New in town
January 5th, 2018. The opening of a new market hall in Cologne, Germany. Renate & Ulrich Engels a couple living since a long time in the neighborhood took on the challenge to create something new in the area: “Markthalle Belgisches Viertel“. Several years of struggling to get all the permits and the renovation of an existing structure, finding the right people, “just” to make a dream come true. The couple does not belong to the classic start up generation from an age perspective and therefore I am stunned by their willingness to take on this risk. They transformed their passion for the markets in France and elsewhere into something beautiful.
The market hall caters rather for the neighborhood (“Veedel” as it is called in Cologne) then the “whole” city. It is a place for food, produce and meeting neighbors, producers and other people, not huge but big enough.
It is difficult to compare it with other market halls. Most of the other ones like the one in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Budapest, Athens or Cork are well established, partly with generations of traders. The Rotterdam one has an incredible architecture, but still has to find its true character beyond being an attraction. The Markthalle 9 in Berlin is probably the one which comes closest, but the Markthalle Belgisches Viertel is more embedded in the surrounding culture and way of living.
What surprised me when I entered the building: I felt immediately comfortable. Everything is nicely put together and makes you feel that the market had been around for a while and got its “patina“, the sign of real life. There is lots of room for individualism, each stall – and there are only 10 – is different, nothing is standardized. The baker lady has chosen a pale yellow, a painful decision for some people. The butcher shop opposite is very modern: lots of glass for transparency, no hiding of the crafted meat. The chairs and tables on the lower floor are all different, the tables as well. The bar of the restaurant has been decorated by a local graffiti artist – he has now free espresso until …
Giving every trader his freedom to design his/her shop as desired, needed to be balanced with requirements of the other ones, not an easy task for the couple. And indeed the challenges were not only on the bureaucratic side – German construction laws have a reputation of their own – or dealing with craftsmen in times of construction boom. Finding the right shop owners was the toughest part according to Mr. Engels. As the concept is based on true individuals or characters who know their products, franchises were not aimed for. And not every entrepreneur has the capacity to serve the market six days a week for 10 hours daily. And indeed the guy who was suppose to take over the restaurant canceled it shortly before the opening. But improvisation turned out well: for the first days some pop restaurant folks from Cologne took over and served great street food (to my delight: no burgers, they have turned from my perspective to a plague in Germany).
Chatting with the traders
Mrs. & Mr. Engels truly chose individuals with a passion for their products. It was fun chatting with each of them, they were so eager to explain their offering, providing samples and giving advice on how to use them. Each producer had its own style.
The baker lady with her down to earth shop explained in details her breads based on a 47 year old sourdough – mine being only a couple months old, I felt sort of young again. Coming from an area where I believe some of the best bread is being made, I was pleased with her rye bread.
I was happy to meet the wine maker who remembered me from another event. He was the one who told me about this market hall and is therefore responsible for this post. Unfortunately I was not in the mood to drink some wine. But he was also offering some fermented veggies from Mrs. Avci. She explained the process of fermentation as I wanted to understand a bit the hype around it as I observe it in some foodie segments outside Germany. We are used to sauerkraut but not much more. Try it and also her small batch Kombucha which she produces with a partner.
Mrs. Collin who runs the French cheese shop (nice selection) told me how she got into the business. She met her French husband at a university in France, but as she was the first to find a job, they moved to Germany and soon her husband, a former shepherd started the cheese business. She will continue running the market hall shop, whereas he is handling the one at the Carlsplatz market in Düsseldorf. Not an easy life. And I have to thank her eternally for connecting me to Mr. Engels. I learned a lot from him about running such a place.
The young hunter & butcher Lappen & Prengel was hyper this day. He was walking around in the hall looking at the people, serving and telling everybody about his meat and sausages with endless energy. He takes a lot of pride in the animals he hunts or sources and the transparency in the butchering process he tries to achieve. Visitors of the market hall can even the see the meat stored on hooks behind a glass window, the sausages are made in front of everybody – great approach to promote crafted meat. I bought for the first time some kidneys. I was surprised to see how many people suddenly became interested in it and one lady from Bavaria shared her recipe with me – gorgeous result. As the young owner butchers only a few animals per week you have to hurry to get them.
Lucy Barré who owns with her husband a French pastry shop did not have a fixed stall so far, which I hope will change soon. Despite being close to delivery she chose to be at the opening of the market hall. I am very grateful for that as she was selling true Galette des Rois (King cake). It is a puff pastry filled with an almond paste and somewhere hidden is a tiny porcelain figurine. The person who discovers it in his piece of the cake becomes the king of the day and gets a golden paper crown. I bought one as my childhood memories popped up, unfortunately I did not become the king when we ate it. Anyway, Mrs. Barré might be a mother by now, I wish her and her child all the best.
No market hall nowadays without a food place. The folks from Dreigang (three course in German) who were only here as a stand in, usually work as a supper club. They loved the open kitchen as they prefer to work in direct contact with the customers. I took advantage of it. My detailed questions about the business were appreciated (or tolerated?) and I learned not only how to produce rosemary syrup but also about the advantages of such a business being different to running a restaurant.
With all the discussions I had, especially with Mr. Engels, I gained a lot of respect on what it means to set up and run the market, the individual shops. And what it means to orchestrate the unbelievable magnitude of details to make it a success for the customers, the traders and the owners. It is a steep learning curve for everybody. I am very curious on how the market hall will develop, which traders will sustain the long working hours and how this place will develop to the place to meet your neighbors. There is enough space, even for events to bring people together.
All in all: Go for the Markthalle Belgisches Viertel in Cologne, it is a place where you will feel comfortable, get to know the neighborhood and eat & buy get great products as well.
A little link list (mostly in German):
- The official website
- The market hall on Facebook
- The hunter & butcher Lappen & Prengel
- The French pastry shop
- The bakery
- The hip guys from the IMI winery
- The fermented vegetables producer
- French cheese shop
- The pop-up restaurant folks
- A short report on TV (min 4:00)
- My other posts on markets in Cologne
Most producers have also a Facebook presence.