Sunday, October 18, 2009

Touring Sydney Markets with Alex Herbert

It's 6:30 in the morning and I'm sitting huddled outside in the blistering cold sucking the last of my cigarette down to a stump. The sun has yet to rise but even in the darkness, the streets are ablaze with activity. I'm at Sydney Markets (the largest of its kind in the Southern hemisphere) at the control centre to be exact and awaiting the arrival of my guide Chef Alex Herbert. I'm given a fleuro orange safety vest which I pull over my slightly tattered Agent 99 jacket. I'm still fidgeting with the velcro fasteners when she pushes through the door a few minutes later looking slightly flustered. A short introduction ensues and then we're off, weaving through a maze of parked cars, narrowly avoiding a large truck.

Shed D is the largest of the lot and is our first stop. Rows upon rows of styrofoam boxes, wire containers and cardboard cartons of all sizes confront us in this overwhelming space. Alex runs through the usual protocol for shopping here before rushing off and returning a few seconds later with a trolley which looks like the bare frame of an ancient carting mechanism. She points out the nuances and flavour profile of interesting ingredients as she leads us around inspecting the produce.

Boxes of frisee, green mangoes, punnets of micro herbs and fuzzy fresh almonds (which I loathe to say I've never even seen before let alone know how to use) go by before I've taken more than 20 paces from the entrance. Alex hauls a big cardboard box full of globe artichokes onto her trolley. Somehow one finds its way into the paper bag I'm carrying and then we're in bean city. Brightly painted borlotti beans are lined up to my right, and beyond, long broad bean pods the length of my forearm are arranged so neatly in a stack of cardboard boxes that seems to go on forever.

We sidle up to a truck full of herbs next. A few varieties of tarragon and coriander pass hands. Pineapple sage is here too! I'm quite excited about it since finding out that the beautiful red petals featured on Bentley Bar's tapas dish of foie gras parfait with puffed wheat, raisins and "fruit salad flowers" are actually from the pineapple sage plant. Although there are no flowers here, the smell of it is wonderful and very, very strong. I make the mistake of putting a few leaves into my mouth however and the heady pineapple-like aroma dissipates almost instantly, leaving me with the not quite so pleasant sensation of something that's decidedly hairy and bitter and fibrous.

Vegetables are to the left now. Here we have enormous zucchini too big to wrap my hand around, energetic red rhubarb stalks tied together in bunches, broccoli (a few look a little worse for wear and Alex reveals her secrets when it comes to choosing the most sprightly ones). I stop for a minute beside the largest crate I've ever seen, ogling at its contents. It's packed absolutely full of curly parsley and the amount is frightening! My eyes are wide and with heart still pounding, I scurry sheepishly back to the group where Alex is describing a delicious sounding method for cooking chicory and one of her favourite uses for celeriac root - celeriac salt, a recipe from Fergus Henderson.

Leaving Shed D, we enter one of the adjacent buildings Shed C ..or was it Shed B? Either way, it's much more intimate and enclosed than the main building with open stalls running along both sides. Boxes are still piled up on top of one another in unimaginable numbers but here, the produce is markedly different. Large red mangoes, plump figs from South Australia, my favourite Medjool dates, luminous black grapes and Corella pears, the first juicy peaches of the season, they can all be found here. ­

A little further along and we stop. We're presented with another room. It's much larger than the others. In fact it's probably more like a loading dock than an actual room and it seems totally bananas. Well not bananas. Potatoes! A little warm timber shack (for lack of a better word) sits in the very middle of this space with a woman inside manning the telephone. Beside it, an assortment of open bags and boxes are arranged on the floor with tidy symmetry and from them spill out every type and size of potato imaginable. There's just enough space for a forklift to squeeze through as all four walls have enormous crates absolutely loaded with bagged potatoes lined up against them.
I snap as many shots as I can as Chef Alex searches high and low for a bag of humble Desiree potatoes - a versatile variety characterised by smooth pink skin and creamy yellow flesh. Alex explains that they're to be used for gnocchi at the restaurant, pointing out the importance of the potatoes being all of the same size or thereabouts. If some were small and others large, the former could become mushy and waterlogged by the time the latter cooked, which would not transpire to make a good dough. The excess moisture would effectively increase the amount of flour needed to counter the level of liquid and the resulting gnocchi would be chewy, gluggy and overworked.
In the last shed we taste beautifully sweet green French and pale yellow butter beans and do a quick lap through the chilly storage room where large king browns, oysters and all sorts of other mushies are kept. The tour comes to an end at 9am and I settle down for a lazy coffee and nibbles at an Italian deli on the outskirts of the parking lot with Cassandra, a gorgeous young woman whom I've only just met this morning. A light breeze has begun to wind its way down between the stretched buildings but the sunshine is finally out, and the feeling, like having met someone who is as introverted yet equally excited by food as I am, is deliciously warming.

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