Backstage with a Vegetable Voyeur

Making friends with the family that owns my local Canberra greengrocer – Ziggy’s Fresh – has been one of the unexpected foodie highlights of my year.

Fruit and vegetable voyeurs are all over social media. Some are in Europe taking photos at markets while others are a little closer to home snapping endless shots of beetroot on the kitchen bench.

And I am most definitely one of them.

Stepping into the markets I’m like Imelda in a shoe shop, imagination whirring with possibilities. My need to photograph the crimson pink jewels of a pomegranate or the sheen on some silverbeet was lost on all the folks around me… until recently.

Beetroot and carrots

Through a serendipitous Instagram message, I met the Irvine family, owners of my local fruit and veg shop, Ziggy’s Fresh. Over the past few months they’ve welcomed me into the world of their small business with a backstage pass. [So rockstar]

What started as an offer to exchange a box of produce for a few recipe photos, has turned into one of the regular highlights of my week. “What have you got for me today?” I always ask.

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Family values

Did you know that a mangosteen has a little star on the bottom which gives you a sneak peek as to how many segments will be inside? Ken told me that. He calls it a Kinder Surprise fruit.

Wait. Step back: do you know what a mangosteen is? I didn’t until I started hanging at Ziggy’s.

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Ken Irvine is the patriarch of the business and – just quietly – his veggie videos have become somewhat of a sensation on my Instagram feed.

He manages the Fyshwick store with his wife, Toni, who isn’t a fan of being photographed. Don’t let her absence in the pictures fool you, she’s a dynamo. After raising three boys, running a few businesses is a holiday, right?

Ken unpacking a box

Todd is their youngest son. His domain is the Belconnen shop alongside his wife Susie. Todd is hugely passionate about produce and shares my ‘healthy obsession’ for taking photographs of food. You may have noticed some of his witty visual storytelling on social media.

My favourite moment remains receiving this message:

Have you got a saxophone? Got an idea for a pic of jazz apples…

(Yes, he found one.)

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Delivery day

I confess to having known very little about the wholesale to retail process that goes on behind a regional market, like the ones here in Canberra.

I had images of 3am truck deliveries. Different growers from all over the place, touting their produce. Each one with a story, a language. The steam rising from cups of coffee as we don beanies and parkas to catch a glimpse of the perfect, new season pear. Or peach. And I’d be oh-so-ready for a full photographic feature.

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“The truck gets in at noon” says Ken, giving me a wry smile “and you’re late.”

It may not have been exactly how I pictured it but my camera’s heart still skipped a beat. Pallet after pallet of vibrance, freshly delivered from the Sydney Markets and ready to be thrust on eager customers.

Ken bounds over with a tray of mandarins. He doesn’t even need to say anything, I could smell them before he came around the corner. As he breaks one open, the tiny droplets of scented oil explode like silent fireworks and Autumn has arrived.

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Isn’t there something so wholesome about sharing a mandarin? It’s already perfectly portioned. I like the way you don’t have to be dainty with your fruit here either. As we chat about the options for packing broccoli, I shove a few pieces into my mouth.

Ken’s disappeared again – you wouldn’t survive long in this industry if you didn’t have a little Energizer Bunny to you. I stickybeak around and pick up a grape.

He’s back with an heirloom tomato and I don’t think anyone could sell it better. That’s the magical thing about markets. Each store is run by people who LOVE what they’re selling. You really must make the effort to strike up a conversation.

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“Wait until you see inside!” he beams, skilfully cutting it in half with a matching red knife. The slice reveals a maze of segments. Dark green, almost purple on the outside but bright vermillion in. Seeds and flesh all arranged in an imperfect balance. I wish I had some burrata in my pocket.

I wander into the cool room and start taking photos of rhubarb. I can’t say I eat a lot of it but, if you ask me, it’s the eye candy of the fruit and veg world.

Ken laughs. “Forget that one” he says “you’re gonna love this.”

And there it was. A sight to behold. A whole, enormous cardboard crate of rhubarb. Pretty pink, vivid green and surrounded by all manner of other leafy veg. Framed in the back by those iconic blue pallets, a Picasso in my eyes.

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Apples fall from trees

Todd is stacking pineapple over at the Belconnen store. For something so oddly shaped, they seem to tesselate perfectly and, as he fills the shelf, he’s letting everyone know that it’s good and it’s cheap (his words are a fraction more rehearsed… and louder).

Spruiking is a lost art form. It’s part of the audio landscape of any market, like the town criers of days gone by. There’s a pattern to it, a certain lilt to the voice, an ability to throw the sound so it reverberates around the entire space. It’s almost involuntary. I keep waiting for Todd to do it mid-sentence.

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Much like his dad, Todd moves around the store at a frenetic pace. Even when we’re chatting, his hands tick like a mah-jong player turning tiles. Always rotating apples to reveal their best side or moving some bok choy to fill the blank spaces.

Making friends with a greengrocer certainly has its perks. Have you tasted a kiwi berry? Oh you must! Todd is all about the new product lines. Every week he’s showing me something that your Granny wouldn’t recognise. I honestly never thought there was so much innovation in fruit!

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Would I ever have bought a cucamelon – the tiny melon that tastes like a cucumber – if it weren’t for Todd’s salesman like pitch? Sometimes I’m sure he’s getting me to try things as some kind of vegetable-eating guinea pig (wait a minute!). But I don’t mind at all. How else would I have invented roast chicken stuffed with divine smoked garlic?

PS: A game changer.

Last week they ordered me some broccoli rabe because I’d seen it in a recipe video. I have to admit, I felt a bit like a veggie VIP.  I even convinced Todd to try out a pineapple hack we saw on YouTube, much to the intrigue of passers-by. (Sadly, you can’t really pull a pineapple apart like some kind of geometric mandarin. At least, we couldn’t.)

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A good harvest

I’m so grateful to have struck up a friendship with the crew at Ziggy’s and for all their generous foodie inspiration. As I leave for the day I wonder out loud “do any of your other customers get this excited about produce?”

Ken laughs, “not like you”.

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fullsizeoutput_69ffullsizeoutput_6a7Bag of GrapesBoxes of Spanish Onion

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