It has been an epic journey across time and space and I’m understandably nervous when I encounter a scribbled sign at the picket gate into the Brewery of St Mars of the Desert. Private function today? Shut by Covid scare?
Phew. ‘Please don’t let Grimbold the dog out’ with a silhouette of the jet black bundle of fun I get to pat once I step across the ‘Welcome To Mars’ threshold. Fun is a good word, indeed, for everything that greets me inside this colourful cottage of a taproom. My benchmate, who budges up for me, recommends the ‘SMODFEST’ Festbier for its soft maltiness, continental hop character and absence of excess carbonation that can bedevil a lager.
OK, I’ve made him more eloquent than he was. Yet it is a great introduction to SMOD, who specialise in “hoppy koelship beers, foeder-soured stingos, rustic lagers, deep malty dark beers and Benelux-inspired creations”, according to their website. Koelship? Pronounced cool ship, it’s a long, slender, open top stainless steel vessel akin to those traditional Flemish/Dutch koelschips, originally made of wood, whose high surface-to-mass ratio allows for more efficient cooling of the wort in the brewing process. Won’t go into more detail – this is a nerd-free zone.
It’s the centrepiece of a modest scale brewing operation behind the taproom, where SMOD co-owners Dann Paquette and Martha Simpson-Holley, plus apprentice Scarlet, produce some splendidly niche and nuanced beers in the old industrial district of Attercliffe, surrounded by ranks of contemporary factories/depots.
Not the easiest place to get to, hence my ‘epic journey’ lead-off. On my last adventure in Sheffield my last port of call was meant to be here but my phone charge went dead and no local could guide me, even though I was within a couple of hundred metres. Even this this time, on a trek from a tram halt, I feel rudderless.
Once I arrive, then, I am in no hurry to leave, sampling in turn Clamp Koelship IPA, hazy and hoppy yet like all the beers very clean, Koel It! Jingly Bells, all my Christmases come early with oodles of hops married to a festive fruitiness and, finally, The Battle of Frogs and Mice, Dann and Martha’s ‘tribute to the original craft brewers of Belgium’. Artisan or what?
At 8 per cent, Frogs, a dark special brune, outmuscles the 6.3 per cent Mice, a Flanders golden bitter, but it is also smoother, fruitier and more complex. According to the SMOD beer menu it is “brewed with a recreation of the water profile of West Flanders”. Now that is an attention to detail.
Bizarrely, when the globally influential RateBeer site announced its 10 Best New Breweries in the World 2020, two of the three British breweries named had this Belgian resonance (SMOD and, understandably, Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire) and two had American founders/brewers (SMOD and Suffolk’s Duration, incidentally many of whose ales are farmhouse and saison, too).
Bostonian Dann met North Yorkshire lass Martha across the Pond and the pair ran the acclaimed Pretty Things brewery for eight years before embarking on peripatetic journeys across Asia and Europe. Along the way they fell in love with a smallholding near a village called Saint-Mars-du-Désert in France’s Pays de la Loire region, named after an eighth century hermit.
Maybe but for the prospect of Brexit they might have set up there; after considering Leeds and Manchester they went for Sheffield and took the monastic moniker with them. After all it was monks who first consolidated the brewing industry.
The pair’s fascinating story is recounted in a Pellicle online magazine piece by Matt Curtis, ‘Everything in its right place’ and SMOD is a featured brewery in his recently published Modern British Beer (CAMRA Books, £15.99). Read my review here.
It’s not just about the beer, though. The taproom faithful are a civilised lot, Dann and Martha host it all with real warmth and Grimbold is irrepressible.
St Mars had been on my radar since its inception in 2018. My yearning to visit has since become a catalyst for discovering a Sheffield beyond my Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker affiliations. This time around I was smitten by the diversity and raw vitality of The Moor Market and found Cutlery Works the most relaxing street food hall I’ve ever visited.
THE MOOR MARKET
Chicken livers, gizzards and hearts are all the same price – 90p a pound. The adjacent pig’s feet are priceless (in a nose to tail photoshoot way). Across the aisle a specialist Persian food stall offers ingredients I’ve only ever read about in Sabrina Ghayour or Yasmin Khan. On one fish stall I encounter a sturdy carp, not seen on most slabs. There is tripe and various intestinal siblings, feathered, ungutted game birds and a whole, skinned rabbit still defrosting I enquire about, to be told “it’s French, farmed, you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for the English, wild, fresh.” I loved all this from the moment I walked into find a fine bottle shop, Beer Central, to welcome me.
The building is less than a decade old, cost £18m and includes 200 market stalls and eight shops. Situated off a pedestrian precinct rammed with every high street name you can think of, what a relief to discover this haven of independent traders, offering an affordable, browsable, diverse alternative to control freak supermarkets.
Its main northern rival, Leeds Market, benefits from its Victorian monumentality and better dining-in opportunities, but Sheffield’s really is hard to beat. Obviously not in comparison with the great markets of Spain, Barcelona’s Boqueria or Valencia’s Modernista-style Mercado Central. They reflect a whole different food culture. It has been interesting, though, to tick off across the Iberian peninsula the rise of markets morphing into food halls – in Bilbao, Madrid, Seville and notably Lisbon’s waterfront Time Out Market.
That Lisbon operation is a showcase for the city’s Michelin-starred chefs. Sheffield’s stand-out food hall is an altogether more modest affair despite its claims to be the North’s largest. Set in a converted cutlery factory, in the post-industrial corridor that stretches out from Kelham Island, Cutlery Works offers 13 different vendors across two floors, ranging from China Red’s Szechuan sizzlers to chocolate counter Bullion and coffee roasters Foundry, taking in Thai, pizza, fried chicken, burgers, sushi and Mexican along the way.
Foundry provide bottomless batch coffee for freelancers taking advantage between 9am and 5pm of designated co-working spaces with plug sockets and 10 per cent food discounts. All very cool and relaxing in my mid-afternoon slot, it lacked the buzz of Manchester’s Mackie Mayor, which I still love – despite my general weariness with the whole food hall experience.
The Guardian restaurant critic Grace Dent summed it up nicely: “I need to ask a very honest question here: are food halls ever a truly satisfying dining experience? I’ve no doubt they seem so on paper and in the marketing meetings, they’re fantastic for filling old, unloved but historically important spaces and they’re good news for downward-spiralling city centres. Yet in reality they’re noisy, unrelaxing and the food is often patchy, with the occasional gem hidden among the colossal choice of menus.”
That was in last month’s review of the GPO in Liverpool, as the name suggests, a post office repurposed into a food hall. She was unimpressed by Nama, a Japanese small fish plates counter, created by Luke French and Stacey Sherwood-French of Sheffield big hitter Jöro (my restaurant review here), who have also transferred their other new venture Konjö.
The original of this Korean-influenced, fire-based “Robatayaki” Kitchen was my choice at Cutlery Works. It’s the first vendor on the left as you reach the first floor – preferable to the ground floor if only because it boasts the proper craft beer bar, Boozehound.
I spent £30 at Konjö, mainly because I over-ordered in my eagerness (and a desire for ballast ahead of my beer destination). Don’t expect a spin-off from Jöro down the road. There’s no comparable finesse. And yet my combo was hugely enjoyable. A duck bao was basically a take on the old Peking/hoisin sauce stalwart while chilli beef was sticky and punchy. Sides of subtle kimchi and refreshing sesame greens provided perfect balance ahead of my journey to Mars.
Brewery of Saint Mars of the Desert, 90 Stevenson Rd, Sheffield S9 3XG. The taproom is normally open Fridays and Saturdays 2pm-8pm.
Cutlery Work, 73-101 Neepsend Lane, Neepsend, Sheffield S3 8AT. Open Sunday-Thursday, 10am-10pm; Friday-Saturday 10am-11pm.