Melbourne's Markets

By Larissa Dubecki

The fresh food market is the engine room of any food culture. It’s a place where seasonality isn’t just a vague rumour but witnessed each day on the stands, where consumers can interact directly with producers and where a palpable connection to the land trumps the supermarket’s impersonal plastic curtain.

Melbourne’s oldest, Prahran Market stretches back to 1891 when it opened on its Commercial Road site but like any authentic place to shop and eat it’s an ongoing project. It’s a foodie hub of gourmand proportions where consumers can geek out on exotic fungi at Damien Pike Mushroom Man or eat the world’s best cheese toastie at Maker & Monger – or, if you’re Nick Stanton, the owner and chef behind Chapel Street’s Ramblr, where you go to hand-select the best pears for a tarte tatin.

“You can’t just order them from a supplier because they have to be exactly right – really firm and the right size. I always really enjoy going and doing it myself.

Ramblr is part of the Chapel Street and Prahran renaissance that has seen the neighbourhood’s resurgence as the home of forward-thinking restaurants such as Wilson & Market and Neptune, their success emblematic of a thriving dining precinct driven, in part, by the market’s halo effect. “It’s the proximity of a hub that draws food people into the area. The market’s great for us all,” says Stanton. “Not just because it’s easy to go and grab stuff when we need it but just because it’s there.”

Tony Tan knows a thing or two about the joys of the bustling market where even for a chef and food educator surprises lurk in unexpected corners. The author of newly released Hong Kong Food City first visited Box Hill market “15 or 20 years ago” (yes, he’s a little fuzzy on the details) and has since visited most weekends when he’s in Melbourne.

“It was somehow all Chinese but now thanks to the huge levels of Chinese settling in the area it’s more so than ever. It’s like going to Hong Kong, it’s quite staggering.”

Tan has his favourites. Yang Yang Chinese grocer “where you can get virtually anything you want”, the huge array of Chinese greens everywhere and the sheng jian bao –“Like a fried gyoza, really lovely with red rice vinegar” at Food Republic. His advice: “Just go, switch on your Sino-dar and follow your nose”.

“The beauty of Box Hill market is that it’s so very Asian. if you want to cook Asian it’s the place to go. Every so often I walk in and find a made in China ingredient that I haven’t seen before. One was a member of the cabbage family, I don’t know its English or Chinese name but that’s the sort of thing that’s made it into mainstream shopping now.”

One of chef Scott Pickett’s first memories is of having a bratwurst with his father at the Queen Victoria Market. The owner of ESP, Esetlle Bistro and Saint Crispin has had a lifelong love affair with the market, culminating with opening Pickett’s Deli 18 months ago.

“I still go for a bratwurst. The same shop, third on the right in the deli hall.”

“The market has been part of my life. Even as kids we’d go a couple of times a month. It’s good to get out of the restaurant to get inspiration; you see the seasons.”

One of the thrills for Pickett of having his own market shop is the interaction with regular customers. “Being in an environment like the market, you get to see first-hand that people really are creatures of habit. We’re becoming part of the weekly routine and daily life. It’s a beautiful thing.”