Melbourne is blessed with brilliant fresh produce markets and we toured three of the best Melbourne markets, the Queen Victoria Market, South Melbourne Market, and Prahran Market, on our recent trip.
Why do a tour of a market? Isn’t it enough just to shop the market and soak up the atmosphere? To take in the kaleidoscope of colours that is the displays of shiny fruit and vegetables? To inhale the aromas of freshly roasted coffee beans from the market cafés? To elbow your way to the front of the crowd of locals in line for fresh-out-of-the-oven boreks? To hear the competing cries of spruikers calling out discounted prices at the end of the day? And to slurp up the most sublime, plump, taste-of-the-sea Coffin Bay oysters from a seafood shop?
While all that makes for a very satisfying market experience, what we like about doing market tours with a good local guide is that you quickly discover which stalls sell the best, freshest regional produce and learn what’s local and in season; you find out which stalls specialise in certain products, such as the mushroom man at Prahran Market or the potato woman at South Melbourne; and you learn a bit about the back-story, not only of the history of the market itself and how it operates, but the history of the families that run the stalls, and in doing so, learn how passionate they are about what they do. So here’s our experience of the best Melbourne markets…
QUEEN VICTORIA MARKET
We do a Foodie’s Dream Tour at the sprawling, historic Queen Victoria market, one of Australia’s oldest – it officially opened in 1878, yet its Meat Hall was established in 1869. The market claims to be the largest in the southern hemisphere, spreading over seven hectares, with over 1,000 traders. It’s here that we start to appreciate why all the chefs and waiters we’ve been talking to in Melbourne are so passionate about Australian produce.
Our guide Helen, who has worked at the market for 13 years, introduces us to the butchers, fishmongers and fruit and vegetable sellers who are as serious about their produce as the chefs buying it. Most deal directly with the farmers and fishermen and know exactly where their produce comes from. And they are all specialists in something, Helen says, pointing out in the Meat Hall masters such as Max Thompson, an expert on offal; Hagens Meat, which only sells organic and bio-dynamic meats; Sardes who focuses on premium meat, especially lamb; Jago’s, which sells pickled meats such as silverside; and Alex Watson & Son, which makes tasty sausages.
Out of the Blue Seafoods has shiny swordfish from Bermagui and mountains of fresh squid when we visit; George the Fishmonger has pyramids of fresh prawns and live spanner crabs; while at the Seafood & Oyster Spot, where fresh Coffin Bay oysters are being shucked and sold for one third of the price you’d pay in a restaurant, there’s an abundance of fresh yabbies, crayfish, and scallops. The fruit and vegetable section is just as impressive, where Tomato City sells beautiful tomatoes from all over Australia, and Fresh Generation sells delectable things like Australian truffles, fresh wasabi, and black garlic.
The same can be said of the traders in the most atmospheric part of the market, the Art Deco-era Dairy Hall, that’s more like a deli hall, where the shops still bear the same marble and limestone, old wooden window frames with nickel coating, and signage that was painted when it was built in the 1930s. The delis, bakeries, and wine shop here should be your first stop if you’re picking up snacks for the apartment or putting together a picnic.
Helen takes us to the Chicken Pantry, specialising in game, rabbit, kangaroo, buffalo, and boar; The Dainty, who are butter and cheese specialists, making their own butter and buffalo mozzarella; Bill’s Farm, which specialises in gourmet goodies such as bottarga from Italy (for a whopping $545 a kilo!); The Queen Vic Deli, where we spot some Australian-made chorizo; Woods Aussie Deli, where kangaroo jerky is the thing to buy; and Diane’s Delights, where Diane sells dozens of fresh dips she makes herself. Along the way we try Diane’s dips, as well as cheeses, chocolate, and even halva.
After the tour, Terence and I return to the Seafood & Oyster Spot and buy two-dozen Coffin Bay oysters and pick up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Sword’s Wines for lunch. Back at our hotel (the Jasper is handily on the next block) we clink glasses and toast Australia’s wonderful produce.
SOUTH MELBOURNE MARKET
We do a Small Footprint Tour with a sustainable focus at the more compact South Melbourne Market, established in 1867, which guide Jan, a local resident and former food stylist, claims is Australia’s oldest food market. Jan is a wealth of knowledge and, like Helen, knows every trader.
South Melbourne Market, Jan tells us, is a green market, and has been very active in reducing, recycling and composting its waste, using energy efficient lighting, harvesting water from the roof for cleaning, installing a passive cooling system, and sponsoring a stallholder energy audit. But most of all the market is committed to promoting the use of local, fresh, seasonal produce – almost all the produce sold at the market comes from within 160 kms of the market!
Jan introduces us to shopkeepers such as Georgina at Georgie’s Harvest (shop #50), who specialises in Australian root vegetables and has the largest range of local potatoes in Melbourne, including around 22 different types of ‘spuds’. At Fruits on Coventry we meet fruit and vegetable specialist Rhonda Wong, who is passionate about heirloom vegetables like Purple Haze Dutch carrots.
We visit Breads Etcetera, where owner Matt, a trained chef, went to London to learn how to bake artisanal bread and works all night to produce an array of delicious organic breads made from South Australian flour. We visit the Polish Delicatessen, where the specialty is Australian-made European-style sausages and cold cuts, sold to the large local Polish and Russian communities.
Jan shows us Kirkpatricks Butcher, which sells aged meat from Echuca, where the butcher fattens his own lambs; Kalaparee Olive Shop, where the owners produce their organic oil products from an olive grove near Bendigo; Jim’s Fresh Fish, where Jim, who has had his shop for 35 years, is a filleting specialist; and Aptus Seafood, the oldest oyster shucker in the market, which sells $1 oyster shots.
And lastly, we visit Rita’s Coffee and Nuts, where Rita and her family, who have had the stall for 30 years, sell a huge array of nuts, as well as beans, pulses, rice, muesli, and soup mixes; and Emerald Deli, where Maria, a cheese specialist in the business for 30 years, stocks over 200 cheeses, one third of which are Australian. Today’s lunch? We take home cheeses of course.
Now while our guides at Queen Victoria Market and South Melbourne Market have told us their markets were the oldest, our guide here, Kathy, assures us Prahran Market, established in 1864, is Australia’s oldest single running market, although she says the original building burned to the ground in 1950 and the market operated under a temporary shelter until the 1970s.
Prahran Market is different again, with an open airy atmosphere, despite being under a roof; stalls, rather than shops, for the most part; and old-fashioned businesses, such as a cobbler and hardware store. As on our other tours, Kathy takes us on a stroll to point out the specialist traders.
We visit Paddlewheel, which sells artisanal breads and local produce bearing labels identifying their source; Ripe, The Organic Producer, which sells 100% organic certified produce; Reliable Fruit and Vegies, which focuses on early season fruit and vegetables; and Pino’s Fine Produce, established in 1958 by Pino and his wife, from the Italian island of Stromboli, which specialises in premium produce, much of which is sold to Melbourne’s best restaurants.
We meet Michael, pictured above, from M J Mow Gourmet Potatoes, who stocks 40-50 varieties of potatoes. His favourite is the Dutch Cream from Hobart, which he assures us are lovely smashed or mashed. Michael introduces us to the world’s best onion, the Dominica, which has a high sugar content, which he eats like an apple and shares pieces with us and a family, who have gathered to listen, the three children actually enjoying the crunchy, juicy onion quarters.
On another day when we visit, we meet Damian Pike, the Wild Mushroom Specialist, otherwise known as The Mushroom Man, who sells some 36 varieties of mushrooms throughout the year, and has 16 varieties when we drop by. Damian has played a vital role in introducing wild, forest and exotic mushrooms to Melbourne, and as a result, he – along with Michael – were named living legends by the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
Kathy also points out Gary’s Meats, renowned for its award-winning organic saltbush lamb; Neil’s Meats, famous for its grass fed beef and lamb; Ian’s Quality Meats, where they make Italian-style sausages to family recipes; John Cesters Poultry & Game, where they sell kangaroo, goat, venison, emu, and crocodile; Prahran Seafood, where the owner’s brother brings in fresh scallops daily on his own boat; and Theo & Sons, for fresh live seafood, including freshly shucked oysters.
We do some tastings here also, trying dolci sugar at Market Lane; creamy organic, low-fat gelato from Fritz Gelato (the caramelised fig and roasted almond is sublime); all natural, 96% fat free, homemade yoghurt from Health Bowl Café (the mango is delish); Tasmanian smoked salmon and homemade moussaka from Chaso’s Gourmet Deli; and the most scrumptious homemade Turkish delight we’ve tried outside Turkey at Naheda’s Cheese, in white rose, apricot, mango, and various berry flavours.
For picnics and snacks, worth noting are Chaso’s Gourmet Deli, for homemade dips; the Sweet Greek for spanokopita; Caspers Gourmet Foods, for hearty homemade pies; the Cheese Shop Deli, which has 150 different types of cheeses and 20 different olives; and Peter and Rose’s Deli for European cheeses, cold cuts and small-goods.
For souvenirs, Put Victoria on Your Table is a one-stop-shop for all sorts of scrumptiousness, such as Robinvale Caramelised Tomato Balsamic and Fig Basalmic, Staghorn Flat Olive Oil, Crabtree’s Murray-Darling Salts ‘smoked salt’, and bottles of Limoncello and Grapa from the Mornington Peninsula. While their ‘No Worries Curries’, pre-packed mixed spices with a recipe, attracted my eye, and I did take a packet, I didn’t make it for lunch. We took home the famous Dim Sims from South Melbourne Market, which are so renowned they’re sold here too. And, yes, they were delish!
If you’re settling into an apartment in Melbourne for a while, you might also want to check out the multicultural market in Dandenong, as well as some farmers markets; see www.vicfarmersmarkets.org.au and www.farmersmarkets.org.au.
If you found this post helpful, see our other posts on markets and foodie walking tours in London, Edinburgh, New York, Paris, Venice, Tokyo, Barcelona, Madrid, Jerez, Ceret, Budapest, Vienna, Istanbul, Marrakech, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Bangkok, Khon Kaen, Phnom Penh, and Luang Prabang.