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Adding value to the Central Market


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Whenever I’m in a different country, or even a different part of Australia, I visit markets – and sometimes supermarkets, too.

Perhaps not everyone’s first preference, but obviously enough people share this fascination for publishers of travel guides to include markets under the heading of ‘Sights and Activities’ as well as ‘Eating’. If proof were needed, Adelaide’s Central Market lays claim to be ‘the most visited tourist destination in South Australia’.

The most recent destination was New York, still grey and bleak from a bitter winter and desperate for spring. Not that this deterred the farmers and producers who set up stalls in the Union Square greenmarket, selling apples and kale, salad greens and hydroponic tomatoes, logs of goat cheese rolled in cinnamon and dried cranberries, local maple syrup and honey from the bees patrolling the city’s rooftop and community gardens, grass-fed beef from Piedmontese cattle and even roasted shin bones for pampered pets.

Unlike supermarkets which, in New York, are not licensed to sell wine, this farmers’ market can and does, and a quirk in the USA-France trade agreement somehow allows Chateau Renaissance to market under the label of New York State Champagne.

Launched in 1976, the open-air Union Square market is the oldest of Manhattan’s 26 greenmarkets (some operate only seasonally). In both offerings and philosophy they are analogous to our farmers’ markets, though perhaps more environmentally and socially conscious; many accept food stamps, and some, such as Union Square, have a formal education program for schoolchildren. Recycling is high on the agenda and many greenmarkets provide bins for vegetable waste to be transformed into bags of New York Paydirt Compost.

Another example of recycling is the Chelsea Market, an imaginative repurposing of the former Nabisco biscuit factory in the Meatpacking District on the edge of the Hudson River. Once home to the city’s many wholesale butchers who took delivery of carcases transported by rail from Chicago, the area is now being rapidly gentrified with offices and boutiques and slick new restaurants reborn from traditional diners.

Imagine being able to sit down to a dozen fresh oysters or a platter of regional cheeses or a selection of smoked meats, accompanied by a glass of South Australian wine …

Chelsea Market occupies the ground floor of the building. Open seven days a week and with close to forty different shops, it’s more akin to a vast food hall with one example of every kind of food trade: butcher, baker, fishmonger, greengrocer, cheesemonger, wine merchant. Joining them are more specialised purveyors: the pastificio, with all colours and shapes of pasta; the teas-and-spices shop with its vivid pyramids of spice powders; Buon Italia, an Italian supermarket; and the one-of-a-kind salt and oil boutique, with both Tuscan and Australian olive oil plus a range of exotically flavoured salts including black truffle salt, Thai ginger salt and cinnamon, chocolate and chipotle salt.

What distinguishes the Chelsea market is that retailers not only sell ingredients to take home to cook but also a cornucopia of ready-to-eat foods. At the Lobster Place you can choose from a variety of take-away sushi, cooked lobsters and a range of soups – lobster bisque, spicy shrimp and black bean chowder – as well as fried clams and oyster po’boys; it also has a sit-down sashimi bar where seafood is sliced to order. Buon Italia serves hot dishes and mixed salads, Dickson’s Farmstand Meats sandwiches made with its own hams and charcuterie; Manhattan Fruit Exchange provides a serve-yourself salad bar and Lucy’s Whey a selection of toasted cheese sandwiches. Even the kitchenware shop that sells $2 plastic ‘sporks’ has a take-away sandwich counter. And at lunchtime the market is packed with local workers queuing for their favourite foods.

Supplementing these are tiny stalls focusing on a single product – doughnuts or brownies, yogurt or soup, even Aussie meat pies – together with proper sit-down cafés and licensed restaurants. The Green Table promises farm-to-table dining, Rani Pastificio a traditional Italian pasta menu, the soon-to-open Corkbuzz Wine Studio sandwiches and charcuterie to accompany a glass of wine.

With six million local and international visitors annually, Chelsea Market is a significant tourist attraction in the same way as some of the famous French indoor markets, such as Les Halles in Lyon – or, to give the full name, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Here, as in Chelsea, locals buy the ingredients for their dinner while visitors not only admire the displays of cheese, seafood and charcuterie but also sample them on the spot. A seafood stall extends to an oyster bar; associated with the truffle specialist is a small restaurant specialising in mushroom and truffle dishes (such as foie gras ravioli in a truffle cream sauce).

Clearly a success in other countries, this value-added model could provide an option for Adelaide’s Central Market.

The market would still fulfil its primary role as a supplier of fresh produce but at the same time would offer visitors, especially international tourists, the opportunity to do more than look and click their cameras.

Imagine being able to sit down to a dozen fresh oysters or a platter of regional cheeses or a selection of smoked meats, accompanied by a glass of South Australian wine – after all, Adelaide is the capital of Australia’s wine state. Surely this could be part of the vision for the market’s future?

Professor Emeritus Barbara Santich founded the food studies program at the University of Adelaide.

She is one of Australia’s most respected food writers.


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