Markets are intriguing environments. Over the years I have visited some truly memorable markets both locally and overseas.

Hometown markets are generally easy to navigate as language, produce and locality are understood. In foreign locations I often feel like I am surfing through spaces on the crest of the biggest wave with all senses on high alert. It is easy to get carried away with the hype and energy that ‘to be explored’ markets create.

What is always fascinating is discovering unique produce that is sourced from a particular region or country that may be unobtainable in another. So always being on the prowl for a foodie gem has drawn me to visit some famous international markets.

Djemaa el-Fna 

A trip to Morocco and Marrakesh would not be complete without visiting the famous Djemaa el-Fna market.

It comprises of a huge square in the medina, and although busy all day long, it completely comes into its own at dusk. In the evenings, rows and rows of open-air food stalls sell traditional meat, fish and vegetables elaborately displayed. One typical display would be a pyramid of Moroccan oranges, famous for their slightly acidic flavour with peddlars toting to sell you a glass. Dried figs, dates and conical mounds of spices are artistically displayed.

Here is where we encountered the infamous ‘goats head soup’ being prepared. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, this spectacle included goats heads hanging in the heat of the evening and then placed into broth and steamed. As we were just starting our Moroccan holiday I felt I would renege from this opportunity. David has since made this dish somewhat famous at our last year’s winter FAWC event, preparing bowls of the unusual soup and awarding prizes for the bravest of guests to eat the ‘eyeballs’. Yes we had some takers and they were rewarded with standing ovations.

Mercato Centrale 

Great markets sell local produce and there is no better example in the world than the Mercato Centrale in Florence. This is where the locals shop and it is where we as curious travellers sought to seek out unusual and traditional Italian produce.

The market is on two levels with butchers, fishmongers, fruit and vegetable vendors and speciality food shops on the ground floor. Wandering through this space, meats such as cow stomach, brains and tongue were are all on sale, and then an abundance of safer produce like dried mushrooms, truffled honey, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegars were available.

The second level has been recently remodelled and is a one-stop food shopping centre with around twelve artisan stalls offering freshly-made items either to consume or take home. Finding the pasta and pizza stall we decided to stay for lunch and ordered freshly made fettucine with a very spicy tomato sauce and a robust glass of Chianti. What is fascinating in this market is the way the stalls have been designed so you can experience first-hand the food being prepared. Clear glass windows allow you to watch Italian specialties like gelato being made from scratch, bread kneaded, pasta extruded from huge machines and famous bufala cheese being handcrafted.

Tsukiji Fish Market 

Prue at Bellatino’s Hawke’s Bay

For the fish aficionado there is no better market in the world than the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. This market kicks off at 4am, with the auctions held at the back of the market not officially open to the public. Hundreds of different types of seafood are available here and from around 7am Tokyo’s restaurateurs and food retailers pick through the daily catch. Approximately 2,000 tons of seafood comes under the hammer here daily and the choice of seafood is mind-boggling. Crabs, sea urchins, squid are piled high with everything from eels from Taiwan, salmon from Santiago to tuna from Tasmania. We viewed huge slabs of tuna being labelled with their country of origin and butchered.

Our host for the tour was the executive chef from the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo and he was determined to take us to breakfast at one of the sushi stalls in the surrounding grid of streets. It is traditional to eat sushi and drink beer at this early hour and he chose sea urchin and other supposed delicacies such as shirako (cod sperm) topped sushi. After breakfast we weaved our way through the outer market where kitchenware sellers and grocers and pottery merchants displayed their wares.

What is of interest in all of these markets is that there will be a common thread of produce, but it will vary according to country and climate.

If you take olive oil as an example, different countries will produce many unique varieties that will be used in their regional cuisine. In the market in Morocco we discovered argan oil which is a plant oil produced from the kernels of the argan tree. This nutty, rich oil is used to dip bread in at breakfast or drizzle on couscous or pasta. Hooked on this new oil we purchased a small and expensive bottle to bring home.

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Obviously olive oil from the south of Italy will taste very different from Tuscan olive oil and that will vary from a Spanish or Portugese one or our local Village Press Frantoia olive oil produced here in the Hawke’s Bay. All these different oils will give huge variety to any recipe.

No place like home

Our own Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market is one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in New Zealand. An upsurge of interest in shopping at farmers’ markets has become apparent over recent times and our market attracts thousands of locals and bus loads of visitors annually. What is there not to love about purchasing fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, bread, specialty olive oils and coffee straight from the producer?

Another ‘must-do’ market in the summer is the Black Barn Growers’ Market. Here, nestled in the heart of the vineyard, produce such as roasted coffee, flowers, meat, pickles, olive oils and organic vegetables are on sale.

Specialty shops such as Vetro Mediterranean Foods in Ahuriri have always stocked quality lines of local produce such as Dave McKee’s verjuice, St Andrews limes, the Aromatic range and olive oil from Matapiro and Village Press. Bellatino’s Food Lovers Market in Havelock North stock local produce with a nudge towards artisan and top quality Italian imported foods and wines.

It is easy to consider that the ‘grass may be greener’ offshore, but for me I know I have won the lottery of life living here in the Hawke’s Bay with all this very fine produce to choose from.

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