Sunday, January 31, 2010

Russell the Mussel Man

Farmers' markets were created with two purposes in mind: firstly, to give local producers a forum for trading their wares without incurring the crippling overhead costs of setting up a retail business; secondly, to give middle class couples something to do together on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Personally I prefer the slightly less gentrified markets of places like Avondale and Whangarei to the extremely caucasian offerings at markets like Parnell and Kerikeri, which we visited today while on holiday in Northland. The ratio of chutneys and pickles to actual primary produce should not be too high; seasonal fruit and vegetables, including some unique to the region, need to be the main event.

That said, one of the best stalls at Kerikeri (more properly, Bay of Islands Farmers' Market, although you can be sure they don't apostrophise it like that on the posters) is the one selling mussel fritters, which leads to a qualification on my rule against processed goodies: you're allowed to mess around with your produce before you sell it, as long as you're creating something which can be eaten right then and there. If you've ever turned up to a Farmers' Market hungry and tried to fill up on quartered Snax crackers dipped in Apricot Chili Jam, you'll agree that every market needs someone selling hot, decent grub.

The mussel man (whose name probably isn't Russell) not only cooks the fritters and serves them between two slices of buttered brown bread with your choice of condiments, he even posts the fritter recipe on his signage – combining a generosity of spirit with an easy confidence that none of the lazy rich pricks walking past will ever get round to making it themselves.

Mussel fritters cost $5 each. That's pretty good value, particularly when compared to the “authentic French crepes” they're selling a few metres away for the same price – my one was small, stodgy, full of holes and had been flavoured with a miserable amount of white sugar and lemon juice squeezed out of a bottle.

Interestingly, it was still better than the one I bought in Paris on the Champs-Elysees, where the crepes had been cooked the night before and were warmed up in a microwave before serving. Someone tell the 17-year-old surfer in charge of the hotplate at Kerikeri market that if he wants those French crepes to be truly authentic they need to be either sublime or abysmal. Anything in between just won't do.