Belfast Christmas Market has firmly established itself as a destination on the social calendar of the people of Belfast, Northern lreland and beyond. Piloted in 2004 by The Market Place, it was voted NABMA ‘Best Large Speciality Market 2015’. I was invited along, with NABMA President Councillor Mick Barker, by Allan Hartwell and his team, to sample the delights that this multi award-winning event has to offer.
Belfast’s iconic City Hall is the stunning backdrop for the 90 or so wooden chalets containing the wares of traders from all over the world. Rather than rows of uniform units, Allan’s concept is to create a ‘village’ atmosphere, with several different styles and size of structure that meander through a carefully planned layout. As Allan explained, ‘We wanted to create a sense of architecture to compliment our magnificent surroundings and steer away from boring uniformity. It is also important that we create a good flow throughout the market without creating any bottlenecks.’ Over the eleven years, the layout has been fine-tuned and some stalls have even been especially adapted, a joint commitment honoured by Market Place and the traders, demonstrating their respect for one another.
It is a five day build, using local contractors to deliver the festive challenge. A number of companies are engaged to supply marketing and branding, site cleaning, power supply, maintenance and security. The Market Place Company has made a huge investment in the infrastructure of the market at the City Hall by installing a permanent underground power system which everything runs off. This means that only two generators are needed as backup for the entire site.
Bedecked in an array of Christmas finery, from a single string of fairy lights to flying reindeer alighting from the rooftop, the majority of decoration is left to the retailers to dress their chalets in their own style; competition is fierce and actively encouraged. A prize of £750 is awarded to the ‘best dressed chalet’. This year’s judging took place over two days; NABMA President Mick Barker identified his favourite and was wholly supported by the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alderman Arder Carson. First prize was awarded to Frank Siehl from Continental Cottage for his enchanting display of Santa and his sleigh.
Frank is naturally engaging, actively encouraging the ambling general public to stop and sample his array of German salamis, cured sausages and chorizo, he had even repackaged his liver sausage into a festive penguin adorned parcel that wouldn’t look amiss hanging from a tree! Good customer engagement was prevalent throughout the market, a credit to the work that Allan and his team put into selecting the right mix of quality traders. There was very little repetition of wares and many of the stall holders have worked with Allan over a number of years, whether at the Belfast May Bank Holiday market, or at any of the many other events that they host throughout the year. Many are invited back, but their place is not guaranteed and complacency can often find someone being replaced with a more enthusiastic retailer.
Approximately 30% of the traders are local and in fact several have cut their teeth at this event. The well known food supplier, Epicure began their business there as did specialist tea supplier Suki Tea, who are now an international trading company and have a permanent pitch at Belfast’s indoor market – St Georges. This is also true of two sisters from Blackthorn who started selling their handmade fudge with Market Place last year and now have a thriving business.
Despite the strong winds and rain that we have all seemed to have endured this winter, it did not seem to deter the visitors who were about en-masse. I have never seen so many Christmas jumpers being proudly worn and very few hands could be found without either a carrier bag, food or drink in it.
There are two main bars on site a champagne bar and two mulled wine bars. Marcus Kochams owns a vineyard in the Mosel region of Germany. His wine is used to make the Gluhwein that he sells, which can be laced with various spirits if desired. Unlike many mulled wines, which can be quite harsh, this was very smooth and showed the quality of the wine that he produces. In the other mulled wine bar I sampled a spiced cider, just one option in an interesting menu of hot cocktail specials that had been created especially for Belfast Christmas Market.
Due to the strict local laws governing alcohol consumption, it is forbidden to walk around the market with alcoholic beverages, therefore all of the licensed units have to offer a drinking area, whether seating or standing, which must be clearly defined. Signs alerting customers of the rules regarding consumption are displayed and traders are asked to inform all customers. Traders have turned a negative into a positive and the atmosphere in the licensed chalets would warm Frosty the Snowman!
The two main bars, despite their generous size were packed and it was standing room only. The English owned German themed bar was an impressive large wooden structure with stained glass panels. It sold a range of continental and local beers in the traditional pint measure or for the courageous, in a huge and heavy glass steins which held around two pints. The second bar is run by Belfast’s famous Laverys, formally known as Laverys Gin Palace. This huge marquee had less of a continental bar feel, but more of a pub. It was impressively decorated inside with the draped ceiling cloth bejewelled with hundreds of tiny white lights, creating a night sky effect. Plasma screens were dotted around andthe bar included a live performance area.
There was a vast array of food from all over the world, to accompany your drink of choice: bratwurst, tartiflette, paella, tapas, churros, something for everyone. The queue for Meats Around the World’s unusual burgers, which included kangaroo, ostrich and buffalo was constant, testimony to the popularity of their product. Also popular was Matine Visser’s Dutch poffertjes, a type of small pancake which can best be described as a sweet, flat, Yorkshire Pudding! The stall had a beautiful hand painted roof and the business has been in the Visser family since the 1860s. Two crepe stalls offered a more traditional style of pancake and the buckwheat one with turkey, cheese and a fried egg certainly hit the spot on a cold, wet evening.
For the sweet toothed, Wim Van Massenhoven claimed that Mario’s Macaroons were the ‘best in the world’ I sampled both the chocolate coated and the plain coconut and they were indeed delicious. Not to be confused with the small colourful macaron which were also available to purchase at the market, as were an enticing array of patisserie and cakes from French Master Baker Geffs Quignon who bakes twenty times a day. If chocolate is your thing then there was plenty to choose from, from personalised Polish chocolate plaques, continental chocolate crafted in to every object you could think of, to Fosters’ Chocolate from Portadown, one of Northern Ireland’s largest employers and one of the first traders to support the market. First time to the market and trying something different was the bratapfel (baked apple) stall with a range of different fillings oozing out of the sweet smelling roasted fruits.
Should shopping be the purpose of your visit, then the myriad of International products would be hard to resist, including the unusual and brightly coloured Swedish Felt stall. Daniel Aguirre’s Peruvian clothing reminded me of my trip to the country earlier this year and the smell of the handmade French soaps had us all picking up bars and having a good sniff! Carved pottery globe lights from Germany caught Mick Barker’s eye and I was drawn to Silver Flowers’ jewellery – miniature flowers encased in resin and silver and made in to earrings, pendants and bracelets. King Kindleness makes his jewellery from silver cutlery and all his profits go back to his village in Zimbabwe, supporting the Wrongtime Village art and design project. Another charitable stall was St Elisabeth Convent from Belarus who sold religious artefacts to raise funds for their orphanage.
Charitable concerns are something that Market Place is eager to support and as well as offering things to eat, drink or buy, the market has an important community aspect. The Santa’s Grotto is provided free of charge to raise money for the Lord Mayor’s charity and this year, the Children’s Cancer Unit, which was the nominated charity, seemed well on its way to smashing through their £10,000 target. In addition traders gave generously to another local charity, Cancer Fund For Children, donating an item to go into a hamper to be raffled off. The generosity of the traders meant that eighteen hampers could be made up as prizes.
The company actively helps to promote new businesses and each year they run a competition called Pitch Perfect where local companies are encouraged to ‘pitch’ for the chance to sell their goods at the Market, rent free. This is a fantastic opportunity for any start up business and as well as the free pitch, Market Place offer business mentoring and actively help to promote the company. Last year’s winner, The Itty Bitty Book Co, who produce tiny books of inspirational quotes were back for a second year whilst also trading in nearby St George’s Market. This year proved too difficult to award an overall winner and so two were chosen. Country Ramblings produce freestyle machine stitched fabric pictures, which are then framed. The characters that Alana Doherty has created tell a story of a country character called Bumpkin. The second winner this year was The Cloth Barn. Faith Thomson started selling her tablecloths and runners at craft fairs a year ago and discovered the hand crafted glass Christmas decorations in Coburg, a Bavarian region of Germany. This was her first ever market and the decorations have been very well received.
Over the past eleven years, Market Place has helped educate over 10,000 school children on free tours of the market, many of which have been led by Norman Cotton, the Market Manager. They learn about how products are made, where they come from and how to say a few key phrases such as ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in a number of languages to coincide with the countries represented. One of the stalls that they visit sells products that are made using different parts of reindeer. From Monday to Wednesday, during the quieter times, they provide guided tours of the market as part of a volunteer led ‘Buddy Scheme’, whereby the local community are encouraged to bring somebody to the market who may not otherwise be able to get there, for example a housebound or elderly citizen.
Waste management is a top priority and Allan has been working with local organisations to ensure that as much left over food and produce as possible can be utilised to help the homeless and those struggling to provide for their families. Over 150 tonnes of waste comes out of the market and approximately 87% of it is recycled, helping to make it one of Europe’s greenest markets. Traders are encouraged to separate plastics, glass, cardboard and food waste and this is checked by local sorters.
Mick Barker knows Belfast of old, having worked in the city many times during the darker times of the ‘troubles’, he commented, ‘The Belfast Christmas Market was the first large scale, free City Centre event that got everyone together. I’ve never known a market so readily embraced.’
There really was a sense of camaraderie between the traders, Allan and his team and it was apparent that there was an earned respect for each other. This was Jackie Casey’s first year at the market and she admitted that although it was very tiring, the people made the event; she commented, ‘We’ve got some really great characters here and the support for the market is palpable.’ Visitors were in high spirits, enjoying themselves in this safe and seasonal environment and this is all credit to the careful planning and operational delivery from Allan and his team. It’s clear to see why they were voted NABMA Best Large Speciality Market 2015, an award that I think that was very well deserved.