For committed cooks and food lovers there is an exciting immediacy about food markets. The freshness of the ingredients challenges you to use them as soon as possible while the eclectic nature of what’s on display gets the creative juices flowing as you ponder the endless culinary combinations that can be created with what you see as you stroll around.
Many shoppers have only a vague idea of what they’re going to buy until they see what is on the stands. It’s not like a modern supermarket where most of the fresh produce is always available. When you go to a market, a good one, you never know what treasures you may find.
There are almost always staples, of course, usually fresh organic eggs, milk and yoghurt along with various breads and cheeses, but it’s the anticipation of never quite knowing which fruits, vegetables, herbs and meat will be available on any given day that makes a trip to the market so fulfilling.
That and the fact that you can fondle your food. It may sound a little perverted but feeling up your food is one of the best ways of discerning its quality. Before I buy a steak I want to know if it’s flaccid or firm to the poke. Does the fish smell fishy? Are those pears crisp and solid or mushy and bruised? Are the herbs alive with aroma? Will those ruby-red tomatoes actually live up to their promise?
Shiny clean leeks, sparkling underneath their plastic covering and utterly devoid of grit may save you a little time in preparation, but their need-a-wash counterparts are bound to deliver more taste. Most of all, it just feels right to buy something as basic as your food from the people who have grown and tended to it. It’s a trend that the food-loving world is embracing as never before. Fresh produce markets, from tiny informal sidewalk stalls to massive, everythingunder-one-roof grand conventions, are popping up everywhere while those veterans that have been around for years are busier than ever.
France, naturally, is the place to be for food markets. Long before organic, sustainable and seasonal became popular catchwords on the cuisine scene, France was practising all three. With a love of good food and top-notch produce rivalled, perhaps, only by the Japanese, the French have always preferred the market to the supermarket and the country has so many exceptional food markets that guides running to hundreds of pages have been written on them.
Such is the popularity of food markets and organic produce in Europe that England, never renowned for being particularly picky when it comes to good food, seems to gain a new market each week. London’s Borough Market has become a tourist destination while just recently the flagship Whole Foods Market opened in Kensington, and if the hype is to be believed it’s an experience and a half. Imagine a market-style emporium where everything is either organic or natural, everything is fresh, everything is top quality. And when I say everything, I do mean everything – from meat, fish and vegetables to breads, dairy and deli items. It’s all there under one very, very large roof.
Compare that to South Africa, where a list of worthwhile markets may not yet fill a page, let alone a book. Even though the trend towards fresh, seasonal and organic produce, and indeed food emporiums, is alive in our country, we have not yet bought into it fully.
According to Konrad Hauptfleisch, director of the Bryanston Organic Market, among the country’s best and longest-running markets, the problems are many. “Firstly, there’s just not that big a market for fresh organic produce. In Europe and America the market is huge; in South Africa it’s still regarded as somewhat specialist. Organic produce can be expensive – not always, but generally so – and that has given it an elitist image. “Also, because of the popularity of organics internationally, we tend to export our best products, especially fruit and vegetables, which doesn’t leave much for the local market. Why sell locally if you make more by exporting? “And I don’t think, despite all that’s been written about the benefits of organic and sustainable farming, that we as South Africans are all that aware of how much better organic produce can be. Not just the health and environmental benefits, but also that organic produce, more often than not, simply tastes better. “There is a lot of support for organics but there’s also a lot of support for the agro-chemicals industry – lots of money there – who probably wouldn’t want to see organic production become the norm.”
Bryanston Organic Market, along with some other local markets, get around this by using their own certification process, the Peer Group System (PGS). “All it means is that we certify the produce sold at the market,” says Konrad. “We visit all our suppliers at least once, usually more often, during the year to see for ourselves what they do and how they do it. If it measures up to our standards, which are based on strict organic guidelines, then we’re happy. “And when I say we, I do mean we. The assessment group is made up of market management, stall-holders and customers – we like to include the latter so our customers can see where we get our produce from.”
As anyone who regularly visits fresh produce markets will tell you, there is a definite increase in the amount and variety of organic produce, but only in certain areas. Specialist deli items are relatively easy to find, as are vegetables and fruit, though it does depend on how the growing season has treated farmers. This year, for instance, stalls have been somewhat threadbare due to a minor drought.
But when it comes to flesh, be it fish, fowl or other, we are way behind much of the Western world. A highlight of my market history was a stroll through Union Square Greenmarket in New York a few years back where, apart from the incredible variety of fruit and vegetables, I was bowled over by the free range and organic meats on offer. “It’s a risky item for an outdoor market,” says Konrad. “When you deal with meat you have all sorts of hygiene issues that vegetables and fruit don’t have. And a lot of people are put off when they see meat just lying around in the open.
It doesn’t look very healthy at all! “That said, however, we would love to be able to offer customers a greater range of free range and organic meats (at the moment it’s limited to chicken). “The growth in organics locally has been excellent and one must remember that, compared to Europe and America, we are still playing catch-up. They’ve had the fresh produce market and organics mentality for a lot longer than we have. I am particularly pleased to see how many new markets have opened up in the past few years. It’s definitely becoming a more popular way of shopping. “But there is not enough support from government, no incentives for growers to go organic, to sell locally. Until that changes we will always be playing catch-up.” Next time you go shopping, give the local supermarket a miss and play along.