Monday, March 30, 2015

Farmers Market Review: Flemington Street Market - Melbourne, Australia


Nibbling Around Melbourne and Tasmania 
I visited as many farmers markets as I could during our three-week stay in Australia. Markets are one of the best ways to glimpse a place and its culture, meet its people, and learn its history. What we saw during our short time was not only mouth-watering, but utterly thrilling. As we toured the Queen Victoria Market, arguably Melbourne’s most famous and oldest market, I learned that the first vendors were English with their meat pies, quickly followed by Germans and an assortment of Europeans with cheese and heavy breads. Then came a wave of Greeks and Italians with their spicy lamb and espresso machines, respectively. Then Middle Easterners arrived, bringing the glories of hummus and tabouleh with them. The pure joy of finding myself in such a glorious melting pot, surrounded by the buffet of history, is nearly indescribable. Melbourne is literally the most deliciously intriguing place I have been in a long time. 

With that in mind, I’m writing up a series of reviews of the markets. There were more farmers markets than I could get to, although heaven knows if Melbourne asked me to come back and cover every last one, I would do so in a heart beat. (Melbourne, please see my About Me page for my email. I’m there if you need me. - JB)

Tasmania, frankly, was no less delicious, and reviews of the markets I was able to attend there will also appear here. I can say I met some passionate growers and producers at those markets, had terrific conversations, and caught a glimpse of a growing community that is going to be exciting to keep tabs on in the future. And the food - from sausages to beets to yogurt to bread to cheese to a glorious array of apples and pies both savory and sweet - was even better. We are already planning a trip back. 


Flemington's sign of great things come to pass.
Set on the grounds of Mount Alexander College for the last six years, the Flemington Street Market bills itself as Melbourne’s only year-round weekly market. Visitors stepping through the gate will find a parade of seasonal and perennial items: seedlings, meats, a variety of excellent baked goods, and enough fruits and vegetables (fresh along with dried and otherwise preserved or prepared) to settle the week’s menu. The majority of the roughly 60 vendors appeared to be organic growers and producers or use organic, Australia-grown ingredients whenever possible. Some, like Shuki and Louisa and their fantastic variety of hummuses, are regulars at the Slow Food Market Melbourne at Abbotsford Convent, too, which I saw as testament to a strong entrepreneurial spirit and the quality of this market.

"Rain, schmain," says Melbourne.
Peninsula Fresh Organics sported full tables of three kinds of kale, two types of chard, four varieties of lettuces and whole fennel. The Mushroom Company offered nine kinds of fungus for our dining pleasure, and Happy Fruit offered a predominantly Australian-grown compendium of naturally sweet delights. The Five and Dime Bagel Company was doing a bit of grassroots work outside of their usual location in Melbourne in Katherine Place, as was Sourdough Kitchen. We did manage to go home with a loaf of the latters hazelnut and beetroot bread because it sounded too good not to buy. Sourdough’s Alex started his working life as a teacher, but a tough job market ten years ago inspired him to dabble in the art of raising natural yeast. As I watched the loaves disappearing from the table it appeared he’d found an appreciative audience for his work.

The famous beetroot and hazelnut from Sourdough Kitchen. 
“You get to know your customers, develop relationships. I’ve watched kids grow up,” said Noell, another baker I stopped to chat with. I’d spotted a dark and dense loaf of rye sourdough on an earlier pass, but I held to my rule to make a lap before shopping. This was one of the few occasions where the rule let me down. “You just missed it,” he said with a sad smile and offered me a sample of his regular sourdough as consolation. 

I wandered on to find John Howell, the fourth generation of his family to work that land. “One hundred sixty years,” he told me in that same modest yet prideful matter-of-fact way all farmers have: shoulders going a bit straighter, blue eyes in a tanned face leveling at me as though daring me to dispute it. I nodded. Through those eyes I saw all those people who came before, his leather bush hat slightly askew, chin strap pulled tight and firm.

John Howell and his extraordinary apples.
“You get what you get right from the tree here,” he said, bagging up some hail-damaged Bosc Pears for me as we talked about the difference between markets and consumers in Australia and Japan. (Those pears would never even make it to a chokubaijo, much less a market. The compost heap would be their home.)

When I told John about my search for the Snow White - a rich red apple I remembered from my Wisconsin childhood that fits neatly in the hand with flesh so white it hurts the eye and a flavor so tart it tingles - he leaned forward, listening carefully, mentally scrolling through his orchard for a match. He cut a Gravenstein, a small apple with a skin gradually turning green to red, for me to try, but it wasn't quite right. He narrowed his eyes then, gazing at the apples, tanned hand on the wood box in front of him and said, “I think they are your apple. They’ve just been picked a bit too soon.” I bought two for lunch.

Two in the hand...Pastry Lounge's sweet delights.
The Pastry Lounge offered a table full of scrumptious looking meat pies and delectable sweets. Their classic tart, Citrus and Passion Fruit, was already sold out, so I opted for Sticky Date and Walnut along with Gin and Lime. Lemon, custard, chocolate and apple and almond were also on hand. Started about 14 years ago by my young clerk’s mother and a few friends, they branched into finger foods about eight years ago. If they are half as good as the tarts I sampled, I believe their future will be deliciously successful.

Breakfast under the tree.
Of course, since it’s Melbourne there’s good coffee to be had, too. A food truck parked under the big tree at one end of the market serves piping hot breakfasts that can be enjoyed at tables spread out in the shade. Rain or shine, the Flemington Market is a gem worth searching out.

Every Sunday
Mount Alexander College
9am to 1pm

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