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Most people in Melbourne have visited Prahran Market at one time or another. Or you might be a regular but tend to go to the same old stalls, clutching your weekly shopping list and buying the same old things. Which is why this free Hidden Gems Foodie Tour is such a great idea. It is a bit of an awakening about the hidden nooks and crannies at Prahran Market and the wonderful gourmet offerings that you might have missed out on up until now.
When you meet your tour guide, you are given an attractive and large Prahran Market canvas bag with rope handles. While you won't get time to shop on this hour long tasting tour, the truth is that afterwards you will feel so inspired by all the secrets you have unearthed. All the great foodie finds that you now know about will make you want to go back and make a few knowledgeable purchases.
I have to be honest and say I missed the first 15 minutes of this incredible tour as I had trouble parking (tip: leave yourself plenty of time to park) so I missed out on visiting the fruit and vegetable stalls which specialised in selling FODMAP foods and organics. More's the pity.
But I did catch up with the small group at Maker & Monger which was a great way to kick start my food adventure. This is a raclette & grilled cheese bar operating out of an antique French food cart with a clutch of surrounding tables which very much emulates French market traditions. Now if I was a regular at the market, I would probably be unlikely to dish out $10 on what an un-French peasant like me dubs a cheese toastie. But this tour comes with a free tasting and I discovered that the creations here are God-given. Completely mouth watering and the creation of Cheesemonger, Anthony Femia.
All the melts are made on artisan sourdough bread and use cultured butter.
The menu changes with the seasons but the present offerings includes All-American Grillz with American cheddars, onions, and parsley (this is the one our group sampled).
Pimenton & Cayenne Grillz which has a filling of Southern Pimento cheese mix and cayenne pepper. The Flaming Reuben 5, on the other hand, comes on a 5 Dime Rye bagel with mustard, Russian dressing and homemade sauerkraut. Then there is also the Robbin's Island, which is wagyu brisket pastrami and cheese.
Or you can order the Grand Dairy Award Winner Fondue Grillz. A fondue-inspired grilled cheese sandwich using the 2016 Grand Dairy Awards Grand Champions Heidi Gruyere & Bulla Creme Fraiche. Maker & Monger definitely has to go on my list of where to experience great fondues in Melbourne.
As well as this, you can order a traditional Swiss Raclette, which is Heritage potatoes and shiitake mushrooms, then the traditional raclette (cheese) is flamed over this.
You can actually watch as they make these creations with great aplomb. They use small blow torch contraption and the cheese oozes and sizzles over the dishes. You cannot but help salivate as you watch the process.
These are dipped in caramel rather then toffee and then decorated
You can wash down your delectable lunch with Harcourt Sparkling Apple Juice or Rockie's Lemonade, Brunswick or some sensational hot chocolate. The All-American Grillz we sampled was so good that if I am driving around town and in a 5km radius of the market, I'll be making a beeline.
As an infrequent visitor to this iconic market, I had never noticed before that there are incredible differences between the delis. 'This one mainly sells Spanish cheeses' our guide told the group. pointing out Casa Delicatess. 'People come from all over to buy Spanish cheeses, Spanish Jamon and chorizos.'
She then pointed to another deli with a huge array of homemade dips. 'The dips here are amazing and not like the ones with all the additives in the supermarkets. I asked for the recipe for the houmous and tried to make it in the Thermomix but just couldn't get the same consistency. Here they smash chickpeas but end up whipping it so it has this amazing texture.'
At Sweet Greek we strode in for a taste of the avgolemono (lemon and egg soup). Owner Kathy Tsaplest explained how the whiteness came from the egg white and how it was made from nourishing homemade chicken stock.
I noticed our guide asked the owner for a container to collect later for her lunch and I thought about doing the same. I didn't and when I did get back it was totally sold out.
One of the fine cake offerings at Sweet Greek at Prahran Market
But fortunately, there was still quite a bit to choose from. All home- made and in the Greek way as Kathy says 'Sweet Greek aims to provide our customers with a transcending experience of the Greek cuisine. Take home selections included moussaka, keftedes, yemista, spanakopita (3 types) and dolmades as well as fresh salads and the most amazing array of cakes and loukoumades (honey doughnuts)!The sign said don't touch. But it didn't say don't scoff.'
The meat and fish section lead us to even more delights. Our group got to taste oysters fresh from the sea. At Claringbold Fish, our guide pointed out the cuts of king fish and other cuts which are sliced perfectly for making restaurant-quality sashimi.
She pointed to the large-eyed prawns which were such a beautiful colour. Again supermarkets came into the equation. 'You can be sure these are local and not coming from Thailand and the Mekong'. This was a surprise to me. Beyond the recent frozen berries scandal when people got ill, I had never thought of our foods coming from such foreign climes. But when I later looked into it, I was horrified.
Free Tours of Prahran Market - Image from Prahran Markets
Kevin's Farm Fresh Poultry got the thumbs up from our guide for 'chicken, which, unlike supermarket chicken doesn't have a lot of sinew or strips of fat.' She showed us some of the more unusual offerings at Cesters so we would know where to go if we were ever creating game-based dishes that required more unusual meats such as wild and farmed rabbit, hares, venison, goat, quail, squab, partridge, pheasant, kangaroo, camel, crocodile, wild boar, buffalo, goose and emu.
At Gary's Quality Meat it was great to learn that they sell preservative free sausages as well as about the taste benefits of dry aged meats. This firm is so into the way meat should be butchered that they run regular classes on how to yse a butcher's knife, steel and saw to break down your cuts of meat.
I liked the fact that our charming and knowledgeable tour guide lived only a few blocks from the market and as a gourmet cook visited the market regularly to cook fresh meals for her family of 6. She knew exactly where to find all the best produce.
The whole tour made me think a lot more about what I eat and where I buy it. I am a supermarket shopper no longer.