Recently one Sunday morning I found myself in a wonderful place. It was crowded, filled with hipsters, hepcats, beatniks, bogans, greasers, bohemians of every description, yuppies, power brunchers and families with children in tow. Already part hermit, and somewhat of a misanthrope in the making, I marvelled at my willingness to be subjected to such a fervent environment. Perhaps it was the Timor-Leste cultural fair that had drawn this wave of humanity to this particular location, the huge pans of curry bubbling and wafting heavenly aromas or maybe it was just the meat special at Hagens. “Oh, Oxtail is in this week, yummy!”
I have a confession to make, I love a good market! Be it the Borough Market in London, La Boqueria in Barcelona, the Denpasar Market in Bali, the Union Square Farmers Market in New York City or the monthly market at the Violet Town footy oval, they all command my attention. I’m powerless to resist diving into their narrow rows of stalls and nibble on the plethora of yummy morsels that are on offer, as long as it’s not cholera! We have lost something, I think, in the development of supermarkets and strip malls, something that makes the acquisition of foodstuffs and other personal goods an event to relish. I am known as a husband who cannot be taken shopping under any circumstances, least I begin moving mannequins into suggestive poses (out of pure boredom)or tapping my wife on the shoulder while asking, “Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you done yet?” So this yearning for the fervency of a market cannot be due to the innate need to make shopping more enjoyable. Perhaps it is the vendors, earnestly promoting their goods and insisting on your attention that I like. Perhaps it is the fact that you can never truly know what is on offer on any given day. Maybe avocados will be available five for four dollars. Perhaps there will be a guy selling vegetable seedlings. Or perhaps there will be a stall selling the exact mower blades that you have been searching for these last five years.
Markets abound the world over, and are almost always great, but there is one market that is near and dear to my heart, it is such an icon that the buildings housing it are heritage listed. It is a worthwhile tourist attraction, but still used by its city’s residents for their weekly shop. Anthony Bourdain, a man who I would happily walk across broken glass to spend one evening with, loves it. I am, of course, talking about the Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia.
Which has led me to the question, what is it about markets that make them so… well, cool? They are, after all, often crowded, dirty and filled with people whose sole focus is to pry open your wallet and relieve you of a significant portion of your hard-earned cash! It is exactly this mess of humanity that appeals to me. The crowing hawkers calling out the latest price for a rump roast, young over enthusiastic guys begging you to try a piece of wonderful something, presented on the end of a sharp knife, the buskers, beggars, people looking for obscure fruits, fur salesmen, souvenirs stalls with boomerangs and koalas made in China…. It all results in a messy, unplanned, frenetic scene that I just can’t get enough of.
The Vic Market is also a gathering place, as most good markets should be. Cultural festivals, concerts, protests and gatherings of all sorts take place there every weekend. Restaurants and cafes have popped up in the streets and buildings surrounding the market, enabling one to sample a multitude of ethnic dishes after market wanderings have ceased. My favourite dish is a huge bowl of Vietnamese Phở. A thick beef broth with noodles, bean sprouts, Thai basil, chilli peppers and various bits of unusual meats, then topped with Siracha Sauce so hot that it burns the nails of your toes. This is my idea of the perfect market breakfast. I would not think of getting my phở with anything less than some fatty flank, rare brisket, yummy tendon and perhaps a little trip thrown in for good measure. It is the breakfast of champions. Oh, and it’s a good hangover cure as well.
As stated above, the Vic market enjoys the reputation of a market still used by the locals for their weekly shop. Many markets seem to exist on the tourist dollar these days but the Vic market is still cramped with families pushing their well-worn trolleys down aisles. You can tell the really dedicated market-goers by the presence of cooler bags and ice bricks. How else is one meant to preserve a good piece of blue cheese, cut from a wheel the size of a truck tyre by an old Italian stall owner with a knife of questionable sterility?
And for those hard-to-find items? The Vic Market is your place for goat meat (although I have a guy up here in North-East Victoria for that), sweetbreads, fresh tripe or freeze-dried Mongolian horse testicles. In a city renowned for its multiculturalism, it is the place to go for those ingredients not found anywhere else, those things that remind you of good ol’ home cookin… and if marinated lizard intestines are your bailiwick, the Vic Market is your supplier of choice!