Monday, 23 April 2007

Flour, Flour, Everywhere...

...And not a wink of sleep.

This would be an accurate description of our first foray into the world of farmers' market stalls this weekend. Nevertheless, we're pretty sure we wouldn't trade the experience for the world.

I will now run you through the chronology of this venture, during which we went through a good 10kg of flour or so (and sold most of what that 10kg produced!)

February 2007: After one of our usually Saturday early afternoon spent shopping and lounging at the East Oxford Farmers' Market, I remark that I love the community spirit of the market, and that I would love to be involved in it. The East Oxford Farmers' Market is a small local venture that occurs for three hours every Saturday, that is run by the sheer exuberant willpower of a small number of volunteers, and that is one of the friendliest venues I've encounters during my time in this city. It's less than a year old, and every week there are stalls selling: local organic produce, local breads, local organic meats and eggs, local organic cakes, local jams, fair trade products, lunch catered by an East Oxford organic deli, etc. They encourage normal folks like you and me to get involved, and Graeme and I figure we're pretty good bakers, so we took the bait and proposed a savoury baked goods stand. The good people who run the market were immediately enthusiastic about the prospect, and we emailed back and forth for a bit and settled on April 21st as our grand debut.

March-April 2007: Graeme and I settle on our menu (him: scones, and both meat and vegetarian pies, me: corn bread, bagels, pierogi), and start collecting the bits and pieces to make this happen. Graeme gets food hygiene training (did you know that cross-contamination is a Bad Thing?), I steal cute fabric and bread tins from my mother's house when I take a brief trip to Montreal. We discover that eBay seems to be the only place where we can purchase pie tins in bulk. Graeme finds us a wheat supplier and we marvel at how cool it is to have our own "wheat guy" except that then he goes on vacation and we don't get to use him (yet!). Next time.

April 14th, 2007: The week before our debut at the market, I head to shop there and buy lots of ingredients for us to use for our stall. From our friends the farmers we purchase a whole lot of potatoes, carrots, onions, etc. From another local farm, we purchase a dozen and a half eggs, some gorgeous whole milk (bottled!), and local organic honey. It is all quite heavy to carry home.

April 20th, 2007: We spend the day faffing around at a French market that's come to town. Then, towards the late afternoon, we buckle down and collect the million more ingredients we need. As you can see from the photo, these ingredients include: organic hard white flour, hard whole wheat flour, organic plain flour, organic self-raising flour (which we've since decided we hate), strawberries (for the pierogi), the lovely Oxfordshire-brewed Old Hooky Ale (for the pies!), lots of fair trade raw cane sugar, cottage cheese (for the pierogi), etc.

6p.m. We start cooking. I get started on the pierogi, of which I made two different kinds: Ruskie Pierogi, which are filled with potatoes, fried onions, and cottage cheese, and strawberry pierogi, filled with strawberries and sugar. The latter remind me of my childhood, when all I wanted to eat were fruit-filled pierogi, and when I used to spend afternoons with my bubby, rolling out acres of dough to fill with blueberries. Here I am in action with the Ruskie pierogi. Pierogi are a super-easy dish to prepare; the dough is un-fuck-up-able and always lovely and stretchy, and fillings are easily cooked up. It is just a long, slow process. I bagged up these puppies a dozen to a bag, stuck a label on them with ingredients and cooking instructions (particularly useful because pierogi have yet to really make it in the UK and were unknown to most of our consumers), and froze them. Some of them stuck together, and I had to throw a couple of bags out, which nearly made my cry. But other than that, they were delish.

Graeme, at the same time, made his pies. He made a batch of Beef and ale pies, filled with: beef from our local butcher's, Old Hooky ale, onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, and onion gravy. You can see the lovely filling in the photo to the right. Graeme struggled a bit with his shortcrust pastry--the first batch was slightly overworked, and he messed up calculating how much dough he would need to make (and how much flour, butter, and egg that would entail), forcing him to make an 11p.m. Tesco run. That said, I should let it be known that Graeme is a shortcrust pastry genius, and made perfect shortcrust pastry at his first ever attempt at it. So while he was frustrated by the difficulties he encountered, he still pulled off some gorgeous pies. He filled the veggie pies with the same onion gravy and vegetable base, as well as lots of firm and tasty chickpeas, and seasoned it with bay leaves and some thyme. Both sets of pies were covered in cute shortcrust pastry leaves (and my attempts at making birds and flowers which were not so gorgeous). The veggie pies were also marked with a pastry "v".

Midnight, April 21st, 2007: I am done with my pierogi, and even had time to unwind while watching the always-enlightening WAGS Boutique. Graeme is still hard at work, cursing his pies, and exhausted. I help him out for a bit but my eyes get heavy and I retire to bed. He keeps working until 2a.m when he finally decides to call it a night. This is our Darkest Farmers' Market Hour.

6:30a.m. My alarm goes off. I haul ass out of bed, and Graeme follows in 15 minutes or so. It should be noted that neither of us are morning people. I heat up some water so that I can start the morning's work by proofing the bagel yeast, and at the same time put the espresso pot on the stove because the only way that anything is going to happen is through copious amounts of coffee.

I get the bagels started, while Graeme works on finishing, and baking, the pies. Luckily, my kitchen has two ovens, so while the pies are baking and the bagels are rising (two batches of white bagels, one batch of wholewheat), I whip up a quadrupled bunch of cornbread batter, and put it to bake. This is semi-disastrous as our oven has the tendency to bake stuff really quickly on the outside and leave the inside raw, and one loaf has to be thrown out. I also forget that cornbread is very crumbly, and will be difficult to sell by the loaf, so I decide I'll sell it by the slice. This keeps me from bursting into tears at the cornbread batter trickling down one of the counters, mocking me.

The bagels, in the meantime, rise like precocious bread children showing off. I punch down the dough, form a million bagels, and get ready to boil them. Check out my little army of bagels in the photo to the right. For the most part, the bagel process goes smoothly, with the exception of the fact that my baking sheets are old and on their deathbeds, and half the bagels get stuck to them, no matter how much cornmeal I put down to avoid such a fate, and several get ruined in the process of having to RIP THEM OFF of the sheets. This is unpleasant But over three dozen tasty bagels emerge from the oven tasty and perfect, so life is not so bad.

In the meantime, Graeme bakes up three batches of his signature delicious scones, with which he has wowed many a new friend since he learned how to make them last year. The scones behave themselves, which is good, because Graeme's emotional state is a bit fragile after the pie debacle.

11 a.m. As I rush to boil up some pierogi to serve as samples, Graeme puts out bags together to haul to the market. We have two cooler bags full of pies and pierogi, three plastic bags full of bagels, a shoebox full of scones, and a cardboard box full of cornbread. We also bring some big bags full of: knives, plates for samples, a little tape deck to play appropriately cheerful market music on, table cloths, safety pins, our sign, paper bags, labels, plastic gloves, and some other junk I'm sure I'm forgetting. We walk to the market, which normally seems like it's around the corner, but today feels like a long trek, due to the kilos and kilos of baked goods weighing down our arms.

11:15 a.m. We arrive, and start setting up our table as the kind volunteers put up a gazebo to shade us and our goods from the sun. The day is lovely, and I take off my shoes to enjoy the feel of warm grass under my feet. Graeme tries not to fall asleep. It's a bit windy, so stuff needs to be pinned down a lot, but in less than half an hour we manage to cre
ate our cute stall, which inadvertently looks kind of communist:

12 p.m.-3 p.m. Market time! We discover that our stall is next to the lunch cafe stall, and so the smell of BBQ-ign lamb skewers keeps wafting in our direction and making our mouths water.
I last about an hour before I nip over to grab some lamb, and some focaccia pizza slices for us to chow down on. Customers are enthusiastic and help themselves to the many sample we've laid out. We sell out of vegetarian pies pretty quickly. We also sell out of the Ruskie Pierogi, and the sesame seed bagels. I cannot, for the life of me, seem to sell people on the strawberry pierogi, as the British cannot wrap their heads around eating sweet foods from main c
ourses. It seriously seems to disturb people when I suggest it. Most have also never tasted corn bread, but really get into it, and we sell almost two whole loaves of slices. The meat pies are also a hit, and a little girl almost throws a tantrum over her desire for some scones. In three hours, we manage to sell about 3/4 of our stock. This is good news, because it means that the walk home will be with much lighter loads. We buy some beetroot salsa from the dip lady, who is a market newbie like us, and some radishes (spring vegetables, yes!) and fresh apple juice from the farmers. By the end of the market, we are fairly chipper, despite our exhaustion.

3 p.m. We pack up, come home, put stuff away, and scrub the kitchen. I leave some of the leftover goods out for my housemates, and Graeme brings some to his. We discover that we've made a whole 10 quid profit! This is exciting as we were worried that we'd lose money on the venture, and had only really hoped to break even. As lots of our costs this time are ones we won't have to repeat next time, we figure that we can make up to 50 quid profit the next time we have a stall. We spend the rest of the day being fairly social but pass out by around midnight, tired, but happy.

Lessons learned: Prepare more in advance! While bread stuff needs to be baked the day of, the pie dough can be prepared well in advance and frozen, as can the pierogi. And start earlier the day before so that we can get a good night's sleep. Also, properly calculate ingredient quantities, and start acquiring them further in advance so that we can get more local stuff (hopefully we'll be able to use our wheat guy next time). We also learned a lot about what quantities of particular baked goods we should make, and figure we can maybe sleep in as late as 7:30 a.m. on market day. So next time we hope to be less cranky and tired, and more of a well-organically oiled machine.

New things to attempt next time: Graeme is mulling over a new kind of meat pie to make - perhaps pork and stilton, or lamb and mint? We shall see. He'd also like to try and make a couple of varieties of scones (maybe some with raisins or dried cranberries?) and use normal flour with baking powder, rather than stupid self-raising flour, to make them, as they're likely to rise better that way. I'd like to perfect my pita bread recipe, as I think that'd be a popular item, and I think it would be awesome to make my own pita bread. I'm also going to make my corn bread in muffin form, which should make it less stressful to bake and transport, as well as some mushroom pierogi instead of fruit ones, since the latter clearly did not go over well. (We did manage to sell one bag of it to an open-minded lady!) Also, I'm going to buy some new baking trays.

That's enough for this mammoth entry. Our next market day is May 12th, so we'll let you know how it goes! Graeme is not sure he can bear to see flour again until then, whereas I am apparently psychotic because yesterday afternoon I made some beer bread (which will be posted at some point this week) because I guess I have an insatiable thirst for baking.


Rebeca said...

I am intrigued by these strawberry pierogi! Perhaps I will make some.

PS You guys are awesome.

Anna said...

I can give you a recipe if you want! Just say the word, Twizzleton. Also I noticed that you plugged us on your blog--you are too sweet.

Jen said...

this sounds like an incredible experience! and a delicious one too.

robina said...

i am so proud of you guys! how awesome! and i SO WANT A VEGGIE PIE NOW. i honestly could die i'm craving one so bad. clearly i can no longer read your least til november.

and the thought of little anna building many a blueberry pierogi makes me heart melt. you'd better turn into an auntie anna who builds fruit pierogi with little binas!

Tom said...

What a great post. Glad it went well for you both. I love the photographs. The pic of the meat filling has made me want to cook up something myself. I think I'll get a couple of cookbooks from the library right now.

Anonymous said...

Well done both of you. Pork and Stilton next time G. I may even pay for you to send one up! Mmm, pie.

The strawberry pierogi sounds fantastic. Never tried it before, but I will now.

Its' Fraser BTW, my sign in isn't working.

Anna said...

I'm so happy to hear some love for the strawberry pierogi! They're lovely, and good light summer food.

And thanks for all the kind feedback in general! We're marketing again on May 12th, so we'll write that one up as well.