This little bourgie goes to market …

The Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, Chris Bowen, announced today that he’d formally received the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC’s) report on grocery prices. It’ll be public next week, but it’s already apparent that it will recommend unit pricing. At least that will save those poor blokes you see in the “baby aisle” doing mobile phone calculations to work out which size package has the cheapest unit price on nappies – hint, fellas: it’s always the smallest packet.

I don’t hold out much hope for the ACCC review. There will be Strong Measures to Increase Competition amongst supermarkets, of course. Zoning laws to stop capitalist bullies. And even a “GroceryWatch”. I shit you not. Why bother when “Coles and Woolworths together control 78 per cent of Australia’s packaged grocery sales worth $59 billion a year.”

The issue of food security and how we should eat is getting a lot of coverage on Radio National, in part connected to the delivery and release of the report. Life Matters today featured a great discussion about how pricing and availability affects people on lower incomes (you can hear the segment here for the next week, after that this site will give you the idea) and Encounter looks to be covering it from a more global perspective. (Sunday am/Weds night or podcast).

So with all this earnest concern I’ve been pondering t h e – g o b b l e r ‘ s question of whether a “War on Foodies!” is coming:

‘Aren’t they just pushing a very sophisticated & elite point of view?’ was the point I gleaned from tonight’s Counter-point on ABC’s radio national.

This implication combined with the very real emerging divide between the realities of nourishing your family within your economic actuality & the constant barrage of cooking celebs insisting that unless you are buying free-trade, seasonally, locally, SOLE [sustainable, organic, local and ethical] etc somehow you are not doing the right thing & you have a compelling recipe for disenfranchisement. This is what is pounced upon by those who are keen to get traction with this cultural-divide argument.

I agree that celebrity chefs can be annoying, but anyone that driven in their life is usually a bit painful. And while equitable access to food concerns me, truth be told I’m not that worried about ending up in a food culture war, for I shall beat their puny warriors over the head with slabs of my frozen homemade veal stock and their inadequately nourished bodies will crumble before my righteous wrath. Ha!

Cooking at home is a joy for me, but it isn’t for many people. Apparently some of them get pissed off finding out what they’re missing out on. More fool them.

If you’re attempting to make a convert, you could do worse than Mochachocolata-Rita’s list of reasons in favour of home cooking, which boils down to it’s fun, cheap and gets you the sexies. (Usage note: that final term being the one currently employed by my kindergartener son and his best mate; the correct construction is that you “do the sexies” on someone.)

While I’ve always been interested in food and cooking it wasn’t until my first stretch of stay-at-home mothering that I began making almost all the food we ate each day. It’s what made me a good cook, rather than a just a bourgie girl with a lot of cookbooks and a well stocked pantry.

Because we were living on one income, and not a huge one at that, I needed to wise up. I started shopping at the Fyshwick and Belconnen produce markets, and for a while when we were really skint I would buy a week’s worth of fruit and veg in the last hour of sales on Sunday before the Fyshwick markets closed until the following Thursday. We never ate badly, but I’m glad that I don’t have to fight my way through all the diplomatic plated cars for a park at Fyshwick on Sundays anymore.

Grey industrial sceneFor a long while, I became a serious fan of the Canberra Farmer’s Market. I don’t remember hearing about it starting up, but it wasn’t long after it was begun in early 2004 by the Rotary Club in nearby Hall.

My joy came partly because I could buy Infinity sourdough there. One of the biggest (and saddest) adjustments following moving to Canberra in 2002 was the lack of proper bread, particularly since I’d been living in Enmore in inner Sydney and was accustomed to being able to buy La Tartine bread at the Alfalfa House Co-op at end of my street. *sigh* But then I found Silo, which makes better bread than Infinity.

Still, many of the good things at the Market are very, very good. Like the warm spiced apple cider you can see my shadow clutching over there ⇐

Despite being generally very happy with the produce, I stopped being a fan of the whole “Farmers’ Market” experience. It was a combination of little things. There was an element of the Free Range Children Market For Inner City Pretentious Wankers, to borrow a term from Purple Goddess – I’m looking at you, posh lady with the $9 jars of “breakfast prunes” – but it wasn’t just that.

Celery The punters began coming earlier and earlier, and some stall holders were so busy serving customers two hours before the markets were advertised as beginning that they didn’t have time to set out their produce properly. Part of the whole relaxed and friendly vibe of the markets was lost in the crowds of pushy people. And until they put up signs forbidding it, people took dogs into the food selling areas. Alright, you’re in a building that says “Sheep Pavilion”, but you wouldn’t dream of taking your stupid fluffy white dog to the supermarket, would you?

I became annoyed that some stalls were obviously reselling purchased items – the variety and seasonality of the produce ostensibly from one origin gave it away. And some smaller stallholders whose produce was really out of this world – like Tallabung heritage breeds pork, the best pork that I have ever eaten – sold their business and while the brand is sold there, it’s lost the artisanal flavour that made it so astonishing. And it’s a lot more expensive. So I was pleased to see the markets separated into a “direct producer” and “not” sheds last year, as it meant I had to do less wandering to find the stalls I was after.

Rose Muffins from Amore CakesBut even despite the consistently excellent quality of the best stallholders – my favourites are the fresh South Coast seafood, the Amore cakes, Li Shen exotic mushrooms, Yulin Shanghai tofu and street snacks and Glean Na Meala spuds and greens – I found myself going to the Farmers’ Markets less and less. Since Glenn Na Meala opened Choku Bai Jo, I’ve been to the markets on one exploratory trip, for this post.

I might have gone more often if their website wasn’t so difficult to use – it’s a great example of how to stuff up using the web.

The site is set up as an internal administrative tool rather than a communication tool; I want to know what people are going to be selling this week, not where to download a form to sell my produce. Fair enough that there be a admin area for stallholders, but how about a simple site that is useful for customers too? Even an email newsletter that says what’s on this week? What to make with it? Their PR people seem fixated on mainstream press coverage rather than making their clients’ goods accessible to lots of different types of consumers. In summer, there are fantastic peaches and nectaries straight from the growers in Araluen – but how do you know when they are arriving? (When peaches are in season, I know, but you get my drift.)

In discussions at playgroups and waiting to pick up kids from school I hear other food loving parents complain that going to the markets has become another chore, rather than a pleasurable way to buy your food. I’ve also heard complaints that it’s not always cheaper than the supermarket. To my mind it needn’t be, because the quality and freshness are so much better, but to many people Farmers’ Market = super cheap. Something else for the PR peeps.

The site’s photo galleries are terrible – it’s a popup and the images still bear their camera sequence names. But it’s surprising to see the difference between April 2004 and now; maybe twenty stall holders and a couple of dozen milling food lovers then and two big sheds plus two separate outdoor areas and hundreds of regular customers now. The rest of the set from my trip to the markets is up at my flickr.

I will still go to the markets occasionally, and probably more in spring and summer. But for now, it’s just not worth the bother, when $45 at Choko Bai Jo buys you this (including the bowl of local hazelnuts), most of it organically produced but not certified organic, and sorry about the photo:

The Capital Region Farmers’ Market is held Saturdays at Exhibition Park (EPIC), from 8-11 am

13 comments ↓

#1 another outspoken female on 01.08.08 at 8:25 am

Having popped into the Melbourne Slow Food market en route to the blogmeet on the weekend I am sad to say that one in particular is getting worse. Lots of overpriced conventional produce, a couple of stalls looked so dubious and over priced that I doubted any farmer could have ever staffed it. The rarity was the stall with nettles and watercress and the woman who sells a totally different type of rhubarb. All this and you have to pay to enter. Very annoying.

Vic market remains my favourite. There is some competition and rewards for loyalty. You can still eat really well and cheaply if you know how to be a canny shopper.

Absolutely agree that years of being unemployed or underemployed, being a traveller of a student is great training in thriftiness. Having notched up 7 years of tertiary education outside of living at home and a few more years of lack of gainful employment, it teaches you how to shop and cook well out of necessity.

#2 Duncan | Syrup&Tang on 01.08.08 at 10:22 am

A fantastic set of issues you raise:) The farmers’ market experience is such a mixed bag and it’s easy to become cynical about the stalls or aims (I love your $9 prunes example!). For me, the market in Canberra felt miles closer to what these markets could be (compared to many of those in Melbourne), but from your account it sounds like some of the same problems appear.

I also echo another outspoken female’s comments. Many of us are able to shop sensibly and cook well because of times when thrift and circumstance made it necessary, as well as because of a love of food. I guess many of the inexperienced or reluctant cooks will be pushed towards cooking if the current economic downturn bites too hard.

#3 the Gobbler on 01.08.08 at 12:23 pm

Hi Zoe, great article.
Your right on about the questionable source of some of the farmers markets produce getting about.
Since they have sort of become ‘franchised’ some are quite plainly just outlets for bigger players in the food industry.
My fear is that the currency of the ones with some integrity is being devalued by these opportunists keen to cash in on the sentiment.
many have tried to get them going over here & all have gone by the wayside. I have a theory that if you have a historical culture of growing your own stuff then farmers markets dont seem to be so compelling. I think that why down here they haven’t done too well but paradoxically, the more people that relocate here from the mainland might bring with them their disconnect to food & so a market might have a fair chance to survive! Ironic hey?

#4 grocer on 01.08.08 at 1:09 pm

I thought I commented on this and then realised I was going to come back on this later.

Sadly, I agree with you on the ACCC investigation into grocery retailing – a complete farce. Amendments to the retail leases acts would do what [...?] and the federal government doesn’t have the power under the constitution to do it anyway.

Farmers’ markets are another little bug bear of mine. The only one I have been to that genuinely impresses me is the Byron/Bangalow one (Byron Thursday morning, Bangalow Saturday morning).

#5 Thermomixer on 01.08.08 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for the links relating to Life Matters & VicHealth. Great to see that the counicls are promoting programs such as developing community allotments as they have in UK, & training in growing and cooking produce.
Wish we had a Choko Bai Jo nearby – seen a number of posts singing its praises.

#6 dylwah on 01.08.08 at 7:39 pm

You don’t get much of that fire sale madness at the end of those farmers markets either, arriving late is more likely to leave you empty handed than wondering what you are going to do with 2kg each of potatoes, mushrooms, and broccoli, some dodgy capsicums and 12 quails the butcher gave you for a buck when you splurged on some mince.

and if you are buying your nappies at the supermarket (thumps head, forgot to buy them today) in SE melbourne you deserve a plague of rorts visted upon your wallet.

#7 Always Hungry on 01.08.08 at 7:46 pm

Great post – we were thinking about writing something about the markets as well. Maybe later.

We’ve only started going (very occasionally) in the last year or so – which may explain why we thought it interesting that you had the experience that the markets were at one point cheap. Even as newbies though, we did think it was a little weird that they do feel at times a little “Jones the Grocer” (of Manuka) to be quite right.

#8 Pavlov's Cat on 02.08.08 at 8:02 pm

The Adelaide Central Market (hooray) also does the fire sale thing, and it’s still good stuff.

Also, thirded re lots of honing of poverty skills in student days; once learned, never forgotten. I can still mend moth holes in jumpers, too.

Zoe, why are you apologising for the photo?

#9 Megxx on 03.08.08 at 9:31 am

Yeah but no but Zo. Have to agree with the pretentious prunes bit (Jaysus people – whack some prunes in a jar, pour in some grog, and forget about having them for brekky.) Tallabung were my favourite pork guys ever (I miss youse guys!)/when whatever season is in full swing, the fruit and veg are perfeck and reasonably priced/flowers are affordable/it’s as close to a village atmosphere as Canberra’s likely to get. For all it’s cons it’s got plenty of pros. Yes the initial shine may have gone off it but I gotta say that having moved down the coast I miss it dreadfully. It’s a long haul between quite that array of produce down this neck of the woods. Certainly on a weekly basis. One can’t live on oysters and mussels alone, my friend (though we have a bloody good go at it!!)

#10 Megxx on 03.08.08 at 9:33 am

whoops, sorry about those ‘it’s', people. They get away from me sometimes!!!

#11 Zoe on 03.08.08 at 10:49 am

aof, I’ve only been to the Vic Markets twice, but that’s pretty much my idea of what a market should be like. Stuff paying for entry – it smacks of some kind of Gourmet Lifestyle Expo, doesn’t it?

Duncan, there’s a place for $9 prunes – hostess gift for your mother in law springs to mind – but really, homemade is better, particularly when you can buy extremely good unsulphured dried prunes at the same market.

gobbler, do people do a lot of exchanging produce ’round your way? Because if everyone’s producing and sharing the market is pretty irrelevant. Perhaps the newcomers will enjoy the villagey atmosphere that Megxx talks about; I always run into some people I know at the market and enjoy the social aspect of it. I am also really nosey about what other people are buying so I like that part too ;)

yep, grocer, no breath holding here on the ACCC report. On The Insiders on the ABC this morning the suggestion was that $13 million would be spent setting up an online “grocery watch” that would be updated monthly, ie would be practically pointless.

Thermomixer (if that is your real name) – my son’s school has been building an “environmental courtyard” this year. There are two “compost kids” in each class who take food scraps to the school’s chooks, and now they’re inviting locals to plant an allotment. There are quite a few blocks of flats and older people living nearby, so it could be wonderful. It’s a very motivated school community so chances for the program to succeed are good. I’d rather see that $13 million spent on this type of community activity. And I try not to bang on about Choku Bai Jo all the time, but it’s just that good. Brazen’s a fan too.

dylwah, there are very few vendors who discount at the end of the markets here; but most of them shift to the southside of town for an afternoon market (at CIT in Phillip, from memory) so perhaps they do it there. (And now I’ve just read your comment at crazybrave and worked out who you are! Big kiss to you and folks. Also have been unable to find locust recipe – we did a salt and pepper one that time at Anna & Sean’s didn’t we? I just remember crunchy. And for any curious folks, yes indeed it was the slightly illicit substances which sparked the desire to catch and eat the locusts.)

Always Hungry, I do think the prices at the market are generally reasonable. But you always have to ask, and make a point of it where things aren’t labelled. I’m happy to put something back if I don’t think the price is justified.

Pav, I thought you were kidding! That photo is actually quite blurry if it’s any bigger than that ;) I would dearly love to be a better photographer, but I don’t really have the time to devote to it at the moment, and the family keep wanting me to stop taking pictures and give them their dinner. (And I spent the morning mending while watching The Insiders, although truth be told I am about as skilled with a needle as I am with a camera.)

Megxx! Suffering with the seafood, I hear ya. Do the locals near you sell much stuff, or is it mainly dairying? It was always great fun to see you at the markets, and easy to find you when your hair was pink, too!

#12 Megxx on 03.08.08 at 8:56 pm

There are little markets in far-flung townships probably every weekend, but it’s a long way to drive to find only some jars of homemade jam and…some more jars of homemade jam. There’s the Candelo Market once a month but that’s more for bric-a-brac, although there is some produce – including one spectacularly fabulous potato man. I think something happens in Bega every fortnight, but it’s hardly extensive (probably the potato man and a coupla jam ladies.) I’m looking forward to being proven wrong. Perhaps Caren might know…

#13 harry on 04.08.08 at 3:19 pm

I am _totally_ gonna do the sexies on a girl sometime.
That will be awesome.

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