Skippy burgers and continental flavour unexpected hits at Belfast Christmas fair


THE MEATS of the World shack at the bustling Belfast Christmas market in the grounds of City Hall does a roaring trade in burgers of the unexpected kind. A sign advertises kangaroo, wild boar, venison, ostrich and springbok burgers. They are clean out of alligator at the moment, says Tara Watson, who runs the stall with her husband.

According to Watson, when the stall first arrived locals were wary of tucking into a Skippy quarter pounder. “Now we have people who come every day. We’ve even had vegetarians trying the burgers,” she says, doling out exotic meats to a steady queue. Local Ben Townsley (18) was enjoying some wild boar, having already tried the others a few times. “It’s nice, yeah, really meaty. The only one I didn’t like was the ostrich one,” he says.

This is the sixth year of the Christmas market, which is the largest of its kind on this island and brings an estimated €28 million to the city. The market, with traders from 27 countries including Peru, Russia, Kenya, Poland and Thailand, is, according to organiser Alan Hartwell of Market Place Europe, the third biggest continental market in the UK after Birmingham and Manchester.

On a cold winter’s day, your eyes half closed, clutching a hot chocolate and listening to the patter of George the Greek – who, by the way, does a great line in smoked garlic and taramasalata – you could be at a Christmas market anywhere in continental Europe.

While it feels authentic, some of the stalls set this market apart. Cork-born Aaron Leach won his place here through First Pitch Plus, an annual contest that provides one local business with a free stall at Christmas and a space at the city’s famous George’s Market for a year.

Leach, from Islandmagee near Larne, Co Antrim, is an artist blacksmith. At his stall, which includes a forge, he is busy all day with his anvil, hammer and tongs working on both commissioned pieces and his passion: barbecues inspired by Japanese food culture. “It’s functional art,” he says. The most expensive of these is £2,500 but he has unique Christmas tree decorations and beautiful copper spoons from £6.

Stalls feature everything from decorations and Peruvian jumpers to Dutch flowers and Russian dolls, but really it’s all about the food. Welsh hog roast, Italian chocolates, French tarts, Belgian waffles and South American churros are on offer.

When the shopping and eating get too much, visitors can choose between a German beer keller and an impressive reproduction of local hostelry Lavery’s pub, where skeins can be supped and cigarettes smoked in the beer garden.

About a million visitors, mostly from Northern Ireland, are expected to have passed through the market before its four-week run ends on December 19th, but traders are keen to welcome those from further afield. “Can you please place a large ad in your paper and tell the people of southern Ireland to come to Belfast?” says Drexel Gillespie, who is selling his wife’s handmade soaps on a busy stall. Gillespie will be at the craft fair in Dublin at the weekend, in case you like your soap filled with essential oils and looking good enough to eat.

“I think there are still serious misperceptions about this wonderful city for obvious reasons,” he says. “Some people think it’s still a demolition site and that we are still rebuilding it. The people from the Republic who have visited the market say they are having a great time here and I hope more of them will come. If they don’t, it’s their loss.”