Have you ever mourned the demise of the real traditional continental delicatessen? I do, almost every time I walk into one of those uber trendy, need-a-mortgage-to-afford-the-prosciutto designer delis that are popping up faster than Starbucks in the 1990s.
My discomfort in these places reminds me of a chapter in US chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s incredible memoir Blood Bones and Butter (Random House, $35). Hamilton owns Prune restaurant in New York and laments the demise of “real” food and the increasing pretentiousness of farmers’ markets in the city:
“I love the vegetables but I can’t go near the place,” she writes. “There’s always the girl with the bicycle, wandering along from stall to stall with two apples, a bouquet of lavender and one bell pepper in the basket of her bicycle. She shifts her ass from side to side, admiring the way her purchases are artfully arranged for all to see in the basket of her bike …”
Hamilton then compares this to an old toothless guy from whom she buys big, inexpensive bundles of produce at a market in a small Italian town: “He’s everything I grew up with, he’s the end of an era, he’s the last of what it was like to just be a good eater and a good grower. A time when we just grew it and cooked it and ate it and didn’t talk so much about it. When we didn’t crow all over town about our artisanal, local, organic fwa fwa.” It’s an amazingly good read and I’d thoroughly recommend it to any fellow food lovers out there.
The reason I’m feeling particularly nostalgic is I recently went on a fabulous Taste Tour around Bankstown in Sydney’s west, run by the Benevolent Society, and my gosh, I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. There was something about the shops, delis and restaurants we visited that captured this unpretentious, down-to-earth, food-as-food-should-be, sentiment exactly.
Valleyview Continental Groceries & Spices
First, we met Ali Ahmad at the Valleyview Continental Groceries and Spices where colourful and fragrant mounds of spices were piled high just like you would see in a traditional Middle Eastern bazaar. “What are you cooking?” asks Ali. “The advice comes free,” he offers as I consider the spices and all their culinary possibilities.
He offers suggestion after suggestion like a walking spice almanac for everything from the best spice for a delicious roast chicken to how to use sumac in a salad (keep an eye out for next week’s blog of Ali’s top 5 winter spices). The prices are astoundingly reasonable and I walk out feeling a little like I’ve stepped back in time thanks to my generous bundles of star anise, cinnamon sticks and sumac that in central Sydney would have likely cost me double.
Olympic Continental Delicatessen & Butchery
We then take a short stroll to the Olympic Continental Delicatessen, which instantly casts me back to the delis I used to visit with my mum for our big fat Italian gatherings as a child. It’s homely and it’s old-fashioned, but in the best way possible. It makes me smile just thinking about it. The deli has been running since 1956 by Peter Karpouzis. He continues to run the shop with his daughter Joanne. This is a proper deli, without the “fwa fwa”. Just good food made well. For this reason, many customers have been travelling here from all over Sydney for the past 30-40 years.
The family makes all their own smallgoods and you simply must not leave without a very big pile of their incredible Greek sausages. The recipe comes from Lesbos and they are citrusy, packed with garlic and Middle Eastern-influenced spices, and are just about the best sausages I have ever tasted in my life. This is the only place in Sydney that makes them, and I guarantee they would make a delicious and conversation-worthy addition at your next barbecue.
We also wandered through the Vietnamese area of Bankstown, referred to as Little Saigon, where the streets bustle like a traditional Asian marketplace and are lined with all manner of intriguing produce.
We enjoyed a beautifully fragrant pho at the family-run My Canh Vietnamese restaurant and then for dessert, we travelled to Lebanon (which happened to be just around the corner) and got our fingers all sticky at the Elbasha & Sons L Bakery. Crispy baklava and decadent ladies’ arms filled with clotted cream are all made on the premises using traditional recipes and techniques.
Bankstown might not immediately spring to mind as a foodie mecca but it truly is a fascinating melting pot of cultures and cuisines – easy to explore in one compact location – and offers the chance to meet passionate providores with a wonderfully traditional approach to food.
There are 11 guides who are all local foodies and if they are anything like our guide – the effervescent and enthusiastic Zizi – they’ll soon have you convinced to start planning your weekly grocery shop in Bankstown, no matter how far away you live.
Now readers it’s your time to share … wherever you happen to live, tell us, where is your favourite foodie area to explore in your own city?
You can book Bankstown Taste Tours at tastetours.org.au or call 1800 819 633.