Bristol's unique markets and increasingly tantalising food and drink offer are helping to shape its personality and future. Russell Hargrave embarks on a culinary expedition to discover what's on offer
When you step into Bristol, you find a market city. It may be famous for its docks, its towering suspension bridge and – in more recent decades – its two world-class universities, but these days, locals and visitors will also be struck by Bristol’s energetic markets and ever-improving food and drink scene. At the heart of it all is the bustling St Nicholas Market, known to most Bristolians as St Nick’s.
You can’t miss St Nick’s long history. One of the first sights on heading into the crowded covered market in the old corn exchange is a sign announcing its upcoming 275th birthday. Around 60 traders operate from the market every day, with more stalls just outside its stone walls. It’s not only street food, but jewellery and art shops and second-hand bookstalls also attract a diverse crowd. “We are like a family,” explains Enggi Holt, talking about her fellow traders. She runs Enggi’s Kitchen, an Indonesian stall on the corner of St Nick’s. Her business is part of “a family of international traders,” she says. “There is Brazilian, Jamaican and Thai and all sorts of things. We help each other and try to make the market really vibrant.”
Enggi’s Kitchen is relatively new to St Nick’s, but other traders tell the same story. The Hot Sauce Emporium has been in St Nick’s for more than a decade, and for the last year has been run by John Finch.“By and large it is a very convivial place to work,” Finch says cheerfully. “I get on with most people.” This includes his customers, and Finch is happy to provide “something a bit different for the curious”. People enjoy trying chillis and sauces so they can “test themselves and their mates – see how hot they can take it,” Finch says. This merriment is the fun side of St Nick’s, but the market is also there for “people who are really into their food,” he adds. Bristol’s markets boost the city’s wider success.
Marvin Rees, Bristol’s mayor, is keen to promote how the city is the fastest growing economy outside London, a result of people pulling together as the markets take on a growing role within the development of the city. Sarah Jones, the council’s markets and estates officer, has an office inside St Nick’s, with a view overlooking the stalls. “We are the largest site with the most independent traders [in Bristol],” she says. “We keep it local for people and the surrounding area.” Jones’ positivity is commanding. “It’s so dynamic,” she says. “No two days are the same. You never know what to expect when you come in each morning.”
There is more for food fanatics to enjoy in Bristol. On arrival by train, Temple Quay Market near the station has weekly food stalls in the shadow of Bristol’s banking and legal quarter. Just across the canal from St Nick’s, another takes place every week at Finzels Reach, where market crowds mingle with people on their way to yoga classes in a modern setting amid shiny office and residential buildings, providing a contrast to St Nick’s Georgian architecture.
Alongside the food enthusiasts, Bristol’s markets also cater to people “looking for new experiences – something more than just shopping,” according to Roger Hinchcliffe, whose photography shop is based in The Nails Market. “The market evolves and changes to attract new customers,” he says. As for Hinchcliffe’s photography, customers are typically in their 20s and 30s. “It is people who are setting up house and want things on the walls. I am often told ‘I have loads of blank space on the walls and I need something to fill it’,” he explains. The Harbourside Market is a bit different. Overlooking ships waiting to ferry tourists and commuters around the city, it takes place every weekend and on Thursdays, filling one stretch of space next to the canal and home to dozens of designers and food stalls.
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