“we’re going with the theme of the city” — mama’s girlsBack
There’s a European vibe around some of the colourful food and flower stalls that give the top end of Kirkgate Market it’s overwhelming character, and not long after sitting down there with Chrissy and Isabell of Mama’s Girls Supper Club we’re already on our way to Krakow and Lisbon.
“I’d love to do one in Krakow,” says Chrissy.
“We’re going to Lisbon anyway…” says Isabell.
“Or yeah, Lisbon!” says Chrissy. “Maybe we should do that? We don’t know where we’re staying yet. We should get an Airbnb.”
“Yes! We can do that, definitely.”
“We could do Portuguese tapas. It’s slightly different to your average Spanish tapas, I’m sure. My mum’s been recently and she said it was different.”
“We can find out,” says Isabell. “We’ve got a couple of months for that, anyway.”
Plenty of time… the supper clubs that original Mama’s Girls Chrissy and Liana host with Isabell, usually in one of the three flats they have not-quite-coincidentally bought within pot-watching distance of each other in Armley, happen monthly; and they don’t always have to happen in Armley. Mama’s Girls’ Paris edition combined a visit to friends with a rented Airbnb apartment and an attempt to cook a traditional Yorkshire menu using Parisian ingredients.
“I got there, and in my mind was the idea that I was going to make Yorkshire pudding,” says Chrissy. “Not knowing what we had in this little kitchen that we’d never seen before. To nobody’s surprise there was no Yorkshire pudding tin, so we ended up doing it French buffet style, trying to make a cheese and wine night that was as Yorkshire as possible.”
“We just winged it on creativity,” says Isabell.
Cooking Yorkshire in Paris was a natural challenge to a supper club that when it hosts at home cooks French; or Greek, or Spanish, or Cantonese, or Japanese. It’s an exploration of food styles, that:
“Starts with a bit of interest initially, then a bit of curiosity,” says Chrissy. “Then inviting people to eat and critique the food, and finding out that maybe we did something wrong, and then getting a bit obsessed with the need to improve…
“You learn about the ingredients and where to source them, and a bit about the country, and it generally gives you more ideas about what to eat for your tea.”
“Some things we end up eating all the time,” says Isabell, “Because they become really easy to cook and it’s a normal thing. It takes you out of your comfort zone a bit, and there’s so much international food available.”
In the strips of streets and shops of Leeds between the big chain supermarkets are a wealth of international supermarkets and delis, and evolving with glorious and untidy uproar in the most Victorian quarter of Leeds city centre, Kirkgate Market is a daily conference of international influences.
“I think in Leeds particularly, more than other cities, there are so many places to get ingredients that are a bit unusual,” says Chrissy. “Or maybe I’m just biased to Leeds. I often say to my mum that I’m doing this and cooking that and she’s like, where the hell do you get that from? How do you get those ingredients?
“I’ve found that when I’ve come into the market and, for example, when I’ve been buying fish, I’ve told them what I need and then they’ve guessed the recipe. When I was getting ingredients for a paella for Spanish night they said, ‘Oh, are you doing a paella?’ and I said well, actually, yeah! And the fishmonger goes:
“‘Well. This is what you need for your stock. Get a pair of old tights’ – I was like, bloody hell, alright – ‘and get this bag of fish guts. Put it in the tights, soak it for hours in this pan – sorted.’ Best fish stock ever!
“I love the market. You just get these added tips. I love it. The olive stall – best place to get olives. The fish stalls are always really interactive. And going down into the veg area – have you ever been? Isn’t it just the most fun ever? They pretty much throw things at you!”
“I think it was the fruit and veg guy that’s across from the fish,” says Isabell. “I went the other day and said, I’m cooking this salad, and I needed these peas, and he said – ‘They’re out of season love, you can’t get them. But what about this?’ And we made up a whole different salad on the spot at the fruit and veg stall.”
At about this point Come Dine With Me is mentioned, and although Isabell tries to conceal the false start of a thought with laughter, she eventually confesses.
“I’ve thought about going on it but my answer to myself is always no. But I sometimes… sometimes if I come to the market to cook then in my head as I walk around I’m like, right, so this is how it’d be if I was on Come Dine With Me.
“But then if they filmed me cooking at home they’d see me get halfway through cooking and be like, I think I’m just going to the gym now. It’s so sporadic the way I cook, I’ll start this now and then hoover up or paint the ceilings and then come back to it. I couldn’t go on, I’d be portrayed as crazy.”
Isabell and Chrissy are confident Mama’s Girls will be a well-run and slick operation when it moves up and into Kirkgate Market itself and becomes a pop-up Polish Milk Bar as part of Leeds Indie Food Festival. One of the lesser-known spots off the balcony in the historic 1904 hall will be transformed into a bar mleczny for the occasion, and serve as the backdrop for a Mama’s Girls- style exploration of Polish cuisine, using ingredients sourced in the market.
Mleczny’ translates literally but not practically as ‘milk’, but a Polish Milk Bar is more about ethos than dairy produce; established in Warsaw in 1896, around the same time as swank expansion brought a glazed and domed roof to Kirkgate’s Market halls, Milk Bars became popular through Poland and for much of the twentieth century were subsidised by the government as a way of providing cheap, nourishing and tasty food for the workers.
“We’ve both been to Krakow fairly recently and there are loads of Milk Bars,” says Chrissy. “They were a place where people could go and get a decent meal out and a community chat and a bit of fun, to feel better over a soup. Now they’re in really good locations in Krakow and have taken on more of a student hangout vibe; they’ve got a bit cool as well as being cheap. They’re really nice places to hang out, so we thought, let’s try and recreate that.
“We saw on Instagram that Leeds Indie Food were looking for supper clubs to get involved, so I emailed them and they got back straight away to say they had this place in the market and I just thought, that’d be epic.
“We were going to do a Milk Bar as part of our own supper club but I couldn’t think of a better opportunity than to do it here – and there are loads of places in the market that have amazing ingredients for Polish cuisine.”
“We’ve been practising,” says Isabell. “We’ve been trying it on anyone who’ll eat any! We’re going to do pierogi, some different soups and stews, some krokiety, those are pancakes that have fillings in that you fry, loads of different side dishes, Polish salads – and all our ingredients will be sourced from the market.”
“Because it’s such an amazing venue we’ve tried to make it a little bit special,” says Chrissy. “I’ve got a friend who does a supper club just with alcohol called Vanity Project, so he’s going to be there doing Polish cocktails – we’ll have a fusion of vodka and food, which is how Polish people do it. The Milk Bar look is net curtains so you can’t really see in, a bit secretive, a bit steamy – but we’re going to try and make it cute at the same time. Fairy lights, a little bit of atmosphere, doilies everywhere. And aprons! We aim to be glamorous hosts, so if you just imagine that in your head then that’s what we’ll be.”
“It’s great that it’s going to be part of Leeds Indie Food,” says Isabell. “I personally want Leeds Indie Food to be really good, and for people to be talking about it and for it to happen again, so I want us to be a part of that.”
The Milk Bar will be different to the Mama’s Girls at home supper club experience, but will take the same core values of experimentation and fun to a larger scale and to new guests.
“We make it clear to people finding Mama’s Girls through the Facebook group that it’s always about a new cuisine that we’re trying, so coming down to see what you think and critiquing it is all part of the experience,” says Chrissy. “People know that we’re beginners in that particular cuisine, but they also know that we have experience of cooking different things and that it’s something we’re passionate about. And I think that’s reflected in the punters that we get.
“We have regular faces coming back, and we are planning on taking it up a notch and getting a bit more serious with the dishes; as we get more experience we’ll probably make it a bit more professional. I definitely want to try the supper club in other venues and hear about different spaces we could do it in, and maybe even one day have a business doing this.”
While it remains a bit of fun, on the side of lives spent juggling an HR job and part-time postgraduate degree (Isabell), and a PhD and organising charity art events at White Cloth Gallery (Chrissy), Mama’s Girls is also already plugged into the international life of the city, not only among the stalls of the market, but in the network of ex-pat groups and meetings and supper clubs of which Mama’s Girls – Isabell and Chrissy both audibly Yorkshire; Liana, absent today, from Romania – form a part.
“There are almost too many groups to keep up with!” says Chrissy. “It’s hard to keep on top of them all. Aperitivo is really good, at Primo behind the station. There was a French speaking club where we made a lot of friends. Liana goes to a lot of dance groups, and there are things like Greeks in Leeds where people can meet if they’re new to the city.”
“There’s InterNations too, which is an international meet-up group for ex-pats living in different cities around the world,” says Isabell. “You can apply to be part of it and they hook you up with other people who are new to a city. Obviously we’re not, we’re just from Yorkshire!”
‘Just’ being from Yorkshire is a changing concept, reflected in the people and the food and the stalls and the shops in the streets and in Kirkgate Market, and being Loiners among the ex-pats community isn’t unusual.
“We travel a lot as a duo,” says Chrissy, “But the groups are just like being abroad when we’re still at home. What could be better?
“I think Leeds is like that in general recently, and in food specifically, all sorts of cuisines are popping up left, right and centre. We’re just going with the theme of the city.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 23