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Ray McVinnie At your Local Market – A Voyage Of Discovery

When I grew up a local market was a rare if unknown thing in New Zealand. Over the years I have seen a huge increase in markets in New Zealand to the extent that my sense of New Zealand geography is somewhat dominated by them – Hastings in Hawkes Bay has New Zealand’s oldest Farmer’s Market, where I have purchased and proudly carried back to Auckland, pink fir apple potatoes, Nelson’s market was where I found a great set of Victorian side-plates, Avondale market in Auckland is where I go for excellent and unusual Asian produce including Thai sweets which are the equivalent of fine patisserie, Whangarei market is where we go to stock up each Saturday while on our annual holiday at the beach, La Cigale, the French market in Parnell, is where I like to breakfast on a made to order traditional Turkish stuffed bread and stock up on things like artisanal cheese, organic vegetables and wine.

The atmosphere at a market is the opposite of the standardised, sterile, silent atmosphere at mainstream supermarkets. A market is a place of unregimented abundance with stallholders who even if they don’t produce what they are selling, have an interest in it and importantly often know how to cook it. Unlike a supermarket, there is always someone with knowledge to talk to about potential purchases. (Experts like butchers and fishmongers for example, have long disappeared from supermarkets). I have acquired some of my best recipes by talking to stallholders and also by asking other shoppers what they are going to do with an ingredient I might be unfamiliar with.

Going to a market can be an interesting voyage of discovery. One feels closer to food’s origins at a market – you are buying direct from producers and there is less packaging and advertising so there is a feeling of trust and authenticity about the experience. Because the middleman is often absent in a market the food seems fresher (less time between producer and sale). There also seems to be more choice than in a supermarket. Quantities aren’t standardised, you can choose how much cheese you want for example and stallholder’s produce is usually different to what is available in mainstream outlets because markets encourage people who don’t fit into a supermarket model owing to the unusualness, irregularity or small scale of their output. Consequently the food just seems more interesting at a market.

Market shopping is also a sensory experience. What you see, and often what you smell, taste and touch, is what you get, without having to unwrap, or read labels or ingredient lists. Very relaxing!

But the fascination of markets is more than that. Markets have answered a human need since ancient times.  Just as food is not only about eating, markets are not just about shopping. The ancient market was the “agora” or forum. It was like a community centre where you could meet your friends and catch up on the latest news and gossip while buying or enjoying something to eat and drink. One look at La Cigale confirms that this experience lives on. There is a large area usually packed with groups of people eating and drinking coffee but above all talking. Markets are a social affair as well as a commercial one.

I remember the first time I went to Prahran market in Melbourne, the thing that struck me on arrival was the noticeably happy expressions on the faces of people who had done their shopping and were leaving. Perhaps these contented looks were the result of people not only having been satisfied with their purchases but also because going to a market is a good experience in so many ways.

Food is culture, so going to a local market can tell you a lot about the people and the locality. It can tell you about people’s everyday lives. The things for sale in a market and how they are sold tell us a lot about what people think is important. This is why one of the first places I head for when overseas is the market. Where better to observe the locals in Barcelona than at La Boqueria, the famous market in the Rambla and where better to checkout kiwi locals and buy dinner than at places like La Cigale in Parnell.


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