St George's the market leader when it comes to showing Northern Ireland and its people at their very best
The historic Belfast attraction is in running for top UK award and deserves all our votes, says Fionola Meredith
Too often, coming from Northern Ireland carries with it a lingering sense of shame. You know what I'm talking about. There are so many ways in which we look embarrassing in the eyes of the rest of the world: our lingering sectarian bigotry, our cack-handed and self-seeking politicians, our entrenched homophobia, our nasty racist underbelly. We always seem to be coming first for things like prescription drug consumption or worst for child tooth decay.
So when we do something really well there's an extra reason to celebrate. It's like an antidote to all the depressing, mortifying stuff. It gives us an unaccustomed sense of justified pride.
That's why I want to say a few words in praise of the marvellous St George's Market in Belfast. Right now it's in the running for the title of Britain's Favourite Market, part of a high-profile annual competition organised by the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA).
St George's has previous form. In 2014 it won the Best Large Indoor Market title, and it was voted Best Market in the Observer Food Monthly Awards last October, where it was praised for its mix of tradition and innovation, putting it at the very heart of Belfast's newly invigorated food scene.
As a weekly visitor on a Saturday, I can understand exactly why. The quality of food and drink on offer is superlative. Free-range meat that has an unparalleled depth of flavour; sparkling-fresh fish; the plumpest, squeakiest, earthiest vegetables; sprightly and characterful local cheeses; lip-smacking apples from Armagh. And that's before you get on to the home-made cakes and curries, the crepes, the stews, the soda bread…
I fancy myself as a bit of a market aficionado, you see. Wherever I go I like to check out the local market, because it tends to be one of the best places to eat in town. Some moments have been memorable: I've sampled home-made waffles with hot cherries in an east Berlin market, and sipped sweet Tokaji wine in Budapest's Great Market Hall. One of the most glorious markets in Europe is the fantastically ornate Mercado Central in Valencia, where the orange juice is naturally day-glo, the wafer-thin slices of ham really do melt in the mouth, and if you fancy an eel for lunch, it's seized and chopped up right before your eyes.
But for me St George's is up there with the best. Why bother with the overpriced, generic and tacky Continental Market at City Hall, that faux-European confection which arrives before Christmas-time to empty our pockets of cash, when you can enjoy the authentically local, affordable delights of St George's all-year round?
The market has had its tough times, most recently in 2012 and 2013 during the flag protests. At one point it seemed that the street disorder and unrest was inflicting terminal damage. The normally packed hall stood empty and stallholders' trade was in freefall. Many were going home with armfuls of wasted fresh produce, having earned precisely nothing. As one beleaguered stallholder told me at the time: "It only takes a trader to lose £100 for a couple of weeks running and that's them gone."
Fortunately, St George's recovered from that blighted period, and it's now busier than ever on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And it's not just the high standards which draw people in. There's music, and places to sit and sip coffee, and an almost visible buzz and bustle in the air that speaks of good times. This being Belfast there's also a fiendish amount of talking, and I've had compelling conversations at my favourite butcher's stall, Pheasants' Hill, about everything from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy to the Cherokee origins of Willie Nelson. It's that kind of place - and the Tamworth sausages are unbeatable.
St George's isn't perfect. The parking situation is dire and there are too many shark-like traffic wardens circulating outside, seeking easy pickings by catching out unwary traders and customers.
And it's ridiculous that we are now prevented from buying farm-brewed Armagh cider because of our nonsense licensing laws.
But these are small enough gripes. This market is brilliant, and it's ours, and we should celebrate it. If you share my delight, why not go to the NABMA website and give the market a vote, before the closing date of this Tuesday.
In a world of petty hostility, greed and incompetent 'cash for ash', St George's represents a small outpost of cheerful excellence. This is us at our best, doing what we do best.