Monday, February 25, 2008

Slow Food Farmers' Market

The weather forecast was for a cool day and possible rain. Not the most enticing forecast, especially when we're still officially in summer. There were a few grey clouds dotting the sky and a cool wind but otherwise rain seemed far away, so we set off to the Abbotsford Convent on Saturday morning for the Slow Food Farmers' Market.

The Abbotsford Convent is a treasure for Melbourne. Slated for residential development in the late 1990s, the local community fought hard to keep the Convent precinct out of the hands of developers and it is now a thriving arts colony. Eleven heritage buildings and beautiful gardens are set on nearly seven hectares of land near the Yarra River, just four kilometres from the CBD. There's studios for individual artists, writers, craftspeople and health practitioners, a community radio station, and the food options include the Convent Bakery, Handsome Steve's House of Refreshment (licensed cafe) and Lentil As Anything (a vegetarian restaurant where you pay what you think the experience is worth).

Among the various festivals and events hosted by the Abbotsford Convent is the Slow Food Farmers' Market, held on the fourth Saturday of each month. Farmers' markets are a key part of the Slow Food principles, which treasure tradition, cherish communities and celebrate conviviality. Farmers' markets are a direct source of fresh produce and a chance for the buyers to meet the growers.

We pass people pulling trolleys loaded with food along St Heliers St as we approach the entrance gate at 9am. The market opens at 8am and the earlybirds have already enjoyed the array of fresh produce available. There's quite a crowd inside the grounds and there's a wonderful buzz and sense of community in the air that comes with the exhibition and purchase of delicious seasonal food. Stalls are displaying fresh organic vegetables including mounds of fat pumpkins, enormous shiny eggplants, long plump zucchinis, bags of Swiss brown mushrooms, a wide range of different potato varieties, punnets of enormous fire-engine red strawberries, glossy capsicums, small French plums, and a variety of fresh greens, such as bok choy, spinach, cabbage and cauliflower. We taste fresh pistachios from north Victoria. They are quite soft and don't taste much like the dried, salted variety you normally see in shops. The stallholder tells us that they make a good pesto, so we buy some to try.

It's easy to plan the week's meals with the variety of food on offer. A glossy purple oversized eggplant will be sliced into wedges and roasted with olive oil, some spices and tinned tomatoes to make a hearty side-dish. Bunches of crisp green asparagus can be mixed into pasta with pancetta and parmesan. The potato stallholder recommends Royal Blue potatoes, saying they are a good allrounder. (We steam them that night and serve with some fresh better and they are a truly delicious potato, with a creamy, nutty texture). A bag of Swiss brown mushrooms, cooked and flavoured with some herbs and balsamic vinegar, will make an indulgent Sunday breakfast. Broccoli, zucchini and pumpkin go into the bag to use during the week. And I can't resist a bunch of rhubarb that can be cooked into a rich crumble made with hazelnuts, flour, chocolate and butter.

There's plenty of other food on offer to sample and buy, including pates, dips, ice-cream, cheeses, saltbush lamb, free-range pork, bread, free-range eggs, blueberries, sultanas and currants, dukkah, jams, muesli and Turkish delight. We buy coffee and ciabatta rolls from the Convent Bakery for a mid-morning snack.

The rain stays away and we leave for home loaded up with food and a vow to return next month.

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