The booming bazaars

Farmers’ markets are springing up around the country offering fresh produce and artisanal food, says Susmita Saha

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 15.03.15
  • Customers at the Delhi Organic Farmers’ Market

It’s the newest version of the Great Indian Bazaar. Early on a Sunday morning the lawns of the Palika Services Officers’ Institute in Delhi’s Vinay Marg are crammed with people and buzzing with action. Up for grabs on a freezing winter morning are batches of shiny Swiss chard, freshly-cut kale, bundles of chives and a piled high assortment of exotic fruits and herbs.

Welcome to the Delhi Organic Farmers’ Market (DOFM) that sets up shop in the Capital early on Sunday mornings.

Shift the scene to the Mumbai Farmers’ Market organised by culinary star Karen Anand at the Westin Mumbai Garden City in Goregaon. Here again the lawn is transformed into a bustling bazaar and the wares on offer include artisanal cheese and masalas and a medley of exotic vegetables, fruits and more. To spice up the marketplace there are even cookery sessions by celebrity chefs Kunal Kapoor and Ajay Chopra.

  • Karen Anand is positioning her farmers’ market ventures as day-out venues for families

These new upmarket versions of the Indian bazaar are springing up all over the country and they’re aimed squarely at the burgeoning and ever more affluent Indian middle class. On offer at these farmers’ markets is an assortment of fresh — often organic — produce and top-notch artisanal food. So, there are preserves, dips and chutneys. Also, on sale are cheese and condiments and baked goodies.

The salesmen and women behind the counter could be anyone from farmers to bakers, home cooks and food entrepreneurs who are reaching out directly to middle-class buyers who’re keen on buying fresh and healthy produce and food items.

Says Akhil Kapoor, one of the coordinators of DOFM: “Since the farmers’ market is based on the ‘farm to the plate’ concept, it helps people understand the labour put in by the farmer.”

  • The Farmer’s Market at the Maharashtra Nature Park in Mumbai has all the trappings of a village fair, including gigs by musicians

Take a look at The Farmers’ Market, that has sprung up in the Maharashtra Nature Park in Mumbai, a 37-acre green zone dotted with trees and even a lotus pond. The market has been launched by Kavita Mukhi who’s a Mumbai-based nutritionist and craniosacral therapist (it’s an alternative therapy) and it’s operational on Sundays between October and March.

Mukhi has brought in farmers from around Nashik and the produce on offer includes yams, sweet potatoes, different types of pumpkins, bottle gourds and locally grown fruits. “We have posts put up on our Facebook page, telling people to grab the exciting bounty from the farm,” says Mukhi.

The biggest advantage of going to a farmers’ market is, of course, that you get to pick up goods directly from the producers. Also, the offerings range from essentials like pulses and cereals to more exotic foodstuff like basil, marjoram, oregano and rosemary. Also, usually there are ingredients on hand for both Indian and Western spreads.

  • Gautham PB (left) and Anurag Dalmia, founders of Healthy Buddha, are holding their farmers’ markets in several gated communities and residential areas in Bangalore

Most crucially, these farmers’ markets are, to a very large extent, all about healthy eating and there’s a great deal of organic produce on offer. So, Calcutta has its Organic Farmer’s Haat on Middleton Street and Triangular Park in Calcutta every Saturday. The haat is organised by the environmental group Shyamoli, which focuses on issues relating to the environment, and on offer here is organic seasonal produce grown by farmers in Nadia district. Vinita Mansata, one of the haat’s organisers, has worked on reforestation programmes and also runs an alternative bookstore Earthcare.

But since it’s all about having a picnic, the farmers’ markets have to be about more than just a buying spree. So Mukhi makes the market experience appealing for her patrons by turning it into a modern version of a village fair. “We organise activities to tempt people,” she says. So there are foot spas and musical events. And you can also have breakfast or brunch at the cafeteria which has tables under a huge tree.

Others like Karen Anand are positioning their ventures as day-out venues for families and ensuring that there’s plenty of food items on offer for the entire family to tuck into. Says Anand: “The idea of a farmers’ market is to be a depository of local produce. But we wanted to peg it as a fun food and drink event so that people look forward to attending it.”

  •  The Gurgaon Organic Farmers’ Market features stalls with organic produce
    by local farmers

So, at Anand’s Mumbai Farmers’ Market, held in January, visitors could take their pick from a spread of street foods from Singapore by The Asian Box restaurant from Pune or, alternatively, Indian street food by Punjab Grill. In addition, several wineries like Sula, Reveilo and Charosa had turned up. Says Anand: “All products are carefully curated and not just random selections.” Anand kicked off her farmers’ markets in Pune and has spread her wings and held events in Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, Goa and Bangalore.

For some organisers their farmers’ markets are an extension of other businesses. Take Gautham PB, who owns the Healthy Buddha online store with Anurag Dalmia in Bangalore. Healthy Buddha home delivers organic vegetables and it has started the HB Farmers’ Market in several gated communities and residential areas of the city. He points out that these markets need to be accessible and have unique offerings to hook customers. By holding the markets Gautham believes he can expand his buyer base and convince more people about the importance of buying organic produce.

“Most farmers’ markets get visitors who are already aware of healthy living concepts and the most recent trends in wellness. We take our produce to the doors of people who are not exposed to organic food and other healthy offerings in the market,” he says.

The young entrepreneur, who collects his organic inventory from a raft of farmers across the country, is constantly upping the ante at the HB Farmers’ Market by offering unusual, hard-to-get products to keep the buzz going.

  • Rasa India, an organic vegetarian restaurant in Bangalore, has a bi-monthly farmers’ market both inside and outside the eatery

For instance, one of his offerings is Alphonso mango pulp from his own organic certified farm on the outskirts of Chennai that is vacuum-packed in a glass bottle without any sugar or preservatives. Then, there are other exotic products like flax seed chutney powder and juice from the five-petal hibiscus flower that grows only in the forest. “We have a tie-up with a farmer who collects flowers from forested areas and sends us the juice concentrate,” says Gautham.

But Gautham isn’t the only one who’s trying to educate the customer. Awareness programmes and workshops are also part of the deal that take the idea of healthy living to the next level. Take a look at the Organic Farmer’s Haat, which includes urban gardening workshops by writer and environmentalist Bharat Mansata and organic farming consultant and trainer Ardhendu Chatterjee.

There are others in the same space. Rasa India, an organic vegetarian restaurant in Bangalore holds its bi-monthly Freshway Organic Farmers Market both inside and outside the eatery. It also lines up a series of workshops on subjects like sustainable living and healthy baking for grown-ups and children. “We have vendors who are growing organic vegetables on their terraces and farms. In addition, you can pick up cold-pressed coconut oil, vegan products and home-made chutney powders,” says Pradeep Gopalakrishnan, manager, Rasa India, which sources ingredients for its menus from a 25-acre organic farm in Kerala that belongs to its owner Das Sreedharan.

Similarly, the Gurgaon Organic Farmers’ Market (GOFM) — which started in November 2014 — is creating innovative events to make its visitors conscious about their diet. For instance, a vegan potluck is often organised at the end of the market when customers are invited to bring their vegan recipes and dishes.

“You cannot think of rustling up traditional Indian desserts like gajar ka halwa, kheer and payasam without milk. These sessions throw up alternative ways to cook these delicacies,” says Manas Arvind, proprietor of Grainny’s, an outfit specialising in healthy savouries, cakes and baked items that sets up a stall at the GOFM. “There’s no processed food in our product portfolio, which includes everything from the traditional mewa khajoor laddoo (date, flaxseeds and dry fruit ladoo) to sorghum and ragi cookies,” says Arvind.

The fact is that by offering a fun day-out with food thrown in and also tapping upper middle-class Indians’ worries about their food, the farmers’ markets have found a mix that works. Arvind sums it up best: “What we call organic food now used to be called food by our grandmothers.”