How Green Was My Market?

By Johan Liebenberg
Photography C&D Heierli, Johan Liebenberg

A friend of mine, having recently arrived back from a long spell of living in Paris, tells me of her startling discovery: The market she knew as a child is no longer there. “What happened to it?” she asks, perturbed, as though she has lost something precious, such as a passport or a purse. She remembers Saturday mornings, her father announcing they were going to the market and the whole family dressing up because going to the market was an important occasion.

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I have no such memories, and as far as I can remember all our groceries and greeneries were bought from the corner store. I became aware of the charm of markets only years later when reading how a tiny French village trembled as a convoy of trucks passed through its streets. This reminded them of another time, not so long before, when convoys of German armoured vehicles rumbled through their village. The earth shook; the window panes rattled and there was fear in the air. But this time it was different. This time the convoy comprised farmers’ trucks on their way to the famous market of Les Halles in Paris. Later on in the article, there is a description of a French farmer, so proud of his apples he stacked them into very precise pyramids, each apple having been polished to a high shine.

It was only after reading Elizabeth David’s book called Italian Cooking, however, that I finally succumbed to the allure of farmers’ markets. In the book she singles out the market near the Rialto in Venice as being the most memorable of all markets in Italy. She writes: “... the light of a Venetian dawn in early summer is so limpid and so still it makes every separate vegetable and fruit and fish luminous with a life of its own, with unnaturally heightened colours and clear stencilled outlines.” Here, she claims, the cabbages are cobalt blue, the beetroots deep rose, the lettuces “sharp as glass”. And in this tableaux of colour ... the potatoes are “primrose coloured” and she notes that the cobalt blue of the paper in which the fruit had been packed matches the colour of the blue canvas trousers worn by the men unloading the gondolas … and, although some of the fish are oddly shaped, and in other places may even be described as “repellent”, here in the inviting early morning light of Venice, they looked good enough to eat. She continues, in this rhapsodic vein: “The gentle swaying of the laden gondolas, the movements of the market men as they unload, swinging the boxes and baskets ashore, the robust life and rattling noise contrast with the fragile taffeta colours and the opal sky of Venice—the whole scene is out of some marvellous unheard-of ballet.”

Putting down the book, I realise I have missed, all my life, something important, perhaps even crucial: markets. But where were they? I eventually discovered one—the Salt River Market, which has been in existence for more than a half a century. The outside is dreary, but as you enter the portals with its peeling paint and fading walls, you are greeted by an unexpected opulence of colours and smells. In the early days, one of the stall owners recalls, you could hear the clatter of the hooves of the donkey carts delivering fresh produce, and you could buy anything, groceries, farm eggs, fresh farm milk and butter. What’s more, if you brought your own container you could buy fresh cream as well as live chickens. Friday night was a great social event and things only died down at about nine pm. Today, at that time, most people are watching television.

When the old Biscuit Mill was renovated a couple of years ago, the Saturday Farmers’ market began, and it became an instant success. Offering a wide variety of fresh produce, you can buy fresh organic ducks and cured hams made from free range pigs. These cured hams are truly delicious and, more than once, I have gone back for more. On Saturdays, when it is open, it is bustling with activity with people sampling pizzas, Malay Curries, home-made Turkish Delight, and a variety of delicacies. They offer other attractions as well. One morning, in early summer, a lovely woman showed off a spectacular peacock’s costume in the square, and a traffic cop, on stilts, and as high as a building, looked down on the crowds.

In Joburg the Rosebank Rooftop Market has become Gauteng’s foremost Sunday destination for shopping and entertainment. You’ll find over 600 stalls ranging from foodie delicacies to clothing, ceramics, art and crafts. Another popular one is the Bryanston Organic Market, with its emphasis on quality hand-crafted goods, you will find art, clothing made from natural fibres, wholesome foods and fresh organic produce. Although part of the Market burned down in May this year, they are still trading on Thursdays and Saturdays. Pretoria also has its own Boeremark, under the trees at the Pioneer Museum in Silverton. But you need to be there early to enjoy its offerings because it starts 6am and closes at 9.30am.

Outside Cape Town, farmers’ markets have sprung up too. Hermanus hosts two markets,Hermanuspietersfontein Farmers’ Market and the Fernkloof Open-Air market. Both take place on Saturdays, as most of these markets do.  They sell what you’d expect, fresh fish and shell fish, artisanal cheeses, breads, cured meats. The Hermanuspietersfontein wine cellar is right next door to the market so you can pop in for wine purchases while you’re there. Fernkloof Market is beautifully appointed under trees in the nature reserve. When I went there, a Marimba band was playing, and families were seated around tables, sipping coffee and eating home-made tarts in the early autumn sunshine with children racing about.  And then there is the Stellenbosch Fresh Goods Market, a genuine Slow Food Market, selling fine foods and wine, and proving to be a huge attraction in Stellenbosch.

Whilst farmers’ markets are an emerging phenomenon locally, abroad they have become commonplace, with hordes of tourists flocking to the main markets in New York, Tokyo and Rome. In England, they’ve taken the trend of farmers’ markets a step further with neighbourhood or municipal markets where pensioners are encouraged to sell the food from their home gardens. With our current food price hike, might this happen here too? Perhaps. At any rate, here, in South Africa with its bountiful fresh produce, farmers’ markets have the potential to become great tourist attractions—on par with museums, galleries or historical sites. Aside from this, they serve another purpose as well, or could, because here we are able to reconnect with the food we eat, and somehow, in this convivial environment, it seems a lot easier to exchange a few words with a stranger than elsewhere. Here you can taste a vine-ripened tomato, a peach at optimum sun ripeness, or feel the crunch of an apple under your teeth. And you will see ‘green lettuces as sharp as glass’ and be able to enjoy the simple pleasures of nature.