Saturday 20 July 2019

Retailers keeping it local in Aughrim

Reporter David Medcalf took a drive up into the hills on a Saturday morning to meet the stallholders who make Aughrim Town and Country Market one of the best places to drink coffee and buy fresh produce or crafts

Beryl and David Hendry at the market
Beryl and David Hendry at the market

'It's nice and relaxed,' says Caroline Dillon - and she is not talking about herself. The truth is that Caroline is just about the least relaxed thing to be found in Aughrim on a Saturday morning.

The lady in charge of the village's Town & Country Market, she has to be on the ball once the clock ticks over to ten o'clock.

Instead of drinking cups of coffee or admiring the begonias, she is racing around putting up signs, collecting fees from the stall-holders and generally keeping things in order.

Everyone else who turns up, whether selling or buying, seems to be completely at ease while Caroline is busy, busy, busy making sure everything runs smoothly.

Her Saturday mornings (and early afternoons) have been like this for the past dozen years or so, forever on the ball so that others can be at their ease.

It all began with a stern directive from Wicklow County Council who passed on legal advice on the subject of markets.

Officials acknowledged that many villages and towns throughout the county had been in the habit over the centuries of staging regular gatherings for the sale of local produce. However, with the arrival of supermarkets and other changing social patterns, most of these weekly or monthly events had been allowed to lapse.

The decree from County Buildings put it up to communities, stating that the time had come to use it or lose it - revive the custom or wave the right to hold a market goodbye.

The good folk of Aughrim chose to take up the challenge - not least because they had honey producers and organic fruit growers seeking customers.

Besides, they had just about the perfect venue in which to stage their grandly named Town & Country Market - the pavilion overlooking the bowling club and the fishing lake. The building beside the road out from the village to the Gaelic grounds was opened by President Mary McAleese in the year 2006. It came with a kitchen which has provided Saturday elevenses and light lunches to all comers for more than a decade.

Indeed, many of those who turn up arrive seeking a hot beverage and a scone with no intention of patronising any of the stalls.

From the first, it was clear that the venture filled a need - there were artists and growers and food producers in the area matched by consumers prepared to buy their goods.

The initiative had the backing of Aughrim's awesome Tidy Towns committee, whose many national and provincial awards decorate the walls of the pavilion. They set up a committee to oversee the new market but, within a matter of weeks, the entire kit and caboodle had been handed over to Caroline.

'I have no title - chief bottle washer and negotiator,' she laughs. 'Coordinator maybe. It's just me and the stallholders. They come on a Saturday and I put them in their places.'

Her boast is that the doors are open 50 of the 52 weeks in every year, defying even the worst of bad weather.

She observes that stall-holders come in various forms, some offering their wares for a few Saturdays only while others are practically ever-present.

The day the reporter from the 'People' came to call, she put no more than a dozen of them in their places, though most knew where to go without being told.

They ranged from the costermonger offering a huge range of different fruits and vegetables to the egg-sellers who sell eggs and nothing much else.

The 'stalls' were simple tables draped with simple table-cloths - this is a market which does not foster neon lights and showbiz window dressing.

Marked absent on this occasion was regular Judith Cosby from Free Range at Ballycreen, whose output includes guinea fowl eggs. However, while Judith was away for the day in Wales, a colleague had agreed to handle sales.

Nearby was an occasional vendor, Mary Stubblefield, who hails originally from Tipperary but has been living in Aughrim for the past 12 years.

'I grow things - it's a hobby,' said Mary, explaining why she had rented a table/stall for the day. 'I am by no means a professional.

'I would like to think that I am a gardener and most things grow for me. Nature is wonderful but I have a lot to learn.'

Amateur or professional, the wares on display suggested that she very much has the gift of green fingers. The plants coming from her polytunnel were all sturdy and up to the best nursery standard, whether grown for flowers or for salad. She had lettuce, tomato and basil as well as floral hanging baskets.

While Mary purveyed pots and baskets which came with a promise of flowers and good things to eat in future, her stall-holding neighbour Santiago Balbontin offered more immediate gratification.

An array of delicious jams, salsa sauces and pates was spread out in front of him.

Though Santiago is a very familiar figure in Wicklow town, with a name like that it was no surprise to be told that the genial chef is not a native.

'I am 36 years living in Brittas Bay but I am from Chile,' he revealed, adding he has spent the past 51 years out of South America.

Educated at university in the United States, he then forged a career with a hotel chain in Europe which brought him to Italy, Switzerland and France. It was in London that he met his late wife Elizabeth (née Doyle) and they were fated to have 44 happy years together.

He is still remembered for his stint in charge of the Pizza del Forno restaurant in Wicklow, though he sold up in the year 2000. Now he promotes his Wicklow Country food brand at the markets in Greystones and Aughrim, and at the Bank of Ireland in Bray each Thursday, as well as giving cookery demonstrations on the quay in Wicklow.

He is particularly proud of his 'black' marmalade - actually a very dark shade of brown - which he developed from a recipe offered by a farmer he met at Macreddin.

Retirement somehow does not seem to be an option for Santiago Balbontin.

He was accompanied to the pavilion by scone baker supreme Hilary Sharpe, both recent newcomers to the scene in Aughrim.

Nearby, tucked into her corner, was one of the most regular of regulars at the Town & Country - Eleanor Godkin, the gently smiling face of Coolattin Free Range Eggs.

The Ballycoog pensioner was at pains to point out that the eggs, and the hens that lay those eggs, are not hers.

The hard work is done by her daughter Elaine in Coolattin where the flock of fowl is around 1,000 birds strong.

Eleanor reckoned that she still has many of the same customers who came to her when she first arrived more than 12 years ago, shortly after the weekly event was established.

'The market in Aughrim is a great community place, a talking place, a meeting place,' she mused as the volume of conversation in the room rose around her. 'If the weather is kind, tables are put outside in front.

While Eleanor's table was a modest affair with just one line of goods, around the corner, Paul Shore from Moyne presided over the most elaborate stall of all.

He was standing in for Carraignamuc fruit and veg proprietor Phil Coffey, who had set him up with the most astonishing range of stock. Phil has a glasshouse in Glenealy and grows his own salads and onion there, though he buys in all the rest. He was away attending to customers at the weekly market in Dublin's Stonybatter, and the Carraignamuc name is also in Dundrum.

His deputy on this occasion was quietly doing good trade: 'It is not mad busy but it is convivial. Even if I stopped doing the stall, I would be here on Saturdays chatting.'

Next door, entrepreneur David Hendry tried to persuade your reporter with a smile that he is 'half Irish, half Scottish and half South African'.

He and wife Beryl left South Africa two years ago intending to set up a stainless steel workshop in Ireland. While they are waiting for that to take off, they have been making a neat line in bird feeders and other items from recycled material at a workshop in Meeting of the Waters. Beryl also does a very tasty line in biscuits as well as some nifty art work.

'This is lovely,' commented David as he looked around the room. 'It is about the community and meeting local folk. It is such a lovely vibe.'

Just a couple of months selling their wares at the market, they were parked beside a long standing local legend, Statia Ivers from Ballycoog, bread making champion and cake creator supreme.

Many of her regulars - and there were many - scarcely had to tell Statia what they want. She had their order wrapped and ready before they opened their mouths.

'I am a baker,' she said simply. 'I have always loved baking, from the time I was going to school and I learned how to bake soda bread from my grandmother, Susan Keogh.'

Susan worked her magic on an open fire back in the old days and now Statia has more sophisticated means at her disposal as she caters not only for market goers but also for a family that extends to seven grandchildren.

One of her customers chipped in with a testimonial: 'Statia works so hard, that I don't believe she even went to bed last night.'

Beside her, Denise Walsh (trading as Florence Heffernan and living 'just up the road in the mountains) offered her delightful hand-made cards to the discerning. She also sold the candles which she started making in order to deal with a surplus of wax from her bee hives.

'This market is a proper local market,' she commented, 'and most of the stallholders here are very local, which is important.'

Last to set up was Richard Bury, arriving hot foot from his kitchen Arklow, his frittata so fresh that the gorgeous smell was quite irresistible. He commented that Aughrim is off the beaten track - but always worth a visit, especially on Saturday mornings.

Wicklow People