are producing really good things will be able to meet customers and tell them about it.”
Anna says she will “mix it up a bit”, offering visitors a slightly different experience every time, although always striving to ensure a balanced range of products.
She doesn’t see it just as a social event either. She says she wants people to get accustomed to popping down to the monthly market for something they might need.
I wonder where the region stands with regard to its independent food producers and opportunities for those – an increasing number, you might think, given the proliferation of food programmes, books and blogs – with more discerning and adventurous tastes.
“I think the North East is quite ahead of the game,” says Anna. “When you take into account the Boiler Shop Steamer (the monthly celebration of food, drink, music and art at the old Stephenson Works on Sussex Street])and the Eat! festivals (organised by Newcastle Gateshead Initiative) I think it’s all high quality.
“There are lots of things in London that seem to be 10 a penny but I went to a street food festival in London recently and didn’t think it was as good as the Boiler Shop event.
“I run supper clubs as well and I know that people are really enthusiastic about different experiences.”
The way the supper clubs run is that people apply to join in and then, if they are selected (demand tends to exceed supply), they get a copy of the menu a couple of days ahead of the event.
Anna, who clearly didn’t leave architecture in search of an easy life, does the cooking.
“I’m probably busier than I’ve ever been but things have evolved and grown.
“So many new and exciting projects present themselves.
“I guess one day I would like to open somewhere that was more of a proper, traditional restaurant but also keep the other exciting food-based stuff going as well.”
One thing she doesn’t have – yet – is a stall at the Jesmond Food Market. If she did, what would she sell?
“I’ve been thinking about that,” she says. “I do a lot of pickling and preserving and foraging and making stuff...” It seems there isn’t much that Anna doesn’t do. Those who like good food will be grateful for that.
The next Jesmond Food Market is on Armstrong Bridge, Newcastle, on July 18 (10am to 3pm). See @JesFoodMkt on Twitter. Anna is also organising Summer Graze, a food market in the Ouseburn Valley as part of the Ouseburn Festival, on July 5 (11am to 4pm). Meanwhile, the next supper club at the Cook House, Ouse Street, Newcastle, is on July 9. Find details of this and other Anna enterprises at www.cookhouse.org . And the next Boiler House Steamer, co-directed by Matt Boyle and Adam Riley, of Riley’s Fish Shack, is from July 3-5. See www.theboilershopsteamer.com for details.