Getting back into cooking since 2009.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fruit and vegetables in Perth

We have a lot of good quality produce in WA. Fantastic lamb, great seafood, even our own rapidly developing truffle industry.

Eating my way around California, though, has opened my eyes to the sheer range of ingredients we can't buy.

There's the range of fruit and vegetables used in Central and South American cuisine: jicama, hominy, fresh tomatillos. Limes are perplexingly expensive, despite our citrus-friendly climate and large South-East Asian migrant population. There's a whole bunch of ingredients starting with 'p' that you'll struggle to find: plantains, persimmons, pomegranate.

We've got a temperate, Mediterranean climate in Perth and the south-west of WA that can support everything from citrus to wine, and the interest in food is rapidly growing, but our choices are still fairly constrained.

I don't think I realised the limits we face until I visited San Francisco, in particular the farmers' market at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building is a bit of a food mecca, and every Saturday it's surrounded by a massive market. There are dozens upon dozens of vegetable and fruit stalls, with so much specialisation. There's the berry guy, the potato guy. There's a mushroom shop with all kinds of fungi, including fresh porcini and chanterelles, as well as domestic and imported truffles. I saw a leek farmer advising a customer as to which of his leek varieties would be best suited for various modes of preparation. Have you ever seen any kind of leek in Perth other than... leeks?

What stunned me, though, is that it's not an isolated thing. Another market, a few miles away, had probably the second biggest range of produce I've ever seen (after the Ferry Building market, of course). Even corner grocery stores had a staggering range.

There's just a lot more choice. In Perth we can usually buy maybe three different kinds of chilli (long red, long green, and short 'Thai' varieties), with the occasional habanero if you're lucky. The array of chillis and capsicums (all "peppers" in the confusing American nomenclature) contained every degree of heat, colour and size you can imagine.

Why do we have relatively few fruit and veg choices? Is it a quarantine thing? Is there really not enough Perth food enthusiasts to support small producers? Is Perth too far from agricultural regions now that the city market garden is more or less a thing of the past? Do we just have lower expectations, or less competition?

I don't want to overstate things. As I said at the top of this rant, we have a lot of good quality produce in WA. I just wish we had more of it.

COMING UP: Photos and breathlessly enthusiastic praise for the French Laundry, the Bazaar, and other restaurants I can't stop thinking about!


  1. Have you tried Asian groceries for the jicama? it might be labelled "mexican yam bean" and is often used when water chestnuts aren't in season.

    As for stuff like persimmons, can you get them in Autumn, or they just not around at all? That would kill me!

  2. Yeah we can get persimmons and pomegranate, but only in a very few select (read: expensive) shops.

    I've probably made things out to be worse than they are. The biggest eye-opener for me was the variety of things, like different kinds of leek, dozens of varieties of potato, etc.

  3. Makes you realise how small Perth is huh and how little produce we have. Since I moved to Paris I'm lost in a world of new produce and its hard to cook with new ingredients because I'm used to the limited selection in Perth.

    I would say its a bit of quarantine and the fact that we're so far away from everything. We do have great Asian produce I guess. I can't find Bok Choy in France at all.

  4. I actually found persimmons to be plentiful this year (at the markets, and often on special at Coles) and hope this repeats next persimmon season. Maybe you just got to the shops after I'd already been and cleaned them out ;)

    I agree though that our selection of many things is incredibly limited. The chilli example is a perfect one.

    Different types of leek??? I feel so ignorant. And hungry.

  5. Persimmons are seasonal and when they are in, we get 2-3 varieties here and LOTS of them. Fremantle markets is the the best place when they are in season. They grow very well down south.

    There is a similar situation with Raspberries and Quince. One thing I do know is a number of nurseries are starting to stock trees of different varieties for a lot of this stuff, so expect to see a lot of new things over the next 2-3 years.

    The chilli situation is an odd one. It's completely market driven. If you go to Canningvale Markets and buy from the wholesalers you can get 5-6 varieties (jalapeno, and the ultra hot scotch bonnets) and at least 10 different capsicums. Anywhere else and all you get are the little birdseye thai chilli and your standard long cayenne in red or green. Go to a good nursery however and the variety is endless. Seeds are very easy to obtain from the east coast.

    I've also heard a rumor there is a grower at Wanneroo markets that grows 100+ varieties and sells the fruit there. Haven't verified it yet - may get out there in the next few weeks.

    For strange and wonderful alliums and cucurbits between August and December there are a number of producers growing heirloom varieties in commercial quantities for sales at the small weekend markets. Mondo's Spring Markets (This weekend was the last one for the year) is possibly the most central place for this kind of thing, but you may also find a lot at either City Farm or the Kalamunda Markets.

    The variety is actually there - you just have to go out and deal with the growers direct to get it. Greengrocers these days are selling exactly the same thing as the big 3 supermarkets - which is really sad.

  6. woah thanks! that is good news especially on the chillis, but i've found the buying seeds from east not as easy as that. there are a few good seed sellers but often with the 'not for WA' attached. see also: tomatillos. if anyone can help me with buying fresh or seeds for growing my own tomatillos, i'd be forever in your debt...

  7. Conor and Orpheus: Yeah perhaps persimmons were a poor example, I'm just a sucker for alliteration.

    I found quinces to be abundant and widely available this year, and I made several batches of quince paste.

    Orpheus: thanks for your detailed comment! You clearly know your stuff. I guess a big part of my frustration is that the variety isn't readily accessible. As I said, in SF even the little neighbourhood greengrocers (including in poorer areas) seemed to have an eye-popping variety of veg, but we just don't have that here. Even at relatively good fruit and veg shops, your choices remain fairly limited.

    I might have to try the Wanneroo Market! Thanks.

  8. I'd second guess it has to do with our import laws. Also, as a flip side a good friend of mine spent a year in Lousiana and complained loudly about the quality, range and flavour of produce there.

    I've seen tamatillos at the Subi Station Street Markets a few times but they're not regular produce. Maybe ask the Flying Taco where they get they're stocks as they have enough for regular salsa verde :)

    For a few different varities of mushroom try Emma's Seafood (an Asian grocer in Northbridge). There you can get a few more specialty varieties at cheaper prices (enoki, oyster, king oyster, dried or fresh porcini, dried or fresh shitake, dried wood ear - they're imported from Asia).

    I second a good nursery for chilli plants. I bought 5 different varieties at the chilli festival early this year - bolivian rainbow, habernero sadly I went away for the winter and they were neglected by my housemates.

  9. I did manage to get a good range of chillis (ancho, habanero and a few others) last year from a nursery on Wanneroo Road that has unfortunately since closed down. I'll have to have a look around nurseries some time.

    Thanks for the tips, particularly re: the mushrooms!

    I guess my point still stands though: the range of produce that is widely available at reasonable prices is more constrained here than elsewhere. I don't expect everything to be available at Woolworths (I don't buy veg there anyway), but I'm disappointed at the range in even our better fruit and veg shops.

    I do think our quarantine laws have something to do with it. As S mentioned in the comments above, a lot of Australian seed retailers won't mail seeds to WA or Tasmania because of our quarantine laws.

  10. this is perhaps the dullard's way of supporting your point, but part of my fascination with seinfeld as a young person were the semi-frequent allusions to condiments and fruit and vegetable varieties that i've only encountered IRL in my mid-20s. the following are two examples that came to mind:

    KRAMER: Oh! And get some plantains.
    JERRY: Plantains?
    KRAMER: Yeah.
    JERRY: What the hell is a plantain.
    KRAMER: It's part of the banana family. It's a delicacy.
    JERRY: You're not getting any plantains.

    (note: jerry's ignorance of plantains above might read as counter your argument, but i feel kramer's familiarity with them, combined with his status as the show's eccentric everyman, ultimately endorses it.)

    George: Taste this, is this a dill?
    Jerry: No, it's tarragon. Hey Kramer, I'm sorry about that whole fight we had about you having my apartment keys and everything.
    Kramer: Ok, it's forgotten.
    George: Tarragon? Oh, you're crazy.

    (dill i discovered was a thing in my mid-20s, but i only found a reference to tarragon for the first time like last year.)

    a possible flaw in my argument is that these observations might simply reveal a (seemingly logical) inverse relationship between tv consumption and gourmet food IQ.

  11. See also: mackinaw peaches (fictional but delicious).

  12. There is a stall at the Wanneroo Markets, selling a variety of herbs and they have a chilli plant section also.I recently purchased Anaheim, Ancho, Chocolate Habanero, Chinese Lantern,and Serrano. Can't vouch for 100 varieties but it's the best selection I've come across, including about 4 types of Habanero. Worth a look. Now, if I could get tomatillos locally(canned would do) that would be something!

  13. Hmm that's interesting, I managed to find habanero and ancho plants at a (now defunct) Wanneroo nursery! I guess there must be a grower up there.

    You can find tinned tomatillos at Kakulas in Northbridge or Spanish Flavours in Wembley, but be prepared to pay $9 for an 800gm tin.

  14. Thanks for the info on tomatillos. Yes, they're a bit pricey but I found a couple of Eastern States websites charging btwn $6-$11 for similar size tins plus shipping.

    The stall is "Herbs 'R' Us",

    Fireworks Foods sell chilli and tomatillo seeds but I'm waiting for confirmation that they can send to WA.