As a child, every Saturday we did the shopping, or as mum liked to call it ‘supermarketing’. This was after teeball or minky or netball or soccer or basketball or tennis. We would head to Roe Street in Northbridge where there was a fishmonger, greengrocer, continental dry goods store. I would poke the eyes of fresh fish, eat grapes, and shake boxes of pasta just like any other kid. We knew the people who ran it and they squeezed our cheeks and told us to study hard. My mum was shopping there until they retired a couple of years ago.
Other times, we would head to the markets at Subiaco where there were people yelling and a crowd jostling. We liked that place because there was a food court in the middle and my parents would treat us to roti paratha, prawn crackers or ice cream while we waited patiently for them to get supplies for the week.
It will come as no surprise then, with memories like these, that I love a market. I love shopping for produce, imagining what you will cook by finding something that looks good and fresh, planning a meal on the spur of the moment, making calls to friends to see what they are doing that evening. There have been times where this is hard to find. When I drove around Australia, I was appalled at what was on offer in many remote communities – it was all but impossible to find fruit and vegetables. The most similar experience for many Australians is the servo, where hot chips are as fresh as it gets. When you couple this with the breakdown in bush food chains, it is hard to get good fresh food. There are people who are working to better this including dedicated community members, native ingredients suppliers, and groups like the Eon Foundation, who only go where they are invited, planting gardens with children and elders so that people have access to produce.
Further afield, I have been to some wonderful markets. At Barcelona, I went a little crazy on fish, prawns, cuttlefish, octopus, crab; my eyes bigger at the stomach stocking up to cook in our rental apartment, and, at the plates of tapas we sat down to eat in between.
There was a time I visited Banjarmasing, the capital of Kalimantan and what they call the ‘Venice of Indonesia’. They have a system of interconnected floating markets where hawkers paddle up with coffee and sweets and bananas and meat. My friend and I had breakfast there, treated ourselves to an extra sugar in our tea, eating fritters of sweet potato and cakes with layer upon layer. That week, we headed for a walk in the jungle and had an epic overnight trip out of the mountains to get back to town – we rafted through rapids for a few hours, then caught a truck through passes, then arrived too late for the last boat out of a village, camping instead on the local imam’s floor eating fish curry with packet noodles, before we took two boats back to Banjarmasing. For lunch on the second day, we stopped at a port making friends wherever we went, sitting down to a glorious lunch with kankun and sambal. Eating on the road never felt so pleasant.
I have been in Krakow in summer, hunting down spices in a market with bras, hats, socks, jocks and sausages, all in the hope of making a curry for people I just met. What I made was not quite traditional, but it proved to be a hit if only because it was so different to Eastern European.
When I have lived for extended stretches, I often seek out a market that I can rely on. Some of these have been farmers’ markets, and I have also participated in getting fresh produce delivered straight from the orchard or the field to the door. When I lived in Philadelphia, I used to do my shopping at a place called Clark Park, where Amish people would come in to sell their wares – beautiful potatoes and carrots, wonderful squash and lettuce, and their baked treats that were regionally specific. These included whoopee pie, which is two cake-like chocolate biscuits with cream in the middle, or shoefly pie, which is a butter caramel in a pastry crust. The band would play during those days and people would mill around drinking apple cider.
In New York, I used to stock up at the Thursday market on Broadway at 116th Street, just on Columbia University’s doorstep. At this market, they have boutique soda with old school flavours like maple cream and apple cinnamon; cheese from goat to blue to brie and back again past cheddar and gouda and everything in between; baked treats like focaccia with olives and tomatoes, small tarts with custard and fruit. With all that produce right there, I would ask myself so many questions: should I make herb barley soup with roasted heirloom carrots be they white, orange or purple? Should I make pasta with julienned zucchini, slivers of eggplant, a glug of olive oil? Should I splash out and break the tradition of not eating meat at home, buying a shoulder of pork to baste and roast with a love so tender that the mouth begins to water simply thinking of it? This is to say nothing of what happens when one starts to talk to the people here. You say that the pak choi today is particularly good? Maybe I can make a stir-fir with a sticky garlic sauce. The spaghetti squash has just been picked this morning? Maybe I can roast tomatoes and toss it with basil on top. And you think that this arugula is peppery and fresh, the last harvest before the snow? Well, maybe I can dress it with walnuts, balsamic vinegar and honey.
I found one particularly dedicated supplier of Jerusalem artichokes at Columbia, who alone brought me so much pleasure. Every Thursday, I would roast them in high heat and sprinkle them with salt. The outer skin is golden, crisp and chewy, a kind of earthy caramel, and the inside is soft, moist and fluffy, a kind of wet chestnut. We ate them almost without fail and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why they are not the most popular vegetable in the world.
When I cannot find a good market, I am happy enough to settle for specialty stores from butchers to fishmonger to aficionados of fresh pasta. But then, I am happy to be swayed by an excellent supermarket too. I was thinking of what this is after a recent trip overseas. I am sure many readers will be familiar with Whole Foods, either from experience or because of reputation. And Whole Foods is wonderful. I fondly recall how I used to buy a cut of lamb from New Zealand there, almost like a full backstrap. During that time I would cook dinner on Wednesdays with a colleague of mine and we dreamed of opening a little restaurant called ‘Simple Things, Done Well’. So very often, we would buy that lamb, and eat it with good bottles of wine followed by shots of the very best ice-cold vodka he had bought on a recent research trip to Latvia.
At home though, we have a wonderful place to do our shopping, halfway between Perth and Redgate. It is structured like an IKEA and you have to make your way through every section to reach the end. It is not only a brilliant tactic to get you to buy that extra fine looking cheesecake, but it also is convenient and easy to navigate. We are often seduced by the produce on show, by how it is displayed with a certain attractiveness, a kind of come hither look with beads of moisture on its skin, peel, packaging. It makes you want to cook with it all if not bring it home to meet the parents and settle down once and for all.
But for all this, for all the markets in all the world, for the victories you have when the squash you love comes into season, when the supermarket you love is open late enough on the way home to stop in and get something easy, for all this, nothing compares to produce fresh from the garden.
I am not a ‘bookish type’ by any stretch of the imagination, but I am not a natural gardener. I need direction. I can brick-pave and I can use a shovel. I watch lectures on permaculture. When it comes to gardening, my wife is the one I look to for inspiration. She is very good at planning, planting, tending, pruning, looking after and during our time away, my extended family enjoyed the fruits of her labour with potatoes, leafy greens and chillies fresh for many days of summer. The thing I like most though, the thing that tastes especially good when it is fresh, is the humble tomato. My nephew, who is all of two, has become very adept at selecting the very best ones to eat when he comes over to my parents place, happily heading out to the backyard to check the tomato plants for ripe, red, fruit.
You might be thinking, I too have many tomatoes and I too have lots of chillies. But, my problem is that they have all come on at once. I have too many tomatoes to know what to do with, no matter if my cute nephew thinks we can just eat them all right now. Tomatoes have to be one of the most versatile and common ingredients we use today. They are there in so many different cuisines. They are there fresh, cooked, chutneyed. But what does one do when you have them coming out your wazoo fresh from the backyard?
The answer to that has to be ‘sauce day’. There are several different ways to define sauce. Sauce can be the passata of Italians, the chutney of the English, the sambal of the Singaporeans. In any case, what they share, at least for us, right now and right here, is their foundation in tomatoes that you do not know what to do with. Fresh produce is always a blessing, and I get you might be tired of tomatoes – you have had enough salad with burrata; enough pico de gallo; enough tomato based main courses from stuffed cabbage leaves to burritos to gazpacho. I get all that, which is why you need to make something you can store for winter. You need to bottle up this glorious piece of summer to keep you warm when the days are short and the nights are cooler. You need sauce like it is a hot lover.
There are many ways to make sauce. I have boiled tomatoes by the boxful in big vats of hot water, churned them by hand to remove their seeds and skins, and poured what remained into old beer bottles. And I love the simplicity of that, but I also like to get creative with my tomato sauce. My uncle makes a very good one to go with his excellent home made sausage rolls, bulking and sweetening it with apple.
I like to make chutney that is quite thin, a sauce that is somewhere between the sweetness of the fresh tomato to go with heat of the chillies that are also in season. Forget sultanas (or don’t because in other circumstances it is quite acceptable). Forget cloves, cinnamon, orange peel. I like a hot chutney with tomatoes, chilli, brown sugar, vinegar, and, if pushed, a squeeze of lime and some mustard seeds that have been fried in oil.
This sauce works with curry, it works as a dip for chips, it works as a condiment in sandwiches. Mix it with yoghurt or hummus or even ‘yummus’ (what I call a mixture of those two blessed ingredients). Use it on shellfish, meat, poultry. Eat it hot or cold, use it like the best sauce in the world because you made it yourself and you cannot find it in any market or supermarket aisle. And that, surely, is a blessing when the garden has produced so much that we cannot eat it all before the birds do.