The Misguided Market

Borough Market in London, where they sell artichokes the size of your head.
Borough Market in London, where they sell artichokes the size of your head.

I have a secret family recipe for vegetable soup.  As far as “secret family recipes” go, soup is about as glamorous as a sports bar in Nelspruit.  But, despite its rather unassuming appearance, this stuff is a mouthgasm in a bowl (quite similar to sports bars in Nelspruit come to think of it).

Now, there was a time when my mom got it into her head that she’d probably be able to sell the  “secret family soup” at a stall during the Grahamstown festival. And she was right, because thanks to one of the coldest snaps in Eastern Cape history, she ended up selling vast quantities of hot veggies in a cup  faster than Mr Croc got people all sweaty over his nightmarish plastic shoes.  Now in those days – ‘Market Culture’ wasn’t really on our permanent radar – and so for her it was a fun thing to do as a once-off, but it’s not like we were champing at the bit to chuck in the rat-race and base a burgeoning organic empire on paper cups of soup sold out the back of a car. These days it’s a different story – because just about everyone who can ice a cupcake is seemingly trying to flog it over a trestle-table set up in the corner of a parking-lot.

“Organic”culture is just beginning to take off in South Africa (a good 5 years behind the rest of the world, but whatever…) – but at the moment we’re doing it like like middle-aged men trying to install a brand-new and super-complex piece of electronic equipment while steadfastly refusing to read the manual: hopelessly failing and not understanding why. Because apparently manuals are for sissie-boys.  Manuals are for girlies who don’t have the ability to figure it out for themselves.  Manuals are for people who actually like things to work on the same day that they bought them.  I’m beginning to think that the only way we (and when I say ‘we’ I mean – us human-types) ever get anything right is only by complete accident.  Just about every significant discovery or progressive development in the history of us “trying to figure shit out” has happened when we left the Bunsen burner on for longer than we should have and that’s how we invented guacamole.

Okay – so, this is the bit where I become an insufferable ass and start to blag on about the fresh food markets of Italy, the tiny village markets that you find in every single corner of France, Borough market in London as well as all the countless farmer’s markets that are scattered across the UK – and how heartbreakingly magnificent they are.
And I’m okay with being an insufferable ass if it means making my point: which is that these places really are magnificent – full of gastronomic gems that you can’t get anywhere else in the world and usually sold by the people who actually made/caught/picked what they’re selling you. Which is why buying from them is always such a pleasure – because it gives you the ability to discuss the origins and feeding patterns of whatever cow is now the fresh steak you’ve just stuffed in your shopping bag, or get get the inside-track from the farmer about how this year’s crop of artichokes is the best he’s ever seen etc etc. Obviously, a lot of this is all just salesmen’s bullshit – but you know what? It’s a fucksight better than having to arm-wrestle the sackcloth housefrau at the Spar for the last wilted cucumber that she may or may not be planning to actually eat.
The secret to all of these places is that they’re viable alternatives to supermarket shopping – you can get just about everything (from a food perspective of course) you’d ever need from those places. I tried to do the same for a while in Johannesburg – and, although it was possible, it involved a heap of driving to far-flung corners of the city spread over three days. What I was gaining in savings and quality of food, I was losing because the process was about as convenient making house-paint from the burnt remains of my own face. Capetonians have got it almost right with the uber-successful Biscuit Mill Market that runs on Saturdays.  A reality that annoys the shit out of me, because to think that the mostly permanently-befuddled population of the Mother City managed to get something right before their Evolutionary Superiors up north gives me a permanent cramp in my ass.

Now that's a *lot* of mushrooms.
Now that's a *lot* of mushrooms.

I think we as South Africans in general, and South Africans from Johannesburg in particular, are in a monkeying-around-with-things-we-don’t-really-understand phase, hoping to accidentally stumble on the magic formula for making a market actually work – because you know…the rest of the world seems to be having a crapload of fun with these Market Thingies and we’d like a slice of that action please.

Okay – so as self-appointed insufferable know-it-all, here’s my totally self-indulgent 5-point plan to make the Organic Food Scene actually be something that normal people would actually like to participate in.

1)    Lots of tables with Jam on them do not a Market make.

I swear if I have to see another pot of “Home-style Chutney”, “Carrot and Goat’s Bum Relish”, “Beetroot Mousse” or some form of paste in a jar made from chillies that have been crapped out by a meerkat, I’m going to declare holy war on just about everyone. Obviously you’ve got to have some of these people, because they’re everywhere…like lice, but at least strike a balance please. Take the two best suppliers and tell the rest to take a hike.

2)    Is a carrot too much to ask?

The other day I saw a farmer walk into a restaurant kitchen, delivering a bag of fresh basil so big that I could have stuffed a mattress with it.  I immediately wondered why I’d never seen that guy at any of the markets I go to (and I go to just about all of them) and had to seriously restrain myself from jumping him in the parking lot and stealing his stock. These guys are out there, they exist – it’s not like we have no-one who farms this stuff and then sells it to people. So why aren’t they being coaxed to any of the markets? Because I know for damn sure that I’d like some top restaurant-quality herbage going down in my kitchen.  Every mall has to have what they call an Anchor Shop (usually a supermarket that people have to visit for necessities), and similarly – every market needs a stall that can sell good quality fresh produce and so position themselves as an alternative to over-priced, pesticide-riddled, neon-washed, queue-ridden chain stores.

Borough Market again...
Borough Market again... pretty. pretty.

3)    Lady, if I don’t want to buy your pie, I don’t want to buy your pie.

This is a simple one for stallholders themselves. Please don’t harass me to buy your stuff. Make it look pretty, offer a taster and don’t make me feel like crap if I don’t like your hummus. The less pushy you are – the more likely I’ll come back later and take the lot.

4)    Together we stand. Divided we’re just some people trying to sell home-made socks.

This is actually the most important one – and essentially step one in solving all the other problems. At the moment, in Johannesburg alone, there are about 8 or 9 markets spread over the city and its outskirts, being variously held over Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And so, because there

supposedly aren’t enough suppliers (although as I’ve said, I don’t think market organisers are looking hard enough) to make all of them great and diverse market environments – you’re left with all of them being pokey and just…okay. Someone needs to take all these separate flyspeck markets by the scruff of the neck and smoosh them all together into one venue, on one day and reap the whirlwind baby.  Seriously, the novelty value of having a market was, initially, enough to keep these things going – but now they’re slowly beginning to die off because the things being sold their aren’t strong or interesting enough to keep me coming back. This is why the Biscuit Mill (aaaargh, damn you Cape Town) works. It’s as close to a ‘one-stop organic shop’ as you can get. Plus you can get drunk in the sun on a bale of hay. Which brings me to…

5)    …give me something to drink and a place to drink it.

Haven’t we learned by now that pretty much the primary focus of humanity is to find interesting and new places in which to get off their tits? And if there’s a bale of hay or a chair made out of a barrel on which for me to do it – I’m sold.

Right, so there it is. I don’t expect anyone to be as fervent about what is essentially a fairly dull subject, but seeing as I’ve been away from the blog for a while – I thought I’d get things going again with a good old-fashioned rant. If anyone’s interested in getting some of my best market-products in Johannesburg (and I do have some), let me know – and I’ll put them up.

In the meantime, normal service will be resumed soon – I’ve got recipes for bloody marvelous Jam Tarts, Pastas and Salads coming soon. Sorry for the extended silence, but my dear old gran died (aged 94) and so I took it as a sign to go on holiday for a bit.