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In Conversation with Alison Peake of Slow Food Farmers’ Market

"There is a bumper sticker which says “I don’t buy food from strangers”. At market you can meet the person who grew the crops, raised the animals or produced the cheese and talk to them about their produce, their farm and their methodologies."

On the fourth Saturday of every month at the Convent, we celebrate fresh produce, locally sourced and delivered directly by the grower to the buyer at our Slow Food Farmers’ Market. But some of you might be asking, what exactly is ‘slow food’? Good question! Let’s talk to Alison Peake, the market’s manager and find out just why the slow food movement is grabbing the attention of our food conscious community. Starting this month, stalls at the Slow Food Farmers’ Market formerly positioned within the Sacred Heart courtyard are moving to the Gate 2 car park and the Mercator lawn areas.

People are putting more thought into where their food comes from and how it’s grown than they have ever before. Is that what the slow food movement is a reflection of? What is slow food?

Slow Food is an international movement interested in making sure everyone has access to food, which is “good, clean & fair”. Starting in Italy over 20 years ago, it was initially a direct reaction against fast food. When a McDonalds store opened on the Spanish Steps in Rome a group of activists sat and ate bowls of pasta in protest. From this simple beginning it has now grown into an activist group interested in protecting biodiversity and artisan food producers, working on the “Think Global, Act Local” model.

How integral is a farmers’ market to the idea of slow food?

It’s a perfect vehicle for Slow Food to practise what they preach, working directly with food producers.

So, people know when they buy produce here that it isn’t filled with preservatives and other nasty things?

Precisely! That’s the “clean” part of our mantra. No chemicals, no pesticides and no GM modification.

And how do you curate the market to ensure all the stallholders reflect the slow food movement? Is there any accreditation they have to obtain?

We work with the Victorian Farmers Market Association who are the accrediting body ensuring our sellers are true farmers or producers and that we have no resellers at market. On top of that we choose stallholders who further reflect the Slow Food philosophy of promoting local, fresh, ethical, seasonal produce from Victoria.

There are more than 60 stallholders that contribute to the market. What kind of diversity can people expect when they come here?

You can fill your pantry and feed your family from the abundance of fresh, locally produced food at market. Seasonal vegetables, ethically produced meat from animals which have lived a good life, wine, cheese, flour, honey, olives, oil, nuts, dairy & eggs – the list goes on! Victoria is a food lover’s treasure trove and we have farmers from all across the state coming on market day to make it all available to our shoppers.

The stallholders take a lot of pride in their offerings. How does this impact the market and how can people learn more about the food they’re eating?

There is a bumper sticker which says “I don’t buy food from strangers”. At market you can meet the person who grew the crops, raised the animals or produced the cheese and talk to them about their produce, their farm and their methodologies. Personal friendships develop and customers become part of the extended farming community.

With so much to see, smell and taste, how do you recommend people navigate their way through the market? What do we need to know to get the most out of the Slow Food Farmers’ Market experience?

Take your time, walk the dog while you shop, meet friends for coffee, make it a day out, and one you can enjoy. Definitely take the time to talk to your farmers, get their cooking tips and ask about that weird vegetable you’ve never seen before and don’t know what to do with!

The market opens at 8am. It’s an early start for some, but do you recommend getting to the market nice and early to get a first look at the great food on offer?

Certainly, getting in early is what most of our regular shoppers do. They have their favourite stalls and they like to get the pick of the crop. Our farmers pick & pack the day before market so what you are buying is at optimum freshness on market day. Even those who like a Saturday lie in are guaranteed quality produce, as long as it doesn’t run out first! Many of our stallholders do sell out on market day and often before the end of the market. So being the early bird means you are more likely to “catch the worm.”

Slow food doesn’t have to take a long time to cook, eat and enjoy. What are some of the quick bites for people to enjoy at the market?

Munching on a crispy new seasons apple while you shop is definitely in line with the Slow Food philosophy. We also have an impressive line-up of stalls selling food to go, so coming for breakfast or brunch is always an option. Everything from muesli or crumpets to a full-on cooked bacon & eggs or a falafel wrap are available, and all with locally produced farm fresh ingredients.

It must be hard to choose, but what are some of your favourite stalls and why?

That is a tough one. I have my regular “go to” stalls, Shulz Organics for farm fresh milk & yoghurt, fresh mussels from Westernport Mussels, yummy pork goodness from Bundarra Berkshires. I love chatting to Meg & Blakey from Bellellen who come all the way from the Wimmera every market day. Tony & Lina from Rose Creek Estate have the best green olive oil. I am absolutely spoilt for choice for vegetables from Peninsula Fresh, Rita Faranda & Angelica Organics. But maybe the most exciting thing is that every market is different and there are always seasonal treats to enjoy – stone fruit, cherries, berry fruits, winter greens – even truffles for one or two months a year, so every month I can have a new favourite stall.

There’s been more than 100 Slow Food Farmers’ Markets at the Abbotsford Convent. Why do you think the Slow Food movement and the Convent is such a great match?

We have always been a great partnership and I think it is because both organisations’ core values are about community. We were at the Convent right from the beginning when we ran our “Taste of Slow” festivals. People came for the food and wine and fell in love with the Convent and what it stands for as a true community owned facility, and they have been coming back ever since. We are very proud of having been some of the first people “in the know” about what the Convent had to offer the community and our part in building its reputation.

Apart from the unique location, what is it that sets the Slow Food Farmers’ Market apart from the other markets in Melbourne right now?

On a local level our commitment to working with Victorian producers, educating people about where their food comes from and the role, they can play in supporting their rural communities, is a core message. In the bigger picture we put the income we generate back into the system to further promote the Slow Food message and support our farmers. So, it is a win-win-win situation for the planet, the producers and the shoppers. We give people the opportunity to vote with their dollars for the kind of food system they want now and into the future.