BRIGHTON OPEN MARKET : 18 MONTHS ON

On Saturday 20 September 2014, we were the second to last of the permanent businesses to move into the newly refurbished Brighton Open Market. We had gone to watch and be part of the official 17 July Opening Party where Lindy Hoppers hopped, a horse clip-clopped through, a Chinese dragon snaked, a sushi maker sushi’d, and the Lord Lieutenant, Peter Field, presided over the whole proceedings in full regalia. The market swirled and whooped and Brighton was caught up in the excitement of the occasion. We were excited by the buzz in the air from the permanent traders, overjoyed to see old familiar faces from the traditional market and overwhelmed by the quality and choice of those new units that had been brought together to become part of the brand new face of Brighton’s oldest market.

Our alcohol application had gone in and we had had to wait out our time in case of objections but there is a fabulous community around the London Road and no objections appeared.  It seemed that the residents of the area – Queen’s Park, Hanover, and all the new residents around Brighton Station who we meet so regularly now on trains as we go up and down to trade tastings, food festivals and events – were keen to see new wine people opening on their patch, particularly specialists like us.

There’s a bit of a Mediterranean feel to food now around the London Road; Fatto A Mano has recently arrived; Dina’s the Portuguese street food; Sunbird Deli is in the Top 5 best restaurants in Brighton. Then of course there’s the new round of coffee houses and eateries too such as Meat Liquor from London, people sitting enjoying the sun (even today) outside Presuming Ed owned by coffee king of the Lanes, our friend Richard Grills, who we’ve known since a boy (and we mean it!). There’s a great mix now of traditional and new happening around the London Road – the fabulous Chilka House restaurant has now become Semolina, a few metres from famous Bardsley’s Fish & Chip shop; there’s the traditional Black Cat White Cat cafe on Marshall’s Row and the tranquil Rust just past Preston Circus.

Sadly Poundland and 99p Stores abound. Nisbets has just arrived, Aldi (manned largely by a delightful Spanish staff) provides competition for the old Co-op and the newer Sainsbury and there’s still talk (please God, no) of a Wetherspoons waiting in the wings to take over some of the ground floor refurbishment of the wonderful 1930s Co-op building.  All is dominated in a wonderful fashion by the extraordinary, over-exaggerated architecture of St Bartholomew’s Church, built supposedly to the exact dimensions of Noah’s Ark. We’re glad it dominates the landscape from Hanover to North Laine, we need something to. It’s a terrific landmark: “See that tall church? That’s it, go there and walk across the main London Road and the market’s on the other side next to Francis Street.” It’s an awfully good way of showing people a weaving, wonderful way to Brighton Open Market.

In the 1970s whilst growing up on Brighton’s seafront my mother and I used to go the market especially on a Saturday, to buy the cheaper fruit and vegetables when they were discounted down;  my mother was feeding a house full of foreign students studying English at the English Language Centre in Palmeira Square, and she fed them extremely well on a tight budget.  Years before, our next door neighbour in Saltdean, where my father was the local GP, had gone to the Mears family to buy bruised peaches and plums to make delicious jams which, as a young child, I adored.  In the 1990s I stopped going there.  Buses in Brighton are expensive and the Level was just out of reach to go to do the shopping from Kemptown, plus why would you want to when you’ve got St James’s Street on your doorstep? And of course London Road had started to go downhill. McDonald’s had overtaken, Marks & Spencer had gone, the old fashioned department store had become a series of concessions with no cohesion to them – it was crying out for a Debenhams or (preferably) a John Lewis to take over that lovely building and inject new life into the area, but pound shops and charity shops moved in instead, and then the building work started between Brighton Station and the A23, relentless building of one block of flats after another. Din and dust everywhere.

In recent years there have been a handful of reasons to go to the London Road – shopping (especially if you’re a charity shop fanatic) is fantastic, and then the quirky one-offs that have still managed to keep going through the years – a ‘Must Go’ is Ransoms, the hardware store, a treasure trove of, well, just about everything that you’d ever need.  Real shoe repairers who can put a Commando sole on a pair of Loake’s and make them look like new.  Principal Meats, one of the oldest shops on the main road, wholesale and retail caterers selling to just about everyone in Brighton. The World’s End pub’s kitchen was turned over to John Hargate’s BBQ Shack and Jay Rayner’s glowing review in the Guardian in July 2011 put it on the map.

The market was, in essence, always there. It had been there for ever. So it came as a shock when it closed. There was talk of it being made into flats, talk of it becoming a shopping centre, affordable housing, a car park.  And then it turned into a building site for years.

Suddenly in 2014 there was the Open Market, back again. In the 1880s the barrow boys, as they were called, used to sell their wares from barrows in Marshall’s Row; the new block of flats built above the new market with front doors on Francis Street is called ‘The Barrows’ to mark that first market.

In March 2014 eight of the original market traders still trading up until the Council made them offers of a new building and a new beginning, including Dave Ovett the Bacon King (who also does great eggs and top cheeses incidentally!) and Pat Mears, the latest in a long line of the Mears family to steer the retail side of Brighton’s fruit and vegetables, moved back into the market.

A Community Interest Company had been set up in the interim, to ‘curate’ for want of a better word, the other 34 units, to ensure a good mix of goods and services to entice the shoppers back to the London Road. Four cafes, one in each corner of the central space (nicknamed ‘the Plaza’ but called the centre or square by the majority of traders who aren’t that pretentious!) provide an eclectic range of food including Smorl’s home-made hummus and falafel, and Greek Cypriot Kouzina. Then there’s Mohammed’s Bangladeshi street food, Masala Chai and Mango Lassi; Paul “the fish” with seafood, live Selsey crabs; Jack Hill, part of the Upper Gardner Street market for so many years, with an assortment of old fashioned tools, leather bags, belts and oddments (our own mini Ransoms in a way!).  Since the July 2014 opening there have been a few casualties – the Chilli Shop, Love Food, Nature’s Presence, Party Perfection and Darryl Black to name a few – but others have replaced them, or people have moved from 1 unit to another.

There’s still a huge amount of work to do to entice promoters into the market who will put together regular fairs in the centre on a weekly or monthly basis, and will remain committed to the market.  Several excellent promoters have tried out the venue from Delilicious, the local organic food market, Street Diner, the Fairy Tale Fair, the Etsy Fair, and various vintage clothes and antique fairs. The market lends itself to these very Brighton, quirky events and it needs more.

So finally, then there’s us – slap bang in the middle of the centre.  When we opened, we had the butcher (Principal Meats, originally on Marshall’s Row and now relocated into the market) on one side and the market’s fantastic Korean baker, Mia, on the other. So in hindsight we should have called ourselves ‘The Candlestick Maker’ although when we say that to anyone in their 30s or under they tend to look at us with glazed expressions, and we’ve lost them. Are children no longer brought up on nursery rhymes?! Fortunately for us we didn’t, as Mia subsequently moved her bakery 2 doors away and now makes Korean Japanese fusion food at Kor-Pan, and McStrong’s retail venture “Little Miss Piggy” moved in next door to us making delicious sausage rolls and pasties on the other.  We are no longer the Candlestick Makers in the middle but whatever happens we are still surrounded by the great smell of baking!

We’re a bit of a mix of a shop: we sell the wines that we import exclusively from Central and Eastern Europe first and foremost. In 18 months we have only had 5 people come in looking for French wine and our stock answer is that they’ll find all the French wine they require in one of our French departments. Where’s that? It’s on the London Road – Sainsbury, Aldi or Co-Op.  Everyone else has been excited to find something different on the shelves, and that is what Brighton Open Market is about.

The wines that we prefer are Croatian, Slovenian, Turkish, Romanian.  So many of our winemakers make their wines with the lowest sulphite levels and it’s important to us that we know what they add to their wines, and more importantly what they don’t.  We have a regular clientele of allergy sufferers who have happily trusted us and now enjoy wine again for the first time in some years.

Alongside these delicious wines, we have sourced unusual juices and drinks, and delicatessen produce to fill our shelves. We have gone to Bulgaria for organic juices, and the Adriatic – new in are white truffle oils and products from Croatia, for instance. From the UK we find produce made as naturally as possible by people who care, who aren’t big business, who don’t sell to the big distributors and end up on every deli shelf.  We like produce that goes with our wines, especially. We like foraged foods, hand-made, natural produce and juices.  A charcuterie or cheese platter with a healthy dollop of local West Sussex pickles or Brighton chutney, and a glass of Croatian teran. Get the picture? That’s us.

Please come and visit soon. You’ll find us between the butcher and the sausage rolls. Or just look up and find our sign made out of corks. If you’ve not visited the Open Market yet you’re in for a treat. Most regulars are doing their weekly shop with us, and eschewing the three supermarkets on their doorstep in favour of local produce and higher quality, and always value for money.  Many say that what they save by shopping in the market allows them to buy treats that they wouldn’t normally look at – a decent bottle of wine for starters!

© Pacta Connect, May 2016