Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

Bath Christmas Markets

My love of the Christmas season has grown in the last 10 years. Growing up in Australia, Christmas was a very different affair – it was still good fun, but different. Nowadays, as soon as December arrives I start to look for possible food ideas for Christmas day, bauble additions for the tree and festive film and music favourites start to edge their way out of the TV & iPod. I’m not a massive traditionalist, but with age comes a need for the familiarity of repetition and custom so I seem to be growing up. I grasp the comfort of routine with both hands at this time of year and thoroughly enjoy writing my Christmas cards (despite the nagging concern that I am aiding the demise of the planet), trawling through old recipes, cookbooks and the trusty internet for my Christmas menu and popping into town for a little shop and a jolly cup of drink or two. These freezing temperatures we have been experiencing have only added to the wonderful yuletide vibe.

I’ve always loved the thought of heading to Germany or Austria for one of their famed Christmas markets, but the decadence of taking a plane across Europe just to drink some Gluhwein doesn’t rest easily with me these days, so when I discovered that Bath has a perfectly lovely Christmas market every year I set my sights on this instead. I booked a train ticket and decided to head up for the afternoon, meeting a friend for a drink at the end of the day. The markets are now 10 years old, but I was told by a repeat visitor that it has really hit it’s stride in the last few years. I’m not an ‘early adopter’ by nature, as I prefer to have any ‘bugs’ ironed out of events like this so I was happy to have caught up with it after a decade of trial and error. There were around 130 stalls this year, all of them housed within individual wooden chalets and decorated with fairy lights. The resulting spectacle is insanely festive and the smell of mulled wine and roasting nuts in the air provide a sensual experience that would knock the misery out of the most steadfast Grinch.

When I arrived at around 1.30pm my first thought was of food. There is absolutely nothing unusual about this, but I had not eaten since breakfast so I was quite within my rights to focus on being fed. After a half hour diversion at the post office (not so festive) getting my international cards in the mail, I high-tailed it back to the market area between the Abbey and the Roman Baths where all the action is. I had already clocked a stall called Stew in a Box that took my fancy as they were serving local sausage stew with spicy beans & tomatoes with potato and parsnip mash … in a box!! These were my kind of people. I showed a moment of blind confusion when I spotted the alternatives of beef & apricot and butternut squash with field mushrooms and butter beans, but after repeating the word ‘sausages’ a few times my head cleared. The sausages are made locally using pork from a farm near Glastonbury and it was a very good stew. It was quite tomato heavy, but the sauce was rich and it was tempered by the smooth, creamy potato and parsnip mash. The parsnip twist was genius as it was a soft flavour and not too overpowering, but definitely added something special to the whole dish. I am not a great lover of outdoor eating in the dead of winter, but this was a particularly mild day, more reminiscent of Autumn, so I squeezed onto a table alongside a couple who were enjoying the beef & apricot stew, despite the chap thinking it was a little too sweet for him. Not everybody does, but I love the mix of sweet and savoury in a stew so I was keen to try this one too, but I didn’t know these nice people well enough to be plunging my spoon into their stew so I carried on enjoying my own meal. The view from my table enhanced the whole experience as whilst I munched away I was looking at a beautiful big Christmas tree decorated with lights whilst Bath Abbey provided the backdrop. Not bad.

I was tempted to try a The Orchard Pig mulled apple juice or cider from the Stew in a Box stall because it smelled terrific, but not being alt that keen on carting around a drink whilst I tried to take photos, I stifled that idea. The hot pumpkin & cheese muffin from the Thoughtful Bread Company also looked very inviting, but I shuffled on. The beautiful wooden chalets came to life when the sun went down with the twinkling lights providing the magic that I was patiently anticipating. There was an abundance of gift stalls including many selling Christmas decorations, children’s toys, ceramics, clothing & jewellery, but I was pretty focussed on the food as ever. I reluctantly passed by the Gascoyne Place wine stall selling wine from the Chateau de la Tuilerie vineyard in France, as I couldn’t bear the thought of carrying clunking bottles of wine around with me for the rest of the day. I entertained the idea briefly and then moved on. You really have to be very strict with yourself at these things. The smell of the Chou Chou nut stand drew me in – there is nothing like the smell of roasting hazelnuts and cashews to draw you across a crowded marketplace – and I made a note to grab some of these caramelised goodies later in the evening. The markets were open until 9pm so there would be plenty of time for me to grab some before I left.

I did manage to pick up a few Christmas presents whilst I was running around following my nose, including making a quick dash to Vinegar Hill, one of my favourite shops in Bath, so it was a very productive day all round. I had a tight schedule to keep to and this included grabbing some Gluhwein from the Green Park Brasserie & Bar stall. Their Bratwurst sausages sounded fabulous – the last time I had one of these from a market stall was at the Eumundi markets near my mother’s house in Queensland and it was incredibly good – but I couldn’t eat another sausage right at that point. Sloshing an open container of Gluhwein whilst trying to elbow your way through thousands of pre-Christmas shoppers is not advised, but it was extremely good and smelled like liquified Christmas so it had to be done. I did wear some of it, but I did smell very Christmassy afterwards. I was on my way to the Hansel & Gretel Strudel Bar nestled in a pedestrian street between The Circus and the Royal Crescent. I had found this place on my last visit to Bath and was determined to seek it out again for some Viennese coffee and cherry strudel, but alas, everybody else in Bath had the same idea and with only around 15 seats in the very compact café I didn’t stand a chance. So, back to the centre of town for some more retail therapy. I will keep the Hansel & Gretal Strudel Bar on my radar and I hope to have a post on this up in the not too distant future. It’s a special place.

After a Christmas apple cocktail in the 1453 bar with a friend, I was ready to get back to the market for one last wander before catching my train home. I felt extremely pleased with my day and ambled around Abbey Green, my favourite area in Bath, mopping up the stalls I hadn’t reached earlier. Regrettably I passed by Suzette’s Pancakes knowing that I wasn’t up to staggering around trying to eat a crepe whilst in transit – I’m not very good at moving and eating. The Cointreau, apricot and cream crepe sounded amazing, but I kept going. Next year I will pace myself a little better. The last stall that took my fancy was the Fussels Fine Foods stall with frontman Andy hard at work after many hours at the helm. I’m sure that many of the stallholders must have been flagging by this point, but they were still admirably upright. The Fussels stall displayed several rapeseed oil products that looked very inviting including Quince & Cider Vinegar dressing, Mint Rapeseed Mayonnaise and Beer & Horseradish sauce. The Beer & Horseradish sauce uses Blindmans Ale which hales from a brewery just down the road from Fussels near Frome in Somerset. I will be seeking out their products soon enough.

The Bath Christmas Markets were everything I had hoped they would be with plenty of quality food and gift stalls. The organisers have done a fantastic job of creating a very continental atmosphere within the stunning, very British setting of Bath (well, Roman/British) and the bewitching ambience hits you the moment you walk through the colonnade from Stall Street – at least this is what angle I came from. For me the only issue was with the volume of people that covered every inch of the city, but with only 2 weeks until Christmas and over a quarter of a million people flooding into Bath each year for this event, it was pretty much expected. I guess clearing the city of people might well have spoiled the atmosphere! It was still very easy to get caught up in the spirit of the occasion and despite my train journey home being disrupted (South West trains don’t do magic) I was still a pretty happy bunny by the time I got home. Next year I might stay over!