We all hear celebrity chefs on TV rhapsodising about the joys of shopping in a marketplace - smelling the fruit, squeezing the vegetables. Until now, I never really understood this as marketplaces, i.e. those quaint jobs with rickety stalls, strange smells and shouting stall holders were not part of my food landscape in Australia. They've always been to me some sort of contrived ideal that didn't really exist. Besides, the closest thing to these olde marketes was the Fish Market in Sydney and even then it was very clean, covered with not a rickety stall in sight. Yes, there is the Farmers' Market in Pyrmont, but linen covered stalls pushing overpriced raspberry juice and fancy sausage isn't really the kind of marketplace I'm talking about. But perhaps the Victoria Markets in Melbourne are the closest to the real thing.
Living in London, the food landscape is very different. Supermarkets rule the roost, but the range on offer, especially in the inner city, is very small - á cause de small shops and lack of space. It's impossible finding fresh beetroot at a Sainsbury's Local or a Tesco Express - you'd have better luck at a Waitrose, but still, it's overpriced. The place for fresh fruit and vegetables is indeed ye olde streete market. Well, not quite so old because the sellers are purely there to make money with no pretence at recreating some Tudor-style shopping experience.
Church St Market near Paddington Station is open everyday except Sundays. Today as I walked down the centre avenue, Arabic women clad in black billowed past, nothing but their dark eyes shining seductively above their veils. I passed stalls selling polycotton sheets and pillowcases, household cleaners and a dubious fishmonger with a flurry of shiny flecks flying around him. A lingerie stall caught the eye of a short man wrapped up in a tweed coat and tea-cosy hat. He fingered the lacy red and gold bustier hanging cocooned in plastic above him - waiting to emerge like a butterfly on the right woman.
I saw the most beautiful eggplant in the world. £3/kg is not cheap but these deep-purple gems were shiny and perfect. The slightly flawed ones, albeit in a very minor way, were £2/kg. Large red capsicum beckoned me and I bought one for 20p. I walked past the two young boys sitting at a fold-up picnic table selling pirated CDs. "£3.50 a CD, any one you like," they called. Later on as I past them they yelled at the two girls behind me, "What you looking at, slag!" More veiled Arabic women, some in wheelchairs waving sticks; floated through the crowd looking for vegetables. The smoky scent of an incense seller wafted past and mixed strangely with that of the Tikka stall which belched charcoal and barbecue smoke around it. I wondered about the poor stalls nearby - those nylon trackpants for £6 each just absorb odours like a sponge.
At the end of the market was a Caribbean food stall selling jerk chicken, curried goat, plantain and other things for £3.50 a small takeaway. I'd just finished munching on a Manoushi (Middle Eastern bread with sesame, sumac and spices) so I was too full to partake. I located some cherry tomatoes for 40p a box and made my way back up Edgware Rd to home. Many shoppers, including myself, also patronised the nearby minimarkets. I bought some tangy Lebanese yoghurt and large flat khobez bread for lunch the next week.