I love that a simple unexpected encounter or conversation can turn a good day into a great day.
When I arrived at the Prahran Market on my recent trip to Melbourne, I knew it was going to be a good day. I had set a good eight hours aside for food exploration, followed by an Italian cooking class in the evening. What I didn’t know, was that I would meet people that day who, through their willingness to share their knowledge and experience with me, would turn it into a great day.
Although as a visitor to Melbourne you might be more likely to find yourself at the better known Queen Victoria Market, any food loving local would probably redirect you to the Prahran Market or one of over 160 other produce markets in and around Melbourne.
Some would argue that the Prahran Market is overpriced, and while I’ll agree that you might be able to find certain things cheaper elsewhere, there’s a reason why Australia’s oldest continuously running food market (operating since 1864) has earned itself a reputation as the go-to destination for food enthusiasts.
Oozing tourist chic as I entered the market with my camera hanging around my neck, the first stall to catch my eye was Paddlewheel, a farmers market store selling fresh seasonal produce sourced directly from local farmers. With a number of low impact, low chemical, GMO free and organic items available, as well as a great variety of quality deli items, Paddlewheel caters for conscious consumers and general food lovers alike. If the artisan breads, vibrant veggies and gourmet fare aren’t enough to entice you in then the old style market carts, wooden barrels and decorative wicker baskets are sure to do the trick. My camera certainly couldn’t leave them alone.
After stopping a while to admire the buckets of blooms at Flawless Flowers, my next port of call was The Wild Mushroom Specialist. Aptly nicknamed the Mushroom Man, Damian Pike has been running his stall, which stocks a variety of mushrooms and truffles, for over 20 years, and in 2008 and 2009 he earned himself the title of Victorian Mushroom Retailer of the Year.
Damian also prides himself on sourcing unusual seasonal items and as I inquisitively hovered over a basket of green leafy bundles, Damian explained that they were a curly variety of Brussels sprouts common in Europe but relatively new to Australia. I nearly fell over when he told me that the seeds went for somewhere around $18,000 per kilo but made a quick recovery when he went on to say that the harvest from that many seeds would probably fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground a couple of times over!
Another interesting discovery to add to my list came in the form of a crate of wild finger limes. I stood stunned as Damian opened one up and what might as well have been citrus caviar came bursting out – but no juice! As I added some to my shopping bag I learnt that they are a popular ingredient at restaurants where they might be served on top of oysters or even as a garnish on desserts. A few even made it back to Bahrain with me.
Excited as I was about making these discoveries, the highlight, of the whole day in fact, was chatting to Damian as I clicked away and tried to soak up all the information I could about the produce in his stall. Among my favourites were the micro veggies – miniature carrots and beets, and cauliflowers that fit in the palm of your hand!
We quickly learnt that we had the Middle East in common and Damian asked just as many questions about life in Bahrain today as I did about the time he spent in the area over 30 years ago while working in the oil industry.
It was obvious that Damian’s food knowledge was extensive and I could have happily stayed and chatted to him all day. What I didn’t know at the time, which he humbly kept to himself despite our conversation about how long he’d been in the industry, was that in 2011 he was awarded a Medal in the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the fresh food and vegetable industry.
For someone with a collection of accolades to his name, oh, I forgot to mention that he was also inducted as a Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Legend in 2007, there wasn’t an ounce of pretentiousness about him. I’m glad I had my camera with me that day, not for the obvious reasons, but because had I not, I probably wouldn’t have lingered long enough to have those little conversations. Needless to say if you find yourself at the Prahran Market, you want to pay the Mushroom Man a visit, if not for some interesting ingredients or recipe advice then definitely for a good ol’ chin wag!
Packed to the rafters with Asian fare, Lee’s Asian Grocery was my next stop and Sichuan pepper, lime juice powder, green tea, agar agar powder and miso soup (MSG free) all went into my basket here. Had I not had to deal with baggage restrictions I definitely would have thrown in some of the beautiful blossoming teas that open up to a flower when submerged in hot water like these ones. They stock many varieties sold by the jar and reasonably priced too (I saw individual blossoms selling for much more elsewhere in the market). With a great selection of fresh ingredients and table wear too you’ll find everything you need at Lee’s to whip up some great Asian classics – like my Thai Green Papaya Salad.
After picking up some Inca berries (packed with antioxidants, a bit tart but I liked them!) at 53 Degrees East, I resisted the urge to succumb to the tempting creations of Mister Nice Guy – cupcakes baked fresh daily using vegan, organic, kosher and fair-trade ingredients. Having now realised that they stock a number of popular cafes in Melbourne I’m kicking myself for ‘resisting’ and I doubt I’ll be able to next time. Visit their website if you plan on dropping by as they are relocating to a bigger bakery soon.
One sweet treat I couldn’t resist sampling was the rose water Turkish delight wrapped in edible rose petals at Naheda’s Choice – without a doubt the most beautiful Turkish delight I have ever seen. My camera gravitated towards it immediately but unfortunately the photo doesn’t quite do it justice. As well as selling a variety of Turkish delight (melon was my favourite) Naheeda also stocks a huge selection of dips and antipasto that are equally hard to walk past.
My last stop for the day was The Essential Ingredient. Now, I could write a whole post on this alone but as you’re probably starting to get tired of reading by now, I’ll try and keep it short and sweet. Suffice it to say, The Essential Ingredient is unlike any other store I have ever been to and, as a food lover, any attempts at a quick visit are futile. Whether you’re looking for cookwear, culinary books, expert advice or, indeed, the essential ingredient, you will find it all here and more.
I got so giddy as I browsed the shelves that it was all I could do to control myself from dropping one of each item into my basket. Again, due to baggage restrictions I contained myself to a jar of caperberries, some mastic, some cute props, cocoa nibs and my first bottle of verjuice (recipe ideas welcome!) but I wasn’t happy about the fact that I couldn’t take more with me.
I was particularly taken by the pink Himalayan salt bricks and although they are available in three different sizes, it was probably for the best that I talked myself out of squeezing one into my suitcase. The bricks can be used for the presentation of cold food such as sushi or heated on the stove and used at the table to cook slices of meat or seafood. When used with moist food such as buffalo mozzarella the bricks impart a subtle salty and mineral flavour to the food and to clean them all you need to do is wipe them down with a damp cloth when cooled. This is just one example of the many unique products available at The Essential Ingredient and as if that’s not enough, they also run a number of cooking classes and events hosted by some of Australia’s most respected culinary figures at their onsite cooking school – more details and the 2012 schedule can be found here.
Speaking of cooking classes, the cherry on the top of an already wonderful day was meeting the lovely Jasmine and a friendly bunch of fellow foodies at our Italian cooking class. Held in a fully equipped kitchen that plays home to a catering company by day, the class provides a relaxed and comfortable environment for those looking for a fun and informal cooking experience. Aimed at the home cook, the classes aren’t designed to teach you technical culinary skills but with fully qualified chef Jasmine on hand you are sure to come away with some handy tips and a few quick and easy (and most importantly tasty) recipes to add to your collection.
The format is part hands on, part demonstration and each class lasts around 3 hours. I’d recommend doing the class with a friend although if the group is anything like ours you’d be just fine on your own. Jasmine also teaches Asian and Vegetarian classes as well as private classes which would be great for special occasions like birthdays or low key hen celebrations. The food is enjoyed (with a glass or two of wine of course) at the big wooden dining table adjacent to the kitchen making it possible to watch Jasmine as you nibble away.
Our menu: Baked Field Mushrooms with Thyme and Parmesan (served on thick slices of bread and topped with crunchy rocket), a Caprese Salad, Ricotta Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce and Strawberries and Morello Cherries with Marsala and Mascarpone cream to finish. I particularly liked Jasmine’s method for preparing the basil for the salad which, rather than just scattering the leaves over the tomatoes and mozzarella, she turned into a kind of dressing, grinding the leaves with some extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and pepper in a mortar and pestle. It gave the dish a really nice flavour boost.
Jasmine was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me at the end of the class offering some advice on pursuing a career in food photography and styling and sharing some of the lessons she has learnt from her time in the industry. Again, I was very grateful that someone was willing to take the time to share their knowledge and experience which can be hard to come by these days.
With a belly full of delicious food, I turned my weary head for home after a truly fulfilling and inspiring day.
The Prahran Market is located at 163 Commercial Rd, South Yarra, 3141 and is open every day except Monday and Wednesday. The Essential Ingredient is open 7 days. Both are closed on public holidays. Classes at The Communal Kitchen are held at Shop 12/1 Grange Rd, Toorak, 3142. See the website for more details.