It’s just after nine on a Saturday morning and one of Victoria’s oldest and most popular institutions – South Melbourne Market – is buzzing with activity.
A butcher in a heavy apron chats with a customer about the best way to prepare a choice cut of lamb, while in the bustling deli aisle, enthusiastic vendors spruik daily specials above a constant hum of background noise.
The aroma of freshly baked pastries floats over from a French patisserie, where people queue patiently for a new batch of croissants, warm from the oven. A woman, straw basket looped over her shoulder, watches quietly as a barista grinds beans for her coffee, and an elderly couple towing a shopping cart stops to catch up with a friend, who is idly inspecting apples arranged in a colourful display. Over in SO:ME space, young people wander hand-in-hand, pausing to browse unique wares offered by sassy designers.
It’s a typical weekend in the long life of the vibrant village market, which opened in May 1867 and has been serving the community every since.
South Melbourne Market has changed a lot in 150 years, but its essence, and its place at the heart of the community, remains strong. Even the inevitable challenges – a catastrophic fire in 1981 and two bombs later the same year – failed to dampen its spirit.
It is a quintessential village market – a place where people love to meet, eat, drink, shop, discover, share and connect – tightly woven into the fabric of the community it serves. It is central to the culture, heritage and place of South Melbourne and its surrounds.
Many, such as long-time local resident Elizabeth Buckle, have been shopping there for decades. A third-generation market shopper, Mrs Buckle loved the fly-wire enclosed deli section as a child – there was limited refrigeration back then; was entranced by the fruit sellers perched high above mountainous displays; and longed to be allowed to visit the pet stalls that lined the area now occupied by SO:ME space.
She recalls being sent to the Market on her bike, aged about nine, to buy hot jam donuts, a weekly treat for the family.
“South Melbourne Market was famous for its hot jam donuts,” Mrs Buckle says. “They were sold from a van at the side of the Market; it was the original food truck. You would stand and watch them force jam into the middle of the donut, but you had to wait to eat it because if you bit into the hot jam too soon you would have a burnt mouth for quite a long time!”
History and family connections also are strong among the traders with many involved with the market for generations.
Angelo Zahos has fond memories of his childhood roaming the aisles with the children of other stallholders, talking to each other on walky-talkies.
“When Dad opened the back door of the shop and looked out at me, I knew it was time to come back in and get to work,” he says, with a laugh.
Angelo now runs the shop, Aptus Seafood, with his brother-in-law, Peter Petrakos, and semi-retired father, Theo, who has had the business since the 1960s, soon after migrating to Australia from the Greek island of Euboea. The family business supplies fresh, high quality seafood much of it sourced directly from fishers, oyster farmers and other suppliers.
Community has always been essential to the success of the Market and was instrumental to its establishment in 1867, 10 years after locals petitioned the then Emerald Hill Council, highlighting a need.
Initially occupying 10 acres bounded by Coventry, Cecil and York streets and the St Kilda railway line, the Market has grown and improved to accommodate the needs and expectations of traders and the community. The first sheds were erected in 1866, a 5.5 ton weighbridge added in 1872, and electric lighting in 1924.
Consumer demand saw the addition of a rooftop car park in 1972; a multifaceted roof was added in 2012 to provide shelter for shoppers and regulate the temperature inside the Market. In keeping with the Market’s sustainability goals, the roof captures rainwater and generates solar electricity.
Today the Market maintains a careful balance between the past and the present, holding on to tradition while continuously adapting to meet changing community needs.
The rabbit trappers are long gone, but the fresh, high-quality food, much of it sourced from local farmers, artisans and producers, has remained constant throughout the decades, along with the array of clothing, homewares, merchandise and collectibles.
The Market sells everything from fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, homemade pasta, wild caught seafood, organic meats, boutique wines and beers, and gourmet goods such freshly churned butter, bread, olive oil, cheese and condiments.
People travel far and wide to buy fresh food sourced from local farmers and producers, along with a wide array of clothing, homewares, merchandise and collectibles. There is great coffee, specialty teas, a vibrant restaurant precinct and street food outlets, serving meze sharing plates, traditional Turkish breakfast and gozleme; tostaditos, quesadillas and burritos; paella washed down with sangria; and fresh sushi and sashimi, nigiri and seaweed salad.
The Food Hall, which replaced the original Market structure in 1991, serves up treats such as organic, Italian-style ice-cream and sorbet through to smoothies and juices, banh mi, boreks, super salads, roast meat rolls and toasties.
“I probably appreciate different things about the market than my mother did. For her it was convenience writ large, a one-stop-shop like a supermarket,” Mrs Buckle says. “I might go up there two or three times a week. I like the fresh food, being able to walk around and pick and choose, and I can get small portions of things, so I’m deciding what I want and how much of it I want.”
But even for those most familiar with its treasures, the Market continues to surprise with its quirky range of offerings.
“Today I saw a stall selling oilcloth,” Mrs Buckle says. I haven’t seen that in years – and it’s ideal to put over the dining table so my four-year-old grandson can do his artwork and not damage the table.”
An array of activities is planned to celebrate the Market’s major milestone next year. In a nod to the past, the deep-throated bell that once rang in the opening and close of market trade returns for its 150th birthday, while carefully planned change will keep the market fresh and sustainable so the aisles continue to buzz with activity long into the future.