At the fish stalls in Leeds Kirkgate Market we must look like a bunch of tourists, gawping at the produce of rivers and seas laid out on the ice before us. The stallholders look down on us with no-nonsense scowls, as if suspecting that we might be too intimidated to buy something. Perhaps this is why Tom points at the nets of mussels sitting there on the counter and orders two, receiving them in an orange plastic bag.
“Do you know what to do with them?” I say, trying hard not to imagine the consequences if we get this wrong.
“We’ll work it out. It’ll be fine”
That is the beauty of the market; the inspiration of the stalls, the spontaneous decision. Is there a better way to shop than to head to a good marketplace with no plan of what you want to have for dinner other than to see what you can discover? Whenever we travel I like to search out the market, whether in Barcelona or Munich, London or Marrakech. Wherever you go in the world the market seems to obey the same rules, as if you could drop the sceptical fishmonger from Yorkshire into the heart of the Tsukiji market in Tokyo and he would know exactly how it all works. Sometimes you shop for your tea, or perhaps the makings of a picnic. Other times you go to the market to get something to eat there and then.
About ten years ago, when working in Berlin-Mitte, Katrin and I used to go to the market on Hackescher Markt once a week for our lunch. There was a stall there, run by a couple of Kiwis, selling meat sandwiches. They were great, perhaps because of the fact that despite Germany having some of the best bread in the world, they are not so hot on the simple sandwich. When we no longer worked at the place we did not go to the market for a long time, and I don’t know if those guys even survived in what must be a pretty tough business climate. I hope they stuck it out, as the popularity of “street food” in all its forms nowadays suggests they would have them on to a winner. They were just (a long way) ahead of the trend.
Street food may be hip, with its pop-up events in abandoned industrial buildings, but for all the hype it is basically another version of a classic marketplace, where people do one thing, and do it well. In Munich, at the Viktualienmarkt there are a line of butchers shops offering pretty much the same selection of bratwurst and leberkäse, stuffed in bread and to be eaten as you walk, dripping mustard onto the pavement between your legs. How should you know which is the best purveyor of meaty treats? You can only guess. But the locals know, stopping by for their lunch at the same stall day after day, sticking with their favourite despite the fact that their colleague down the corridor swears by old Schmidt, three doors down. In Tokyo people queue outside marketplace restaurants that look like nothing more than the Japanese version of a greasy spoon café, and yet draw the crowds for deserved reputation of offering the best, freshest fish in the world. Back in Leeds I shy away from the fish stalls and offer instead to buy the makings of a salad. At least with the green stuff I know what it is I am supposed to be doing…
I return to the rest of the gang with my bag of lettuce, tomatoes and herbs. Someone else has bought the bread. The kids are getting restless, but we have lost Tom.
“I thought he was with you?”
Shakes of the head all around.
Katrin takes some more pictures whilst we wait. I look at the orange plastic bag hanging from the pushchair and wonder if cooking the mussels can possibly be as simple and as risk free as Tom said. And then he appears, holding another plastic bag with a sheepish smile on his face.
“What on earth have you got in there?”
“I couldn’t resist.”
He holds it open.
I look down at a whole salmon. Massive. Enough fish for a week.
He hangs the bag from the other handle of the pushchair and then rubs his hands together.
“It’s going to be great!”
We carry out supplies out from the market and back through the city streets to the train station. It turns out that none of us know how to cook a whole salmon either. But that’s what the market does. You see what looks good, take a chance, and try something new. We have the salmon for dinner with my salad. We eat the mussels beforehand and we all survive. There is enough fish for the next day as well. And Tom was right. It was great.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig