Seasonal Fairs were traditionally an important means of selling and buying produce from the surrounding countryside, hiring workers for the coming season and for socialising and celebrating. Given that most roads were not much more than dirt tracks it was important that the fairs took place before the roads became muddy and impassable in the winter. Many towns had several fairs and we can see their roots in shows and fairs that still take place today – the Newark County Show held in May was originally a hiring fair for farmers to take on agricultural workers for the coming summer, and Nottingham’s Goose Fair still to this day takes place around Michaelmas, at the beginning of October.
Nottingham’s Goose Fair is over 700 years old and is the oldest and largest travelling Fair in the country. It is now, of course, solely a fun fair but originally Geese were driven from Norfolk and Lincolnshire to Nottingham for sale. Geese are at their best at this time of year, and have always been the traditional dish of Michaelmas (See my “Stubble Goose” post). By the 18th Century Cheese had replaced Geese as the main commodity for sale at the Fair. “Trent Side Cheese” was in great demand and in 1766 with prices rising beyond the means of the many…..
“the Goose Fair was the occasion of a great cheese riot…Stalls were attacked and ransacked and cheese distributed to the crowd. Being Barrel-shaped they could easily be rolled and soon they were being propelled down Wheeler Gate and Peck Lane. The Mayor, trying desperately to intervene, stood in the middle of Peck Lane, only to be knocked over by an accelerating cheese”
(this quote is attributed to “Beckett” and is requoted in the Cheese Riots Pamphlet by the Nottingham and Notts Radical History Group)
In “Our Local Food, Past and Present” Angela Geary quotes a Mrs Anne Gilbert as recalling that in the 1830s when the Goose Fair was still held in the Market Square in the city centre, Michaelmas Geese were on sale along the street now known as the Poultry and many stalls sold local Nottingham products, such as lace, hosiery and liquorice (which was grown in large amounts in the Park Valley), hot peas, tripe and onions, faggots, pies and gingerbread.
Gingerbread is still associated with Goose Fair although some recipes are for more of a gingerbread biscuit and some for a gingerbread cake. My own associations are a sticky, warming ginger cake that coated your fingers and stuck to the paper bag.