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Food is for life, and life I will show you
– Spearhead, Red Beans and Rice, 1994

If you visit the Berra, don’t go looking for its centre. As many disappointed tourists will tell you, it doesn’t have one. Oh, there’s the Civic CBD, which is essentially a shopping centre dominating a paved mall, but it’s not a centre in the sense of any other state capital. No gold-rush era historic buildings, no Chinatown or Little Italy. The nation’s cultural institutions are scattered around Lake Curly-Gherkin at discrete non-walking distances from one another.

But don’t mistake ‘no centre’ for ‘no heart’. If you’re looking for the Berra’s heart, go to its villages. Every locality has its own little shopping strip, with its own distinct personality. I’m looking forward to getting to know some of them better in coming months.

Just as the Berra is a city of villages, so it is also a city of little markets. And having had a Melbum childhood, I love a good market.

It’s tantalising, so many markets, after the Tasnarnia experience. Salamanca Market has a curious stranglehold on Slobart. It’s unashamedly aimed at the tourist, and aside from a fresh veg aisle operated by the local Hmong market gardeners, and a few select produce stalls, there’s really very little for the local person at Salamanca. And yet there are no other viable points where locals can buy direct from producers.

Here in the Berra, there are several fresh food markets where the smart locals say they shop. So on Saturday I sacrificed my hard-earned Saturday sleep-in for an exploratory trip to the weekly Capital Region Farmers Market (Exhibition Park, 8-11am).

My first thought on approaching the half-open sheds was, What an ugly setup! And certainly there was nothing fancy about the venue, or indeed most of the stalls. What there was, was a lot of good, fresh veges. Leeks and beetroot piled on trestles; crates of cauliflower and broccoli; bunches of leafy greens. It’s hard not to over-buy when you’re only feeding one, so I stuck to what looked seasonal and local: cabbage, pumpkin, carrots, brussels sprouts, a couple of weird potato varieties. Also a selection of fancy mushrooms for a risotto, and some fresh fish.

Sadly, this frugality merely left me with cash for all the things I didn’t need, but couldn’t resist. Hand-roasted olives, home-made yoghurt with figs, black sticky rice with coconut cream and palm sugar (served hot), Dutch syrup waffles cooked to order, hot spiced apple cider in the Dutch style (cloudy and almost sour, delicious). And that’s just the stuff I couldn’t leave without. I had to tear myself away from the Greek sweets man, and forced myself to avoid the cheese vendor altogether.

Now understand that this stuff is not trancendental (except maybe the fig yoghurt. Mmmmmm). It’s just real food. Take the carrots. Offered in bunches tied by the leafy crowns and still daubed in soil, they were sold to me by the farmer who, when asked, told me he pulled them up “day before yes’diy”. I scrubbed them up this evening; they were misshapen and delicately coloured in the manner of real carrots, not those orange cylinders you find in the supermarket. I added one to the pumpkin soup I was making (for colour and flavour), and eating a chunk of it I realised it tasted of something. Carrot. I felt like I was eating an actual vegetable, not gnawing on a hunk of fibre.

It made me think of the way we pile vegetables willy-nilly into the modern Australian stir-fry, which is really built around the flavours of the meat and sauce. Is it because the mass-refrigerated veges that have been shipped 1000km and stored for months have so little flavour? A long time ago in an Armidale share-house, we briefly had a housemate fresh from mainland China. When it was his turn to make dinner, he’d serve several stir-fried dishes, each with three or fewer principal ingredients: say, pork with carrot and onion, or beef with beans and garlic. Which of course makes sense, if the vegetables actually taste of something. This housemate couldn’t come at more main ingredients in a dish; you wouldn’t taste them, he insisted.

So for dinner tonight I had boiled rice, with a type of preserved pork sausage steamed and served with shredded fresh carrot and a dash of light soy. An absurdly humble dinner by modern Australian standards – in which I could taste and enjoy every single ingredient. The carrot was a highlight.

More market reports to come.

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