Melbourne's best producers and produce stores

By Michael Harden
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World famous Italian butcher, Dario Cecchini, with bistecca fiorentina, the classic steak of Tuscany

World famous Italian butcher, Dario Cecchini, with bistecca fiorentina, the classic steak of Tuscany [©Dario Cecchini]

It is easy to find good produce in Melbourne. The food markets - both large and small - that are scattered across the city are the most obvious sources of ingredients but certainly can’t claim a monopoly on all the best ingredients. Across Melbourne, often in the most unlikely and unassuming places, you can find little stores that are baking fantastic bread, selling incredibly fresh and varied seafood, pampering cheese, making chocolate or specialising in Portuguese, Japanese or Lebanese groceries and ingredients.  There are treasures everywhere waiting to be found and, in Melbourne, you never have to dig too deep before discovering produce gold.

The Queen Victoria Market should be the first port of call for anybody wanting to know what makes the city’s food heart thump. Officially operating since 1878, the Queen Vic is the largest open-air market in the Southern hemisphere. It sprawls over seven hectares of the CBD’s northwest and attracts more than a million and a half visitors every year. But facts and figures only tell part of the story and to really understand why the Queen Vic Market has become part of Melbourne’s soul (and why there was such a vehement public outcry in the 1970’s when developers began laying plans to dismantle it) you need to visit the market on a Saturday when the place is heaving with locals of every age, colour and creed.

Walking into the Meat Hall by the Elizabeth Street entrance, you are immediately assailed by the incredible noise and energy – not to mention the smell - of the place. Butchers, fishmongers and chicken specialists shout out to the bag toting, trolley pushing crowds, enticing them with special deals on the amazing variety of produce heaped up in the glass cases that line the aisles.

Further in you’ll discover the more sedate but no less vibrant art deco style of the Deli Hall with its marble counters filled with an incredible range of cheese, meat, bread, coffee, game, pasta, olives, nuts, honey, eggs, pickles, jam and dried fruit. Look for the Polish Deli with its amazing variety of small goods from black pudding to smoked eel or the incredible array of cheese and butter and Curds and Whey and discover The Chicken Pantry’s remarkable selection of poultry, eggs and game meat, much of it free range and hormone free.

For fruit and vegetables, head outside to the ‘sheds’ (vast open sided structures) where mounds of fantastic produce – everything from humble spuds and pumpkin to Asian greens and fresh water chestnuts - stretch away in every direction. Those interested in organic produce should head to I Shed and mushroom lovers should pay particular attention to Cameron Russel’s Stall 83 where, in the cooler months, a knee-weakening range of wild and exotic mushrooms, many of them hand picked by Cameron, are on display.

In any other city, the scope and size of the Queen Victoria Market would be more than enough to satisfy the marketing population’s needs, but for Melburnians it seems, too many markets are barely enough.

Over in the west, the Footscray Market provides one of the best culinary adventures in town, particularly when you fossick amongst the fishmongers discovering strange seafood bounty you’ve never seen before. A brilliant multi-cultural blend of stalls – from Ethiopian to Italian to Vietnamese – not only provides good ingredients but also some obvious hints as to why Melbourne’s food scene is so diverse. While in this neighbourhood, pay a visit to the nearby Little Saigon Market where the frenetic atmosphere and an incredible range of Asian produce and exotic fruit provides what is arguably Melbourne’s closest thing to the real Vietnamese McCoy.

An altogether different experience awaits you at the Prahran Market. The oldest continuously running market in Australia, the Prahran Market has come a long way since it was moved from an overcrowded patch of land to its present site in 1864 where it has become the neatest and most genteel of all Melbourne’s markets. Luckily all the order and matching aprons does not equate with sterility and stuffiness and some of the best market produce – from organic meat and vegetables to fantastic seafood and a remarkable range of deli and dry goods – alongside the most knowledgeable stall owners are found here.

South Melbourne, Preston, Dandenong and Camberwell also have their own well-attended markets but the newest sign of Melbourne’s addiction comes from the relatively recent appearance in the city of monthly Farmers’ Markets. These markets (in Hawthorn, at the Collingwood Children’s Farm and next to the Veg Out Community Gardens in St Kilda) attract farmers and producers into the city to talk about and sell their produce direct to city consumers in an old-fashioned, plastic bag free environment.  The produce reflects the seasons (so don’t expect to pick up tomatoes in winter) but the range of fruit and vegetables, honey, eggs, smoked meat, artisan cheese, olive oil, jams and preserves is always snapped up by an ever-increasing crowd, lured by a desire to discover where their ingredients came from and how they were treated. While not strictly organic, the Farmers’ Markets favour smaller producers who keep their use of chemicals and sprays to a minimum. The pretty outdoor settings – particularly the one beside the Yarra at the Collingwood Children’s Farm – and the crowds of dedicated food fans make these markets a unique, cosy and comforting environment for any food and wine lover.

Of course the markets are a great place to start for any food hound but to really make like a Melburnian you also have to gather a list of specialty shops where you go to buy particular items.

In some cities it might seem slightly ridiculous to cross town to buy sausages, but those cities won’t have sausages as good as the ones made by Andrew Vourvahakis in the back room of his shiny butcher shop in Anderson Street, Yarraville. Andrew, who is always on for a chat about his not-so-humble snags, has been anointed Sausage King a couple of times and when you taste his cheese kranskys made from pork and beef shoulder you’ll be willing to genuflect too. His frankfurts are equally good and there is an ever-changing selection of other flavours like Sicilian pork and Greek lamb.

For traditional European smallgoods you need to cross back to other side of town and visit Prahran Continental Butcher in Chapel Street. This is a place where the leg ham is smoked over apple wood, the liverwurst is made from chicken livers and the range of European specialities runs from weisswurst to black pudding. Even better, there is a grill in the store so you can do your shopping while chomping on a freshly cooked continental sausage in a roll piled with sauerkraut and mustard.

Largo Butchers in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy is another place of meat pilgrimage with regular pilgrims including some of the best chefs in town. Brothers Roger and Simon Ongarato make brilliant prosciutto and pancetta (alongside a wide range of other continental smallgoods), intensely flavoured, rich coloured Italian meats that have been patted and rubbed, hung for at least six months and generally mollycoddled before you buy them. Well-aged meat is excellent here (especially the beef) and you can also find rabbit, chicken and, occasionally, goat.

Not far from Largo, in Fitzroy’s Johnston Street, is a little piece of Portuguese and Spanish food heaven. Casa Iberica is one of the city’s true gems and the moment you smell the shop’s chorizo-scented air and hear owner Alice De Sousa chatting in Spanish to many of her long-time customers is the moment you become addicted to the place. There is a treasure trove of olives, sherry vinegar, smoked paprika, rice, olive oil, paella pans and drinking chocolate to be found on the shelves in the dimly lit shop but the main action happens in the glass fronted deli case. The dried chorizo here is the best in town and you can also get fantastic jamon, black pudding, bacalao and an excellent selection of Spanish and Portuguese cheese. If all the delicious treasure is making you feel faint, treat yourself to a sweet, fortifying, custard-filled Portuguese tart.

A couple of suburbs away in North Carlton is Canal’s, arguably the best seafood store in Melbourne. Occupying the same unassuming shopfront in Nicholson Street since 1931, Canal’s is easy to miss but if you are disoriented, look for the crowd that, on busy weekends, can actually spill out onto the street. The reason for the regular crush is the Canal family’s dedication to the freshest fish and shellfish and the attention to detail. They’ll shuck oysters, filet fish and clean calamari for you and there is always somebody available to tell you the best way to handle your soft shell crab, whole snapper or smoked trout.

Any food-obsessed city worth its salt must be able to produce good bread and Melbourne has a fantastic range of small bakeries dishing up a wide range of excellent loaves.

St Kilda’s Baker D. Chirico is not only one of the nicest looking bakeries in town – all pared-back, designer-rustic style – but Daniel Chirico is a true artisan who specialises in sourdough and turns out loaves and baguettes with remarkable flavour and a wonderful crispy/chewy crust.

In nearby Ripponlea, the Firebrand Bakery has been doing its sourdough thing for years and makes one of the best, chewy casalingas in town alongside breads made with soda and potato while Frank’s Elsternwick Bakery in Glenhuntly Road specialises in old-fashioned rye bread and is the best place in town for fresh baked pretzels.

On the north side of the river, the Gertrude Street Organic Bakery grinds its wholemeal flour fresh every day, uses mostly natural yeasts and bakes bread that is moist, chewy and hugely flavoured. The hours and the loaves – from amazing fruit loaf to black olive bread - are limited so grab what you can when you can.

Brunswick Street’s Babka is another northside bakery worth a visit. Babka includes a very popular café with an Eastern European lean (think Borscht and dumplings) and a great range of bread. The baguette and ficelle are particularly fine here as are chewy rye loaves and the cute currant-speckled shoo fly buns.

If you’re not interested in tracking down produce from one end of town to the other, Melbourne has a couple of not-to-be-missed, one-stop, bells-and whistles gourmet food destinations. These are the type of places where you not only find shelves full of exotic products you never knew you needed but are also almost bound to stock that obscure ingredient that you can’t find anywhere else.

The Essential Ingredient is at the back of the Prahran Market, a perfect addition to the Market’s excellent produce and one of the nicest shopping experiences a food and wine lover could hope to have. The Essential is a true food superstore offering amazing ranges of vinegar and oils from all over the world, seemingly endless lines of antipasto ingredients, herbs and spices, preserves, dressings and capers alongside a brilliant range of cookbooks and kitchenware. Chefs, restaurateurs, home cooks and the food curious come here both for specific purposes (“must pick up some more saffron syrup”) and for inspiration (“why didn’t I think of Iranian fairy floss before?”). It is one of Melbourne’s finest food resources.

Simon Johnson has two stores (in Fitzroy and Toorak) that pack a lot of what Simon believes to be the best in the world – from oil to chocolate to anchovies – into a reasonably contained space. Charming staff will make you a coffee to keep you alert while browsing. Perhaps the stores’ best features are their dedicated cheese rooms that stock a great range of local and imported cheese.

Another top cheese destination is the cheeseroom at the Richmond Hill Café and Larder. The purpose-built humidity and temperature controlled room allows the cheese to mature at an ideal rate and the range includes European, British and Australian cheeses mainly from smaller dairies and artisan makers. Regular classes are held to unravel the mysteries of the tricky world of cheese.

From the Middle Eastern food shops in Brunswick to the institution Italian stores on Lygon Street, the Jewish delis on Carlisle Street and the Asian supermarkets of Richmond, Melbourne always has more and then some more to offer. Start poking around now – it’ll take a while before you reach the end.

© Michael Harden 2006

First printed in Food and Wine Lovers’ Guide to Melbourne and Surrounds (2006)

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  • Melbourne (VIC)

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