Sunday, 29 May 2011

STALL GIFTS - The Australian Weekend Magazine 28.5.11

By Rebecca Puddy

AS the sun rises over Adelaide, chefs scour the Central Market for fresh produce brought direct from the state's market gardens, fisheries and slaughterhouses. A few hours later, families, singles, couples and the elderly converge, stocking up for their home-cooked dinners.

The market’s appeal is hard to pinpoint – it’s an aromatic, noisy, bustling collection of stalls in a cavernous shed with bitumen floors. Sampling steaming hot artisan sourdough bread straight out of the oven, Korean black garlic and fluffy Woodside goat’s cheese wrapped in flower petals are just some of the experiences it offers. For many South Australians it is hallowed ground, a vital part of the city’s cultural heritage.

Mark Gleeson, a retired chef, gazes out at the shoppers from his specialty pastry stall with a cheeky smile. A passionate advocate of the market, he has developed a side business of Central Market tours to introduce tourists and locals to its culinary treasures. “It’s all about understanding the diversity and getting to know the stories of the people who work here,” Gleeson says. “I like to show people what the markets are really about.”

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The Adelaide institution began at 3am on a January morning in 1869 when a group of market gardeners, escorted by a school band, made their way to the city to sell their produce. It has now grown to become one of the largest undercover markets in the southern hemisphere; there were nearly eight and a half million visits by customers last year. The produce stalls are cherished by food connoisseurs, with patrons including culinary identities Matt Moran, Maggie Beer and Cheong Liew.

Over its 142-year existence the market has diversified in line with the state’s migration patterns, and is now a microcosm of South Australian culture. European migrants now own the older stalls, selling meats, fruit and vegetables, and imported delicacies. Newer arrivals include a Moroccan spice stall, Korean sushi house and a Russian-Chinese café.

Moroccan migrant Anouar Senah, whose stall has been open for two months, is the most recent arrival. His shelves are filled with fragrant spices imported from the Middle East to make the classic spice mix ras el hanout. Bright yellow preserved lemons bought from neighbours who grow them in their backyards nestle in large glass jars on the counter.

“I mainly stock South Australian food, with the exception of the spices you can only get from the Middle East,” Senah says. “Since I started here, I’ve had lots of customers who are interested and asking about Moroccan food and how to cook it.”

Over time, the market has adapted to changing Australian culinary tastes, introducing specialty stores, organic produce and a greater range of international foods. While diets are becoming more adventurous, the market still focuses mainly on farm produce, with fruit and vegetable stalls and butchers remaining market mainstays.

One of the most successful traders in the market is Richard Gunner, who farms his acclaimed Coorong Angus Beef and Pure Suffolk Lamb on South Australia’s southeast coast and sells it in his shop Feast! Fine Foods. While he sells only a fifth of his meat through Feast! – the remainder is sold through retail wholesalers and interstate – he considers his stall a cornerstone of his success.

“It’s the most visited tourist destination in South Australia so it serves as a showcase for our product to interstate markets,” Gunner says. “Through our customer base we also see trends emerging and we can talk to them and get really good feedback.” His business plan has clearly worked, with his succulent meat gracing the tables of some of Australia’s top restaurants, including Neil Perry’s Rockpool chain.

“I wish Sydney had something like Adelaide’s market,” says Perry, “because young aspiring cooks and young chef’s apprentices can go into the market and really get a daily feel of seasonality and beautiful fresh produce, and that’s an important part of growing as a cook. We’ve seen – with farmers’ markets springing up around the country – that people come there because they want to stay in contact with where their food is from.”

Simon Bryant, from ABC-TV’s The Cook and the Chef, says the market is unlike any other in Australia. “I think our market is unique because we have such diversity of climate, so the produce that is South Australian in the market is incredibly diverse – from the Asian greens grown on the Adelaide plains to the saltbush meats from way out in Burra,” he says. “The Queen Victoria Market [in Melbourne] is great, but I just think South Australia has this little bit of an advantage. I’ve travelled a lot and this is unique. It’s up there with the best markets in the world.”

Fruit and veg stall House of Organics has identified consumers’ desire to know more about the food they are buying, displaying signs that identify the origin of the produce and its farm treatment. While less than 50 per cent of his produce is certified organic, manager Bill Howison hopes the stall’s increasing popularity will prompt more farmers to grow chemical-free food.

“We use a lot of South Australian produce and try to stick with organic food where we can,” he says. “In our experience, people are definitely more interested in knowing more about where their food is coming from. I’m not sure if it’s the same in the wider community, but the people who shop here want to know.”

Barossa Fine Foods butcher Alex Knoll is a fourth-generation smallgoods maker of German ancestry who runs his family’s stall while his brothers manage the business. His father, Franz, established the store 20 years ago and the family business has expanded to include five retail outlets and a factory in Adelaide’s northern suburbs that supplies Australia-wide.

Knoll says demand for European-style smallgoods remains strong, attributing it to his father’s focus on mixing modern tastes with traditional methods. “As soon as my father gets a new idea, he creates it,” Knoll says. Their “intense” smoky bacon was named Australia’s best at the Australian Bacon Awards this year. The company sources product mainly from the Barossa, venturing elsewhere only when there is not enough supply.

Working in the family business is a passion for Knoll, who wakes at 4am to set up the market stall or prepare meats at the factory. “My mother manages the market stall and my father works on the factory floor,” he says. “We love doing it and there’s not a day I wake up and wish I was doing something else.”

While the market carries enormous sentimental value to South Australians and continues to be a tourist attraction, it will face challenges over the coming years that may threaten its existence. The city council is reviewing the future of the market and looking at ways to modernise its appearance. The city’s Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood, has declared his interest in improving the infrastructure of the market and is developing a management plan to update the ageing facilities.

But Gleeson, a self-appointed protector of the market, is concerned council intervention could stifle the atmosphere, taking away the rustic charm that draws locals and tourists alike. “The council wants to come in and clean up the place,” he says. “What they don’t understand is that if they change that, they’ll change what is so special about the market. We need to ensure a market like ours doesn’t get drowned out in the blandness of the supermarket experience.”

The national supermarket duopoly remains a concern for Central Market traders. “Their biggest weapon is their convenience,” says House of Organics’ Howison. “Plus, supermarkets are always going to have cheaper bananas or tomatoes so green¬grocers need to focus on a point of difference.”

While the market’s focus is on fresh produce, one of the favourite haunts for shoppers is a family-run Italian restaurant tucked away in a dark corner. The 1960s décor, good value Italian food and mountainous layers of foam topping the espresso-style coffees at Lucia’s transports customers to a bygone era.

Opened in 1959 by Italian migrants Pasquale and Lucia Rosella, the restaurant is now run by their children and grandchildren. Daughter Nicci Bugeja says that being at the market is like coming home. “We haven’t changed a thing in Lucia’s recipes and have stayed true to her strict instructions on how to make things like pasta sauce,” she says. Such is the popularity of Lucia’s pasta sauce that Nicci’s children, Lee and Emma, have created a business bottling the family recipe and selling it in more than 400 stores around Australia.

On Friday nights, families gather at Lucia’s for a weekly meal before heading home with their arms laden with fresh food and bellies full of silky fresh pasta. Long after the sun has set over the River Torrens, the last customers amble down the dark, empty aisles of the Central Market hunting for end-of-day bargains while the stall owners pack up their wares. They will return before dawn tomorrow to start again.

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