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On a sunny Saturday in mid January 2012, Sylvia (check out her blog Sylvia Can Cook) and I did the Foodies Dream Tour of Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne.

Sylvia says that having lived in Melbourne all her life, it took a visit from me from Sydney to get her there, but in any case we loved it!

Sylvia and Master O prepare for Foodies Tour of Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne

The tour allows for the discovery of the newest foods and trends and is led by one of the markets qualified Tour Guides. It includes generous samplings, a coffee, seasonal recipe cards written by some of Melbourne’s most well known chefs and an environmentally friendly shopping bag.

We started our tour with our guide Carmel by making our way to the market’s well known hot doughnut van on Queen Street. Carmel explained that the van has become an institution since it first started operating in the 1950s as the American Doughnut Kitchen and that many a child has had the reward of a hot doughnut dangled before them to ensure good behaviour on market shopping trips. The current owners, still the family of the original owner, have never quite been able to estimate how many they churn out, but it’s certainly a lot.

Carmel says she takes many school groups on tours of the market and that there have been occassions when scholars have made special trips to study Queen Victoria Market and its central part in Melbourne’s cultural, business and social life. She referred to and recommended the novel Market Blues, centred on Queen Victoria Market and studied by high school students today.

On to the market’s broader history, we learnt that it was officially established in 1878 and is the largest market in Australia and one of the largest in the world. Many of its buildings are still used in trade today. Covering 7 hectares of land within the City of Melbourne, Queen Victoria Market remains essentially intact from its date of construction.

Interestingly, prior to its use as a market and between 1837 and 1854, much of the land on which the Queen Victoria Market now stands was the site of Melbourne’s first official cemetery. It housed the remains of an estimated 10,000 settlers, including those of John Batman.

When the market was extended in 1917, apparently 914 bodies were exhumed and re-interred at other cemetries around Melbourne, including Fawkner Cemetery, which is now the resting place of the “Old Pioneers”. Numerous bodies remain buried beneath the existing car park, however, and unfortunately there are no records of those buried there.

As we made our way back to Victoria Street, we learnt that while Queen Victoria Market was not officially opened until until 1878, parts of it had been used for market purposes for 13 years prior to the market’s official opening. The original Lower Queen Victoria Market, the irregular allotment bounded by Queen, Victoria, Elizabeth and Therry Streets, was granted to the Melbourne Town Council for use as a market in 1859 and fenced off and used as a livestock and hay market from 1865.

It is this section of the market our tour would be focussing on, since it now houses the current Meat Hall (or Meat Fish and Rabbit Section as it is officially known), the only structure remaining on the site from this earlier period, and the Deli Hall (also known as the Dairy Produce Hall).

On the way to the Meat Hall, we passed several quaint shops on Victoria Street, still bearing their Victorian era signage. Something easily missed if you didn’t look up.

Turning on to Elizabeth Street we came upon the familiar facade and farm animal frieze on the two storey building that houses the Meat Hall. Built in 1869, the Meat Hall preceded the official opening of Queen Victoria Market by 9 years. The current cement rendered facade was added in 1884.

The Meat Hall is both of architectural and social significant for its rarity as one of the few purpose built market buildings in existence in Australia. At the time, its single span roof was only the second of its type in the colony.

And finally, we were in.

Carmel pointed out that the meat section of the market has evolved to reflect the cosmopolitan tastes of its Melbourne clientele. While some vendors specialise in particular cuts and styles of meat, for example lamb or pork (selling only female pork, which is sweeter), others cater for tastes that include offal for special dishes prepared at various times in the religious calendar (following lent for Greek Australians), beef tongue, goat and pigs heads.

Still others sell meat cut to suit particular cuisines, such as Italian or Asian. It was here that we learnt that the Asian market is very particular about buying female pork, since male pork is tougher and more pungent. Despite the name, Alec Watson is the Italian meat vendor in the Meat Hall. Having bought the business out from the long term previous vendor, they recognised and retained the history of the name. Carmel pointed out that some of the vendors have been operating for up to four generations here.

There are sausage specialists too, and in this realm it is estimated that at least 2,000 to 3,000 kilograms are sold every day!

An interesting new food trend was the ability to have meat vacuum packed by one of the vendors in the Meat Hall, for travel and extended storage purposes. Vacuum sealed, the meat can last a month in the fridge, perfect for taking away on camping trips, and with customs clearances, travels abroad. Carmel noted many instances of parents taking lamb roasts to homesick children living overseas.

On to the fishmongers, we came upon 10 vendors in the seafood section of the market, offering a dizzying array of fresh whole fish, fillets and a myriad of crustacian species.

A seafood hot spot, Queen Victoria market lays claim to offering the best range of quality fresh fish in Melbourne. Not all fish is sourced locally, with desires stretching broadly fish is sourced from both around Australia and overseas. All sources were clearly marked.

Carmel said both the meat and fish sections of the market are favourites with Melbourne chefs, who come early when the market opens at 6.30am to see what’s in and fresh in order to plan seasonal menu changes.

Next stop was the Dairy Hall, a wonderfully intact example of an art deco building, that was an Alladin’s cave of treasures.

Built in 1929, the Dairy Hall originally housed 14 butter stalls. Only one of these now remains, aptly and quaintly named Curds and Whey.

In a time before modern refrigeration, marble was used for the counter tops in the Dairy Hall because of its natural thermal properties and the building’s unique design incorporated an underground ventilation system designed to help keep the hall and its highly perishable dairy products cool. The unusual roof line of the Dairy Hall with its louvers assist ventilation and skylights allow plenty of natural light for improved product display.

Nowadays the Dairy Hall is known as the Deli Hall, with a range of produce that includes a huge variety of dips, pates, terrines, cured and preserved meats, fresh pasta and one of the most extensive ranges of local and imported cheeses found in Melbourne. There are bread shops and for the sweet tooth, continental cakes, pastries, nougat and chocolates. This really was the foodies “dream” part of our tour and where we had some delicious tastings.

 

First up in our tastings was a lovely Warrnambool cheddar, and polish salami, with crusty hunks of a French baguette. Both the cheese and salami were excellent.

Next up we sampled some gorgeous dips. The carrot and coriander dip was divine, Sylvia’s favourite I think. Fresh and lively with the coriander zing, the herb wasn’t overpowering in the least. Creamy hommus followed, with plenty of garlic and tahini paste making it superb. I was also very taken with the sundried tomato and mascarpone dip, truly delicious. The displays at these deli stalls in the market were something to behold, as the photos hopefully depict. Amazingly colourful, fresh and inviting.

From there it was onto fresh pasta from the Traditional Pasta Shop, where we tried huge fresh and freshly cooked ravioli with a semi dried tomato pesto sauce. This was definitely Master O’s favourite! He had several helpings (even if there was no broccoli in sight, his current fixation).

From Swords Wines the tastings continued with a light and crisp Chenin Blanc and an eminently drinkable Moscato.

We followed our wine tastings with a divine raspberry dark chocolate truffle from Koko Black.

Making our way out of the Deli Hall, we came across Sylvia’s namesake delicatessan. A most fitting tribute to the day.

The Foodies Dream Tour runs Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, for 2 hours from 10am to 12pm. Cost is $40, with payment required on booking. Ph: 03 9320 5835, email tours@qvm.com.au or book online. Meeting point is 69 Victoria Street (nearest Corner Elizabeth Street).