A Saturday morning stroll across Hampstead Heath to pick up knobbly carrots and oversized loaves of bread has become a beloved pursuit for foodie North Londoners. Ever since the Farmers’ Market was evicted from Primrose Hill four years ago, a weekly congregation of designer buggies, rare dog breeds and charmingly eccentric pensioners now gravitates in William Ellis School playground.
An almost carnivalesque atmosphere also spills out onto the Heath as hog roast baps and low-GI cakes are wolfed down. Rosy-faced children and terriers run amok and enthusiastic customers promenade their baguettes along the paths that span out back to Hampstead, Highgate, Kentish Town and Tufnell Park.
On a recent trip, Dartmouth Park’s own despatch box darling Ed Milliband sauntered past, smiling broadly, seemingly none too bothered about the off-message displays of Squeezed Middle contentment all around.
But as self-congratulatory as this focaccia frenzy might seem, there are of course no financial barriers to participating in the weekly fiesta. A walk on the Heath is a classic Free Weekend, and there’s quality fare to fill the stomach for those intent of sticking to a truly zero budget pit stop too.
Mindful that Time Out were once berated for running a story on how much food could be procured on a freeloading trip to Borough Market, yet equally keen to see what a similar local experiment might yield, I suggested to my 4 year old, Mini Kentishtowner, that we might go for a ‘free lunch’.
She raised a quizzical eyebrow as we passed the well groomed occupants of the doggie crèche. ‘Granny told me there’s no such thing as a free lunch, daddy. So that means we’re basically going stealing.’
Once I corrected her that in fact the samples were free and therefore we were simply sampling a free lunch, she grew less hesitant about gulping down each of the four different cloudy apple juices from Chegworth Valley. Bottles sell here at a fraction of the cost of health food shops, but rather than actually buy one, we simply picked up a slice of apple to go with our creamy goats cheese courtesy of Nut Knowle Farm across the way. Result!
A succession of small victories followed: tiny cubes of cheese and some thoughtfully laid on crackers; and a couple of cheeky baby plum tomatoes from the Isle of Wight Tomato Stall (not really on offer for sampling, but Mini Kentishtowner, having made short work of grasping the concept, sure knows how to work her cute kid charms).
In fact soon she was really getting into her stride and hardly flinched as we shovelled second helpings of lovely creamy Wyfe of Bath cheese down, before taking up Brambletye Fruit Farm’s offer to try their super sweet biodynamic apples.
Perhaps it was the seasonal imbalance towards cheese and apples that set her off in search of fresh bounty, or my muttered utterances that these tiny samples of pesto dip sure would never fill us up, but there was a moment of panic when she reached for a swig of Millwhites potent cider.
Then, a split second out of sight later, my young charge was next spotted making off with a six-pack of Old Hall Farm’s organic pork ‘London Farmer’s Market Best Sausage Award’ nominees. It was now time to take responsibility and change the message. The experiment was over.
Swiftly curbing her new found over-enthusiasm for the free lunch concept, I reminded young Mini KT that as well as not believing in free lunches, her practicing Muslim granny probably wouldn’t be too keen on the idea of schoolage cider sampling or stolen pork bangers either.
Ever-sharp, she reminded me of how her other (late) granny on the more heathen side of the family would whisper ‘go on, steal it!’ to alleviate the tedium of a supermarket visit, much to the glee of all grandchildren.
Cheered that my offspring may in fact have an unintentionally balanced set of examples to follow (whilst equally concerned that today’s experiment may later prove a catalyst for a life of petty crime), I relented and purchased two giant pastries for the walk home.
‘Things taste better when you’ve bought them,’ Mini assured me, thereby outlining the moral of this tale. And as we took to the promenade, retracing the very footsteps of Milliband, we lapped up the jolly family vibes, no-one any the wiser to our previously subversive lunchtime intent.
A note to readers: Mrs Kentishtowner would like to stress the importance of supporting all the suppliers at the Farmers Market. No pilfering!
It’s open every Saturday from 10am-2pm. Look out for a special (and free) cookery demo this weekend.
Words & Pics: Tom Kihl