FoodStuff - When in Brunswick

By John Lethlean
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John Lethlean, culinary critic

John Lethlean, culinary critic


Remember when you were a kid and your mum or dad gave you a shilling or 50 cents or something and said “don’t spend it on lollies.” You swore black and blue you would not; but you knew full well you would anyway.

That’s kind of how it was last Friday when I casually slipped into the pre-school/pre-work parry and thrust that we were out of anchovies (a big problem as far as I’m concerned) and that, rather than go down to the local Fresh Food (and tinned/preserved food, too) People I might just nip over to Mediterranean Wholesalers and get a proper jar. And maybe pick up one or two other necessities while I was there. 

To make the trip worth while, like. 

I got a look that really didn’t need a caption, but it was captioned anyway. 

Please don’t buy too much; we have nowhere to store it and there is still stuff in the pantry you bought three years ago and haven’t used.

It couldn’t be denied. There is a four year-old tube of anchovy paste in there somewhere and half a bottle of some kind of weird Italia digestivo I tried to convince myself made me more like Giorgio Armani and less like, well, me. But we needed anchovies and, despite mounting deadlines and a certain sense of work-related anxiety, the idea of killing a few hours pushing a trolley round an Italian supermarket proved a powerful force. 

Besides, Saturdays are hell out there in Sydney Road.

I promised to only buy necessities, not to create pantry angst (her department)… and jumped in the car for Brunswick, knowing full well that there was going to be a reasonably robust conversation later in the day about what, exactly, qualified as “necessary.”

From where I live, MW is about 25 minutes and an entire hemisphere away. But it’s no discovery; just about everyone who loves food and Italy simultaneously knows about the place and makes the trek for a big shop on a regular basis. It’s the Astral Weeks of food retail experiences.

Of course, to Melbourne’s Italians, it’s the way supermarkets should be, and probably how they remember them too, not just in product range but look, smell and socio/cultural role in the community. To the rest of us, it’s a window on another world. 

It’s also a reasonably sensational place to shop.

In my world, grana padano, arneis and porcini are trendy products with trendy prices; at MW, they’re a cheese, a white wine and mushrooms. Strolling through the aisles slaps you around the face to remind that people in Melbourne have been eating baccala and drinking soave for a long time. Long before all the chefs and restaurateurs (and food media) of Melbourne discovered the stuff.

Yes, Mediterranean Wholesalers is the real thing, a vast emporium that makes the exotic domestic. Or at least domestically priced. And that’s something I find rather seductive.

Now, lest you think this is a pathetic plug for the place, I might say that I have no connection with the shop (other than the bucks spent there over the past 15 years) and that I don’t like everything about it. There are several negatives. 

The coffee’s not great (the canoli, on the other hand, are) and they don’t stock Noxzema Crema di Barba, an inexpensive shaving cream (for brushes) you can now buy only in Italy, and if anybody wishes to correspond with me on the subject of Noxzema, I’d welcome it. Apart from that, it’s bloody perfect.

Fearful of retribution, I stuck to necessities. Mostly. We now have 1580 grams of anchovies in oil; a kilo of capers; and many, many kilos of dried and fresh pasta. We have several different Italian cheeses (taleggio, reggiano, grana padano, mozzarella) at really first-rate prices and in quantities that make me glad to have a beer fridge in the garage. I’ve bought slabs before, but never of tinned tomatoes; it seemed to make sense. We have many litres of olive oil, all with pretty, old world labels.

All necessities, right? 

But it’s funny what falls into your trolley, despite the spectre of spousal admonishment.

A jar of semi-dried cherry tomatoes (should be good on pizza). Two types of porcini (sliced, dried and granulated, dried). Some imported prosciutto (along with real necessities from the deli counter). The bottle of L’amaro Abruzzese, a digestive that will hopefully help with all this food. The new pasta machine. Now, this was an accident, and would never have happened if I hadn’t started chatting to the nice lady examining the machines who turned out to be totally fluent in Italian and who appeared to chat the staff guy into giving me the superior model for the same price as its less impressive sibling.

Well this is the sort of thing that happens out there, okay. Things just get acquired in a heady Latin rush. And besides, the old one had corroded. 

Anyway, $336.22 doesn’t go as far as it used to is all I can say. But what price a few hours in Italy, eh? Even a few grams of guilt doesn’t spoil the experience totally.


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