Salt River's hidden gem

When it’s asked by the proprietor of an unusual fruit and veg store, any aspirant gourmet will tell you you’ve come to the right place to find your secret ingredients.

Ondersteun Handelaars at the Salt River Market has been owned and run by the Adams family for decades. The store specialises in a variety of fresh foods rarely found on supermarket shelves. ‘This is where you will get ideas for different things,” says third-generation proprietor Rumina Adams.

Among Ondersteun’s more unusual offerings are ostrich eggs, sugar cane, chicory, celeriac, okra, star fruit, loose gooseberries encased in their wafer-like leaf pouches, delicious monsters, custard apples, rominesco, fresh lime leaves, elderberry flowers and black mushrooms bigger than your face.
Whatever you do, don’t ask for a plain old tomato, because Onder-steun keeps diminutive rosa, yellow cocktail, mini cherry, Italian plum, plump red and sun-dried versions.

Dried fruits, seeds, nuts, spices and legumes are also available, with imported goods such as bright orange palm oil from West Africa. There’s a variety of homemade atchars, pickles and preserves that Adams’s mum prepares for the store.

The fancy goods don’t come with fancy prices and a visit is more than pleasant. Ondersteun overflows into the open-air courtyard of the market. Towers of near-perfect pumpkins mark its enclave, as do pots of fruit trees and herb plants trailing across tiered shelves. Tables brim with frilly lettuces and edible blooms. Boxes of unblemished fruit and veggies are presented with an eye for contrasting colour. Bunches of spinach and carrots adorn the roof and garlands of dried chillies and corn are strung in decorative abandon across the shop front.

‘We don’t like packaging stuff in polystyrene, we like displaying it,” Adams explains. ‘There’s hidden talent in everyone and this is what comes out.”

The flair for food is apparently hereditary. Adams’s grandfather started Ondersteun in the same location 51 years ago. But times have a’changed. In its heyday the Salt River Market was a cornucopia of fruiterers and grocers. Back then you could buy live poultry and you’d have to bring your own container for cream. Trade would continue until 10pm.

It’s a pity that the number of businesses has shrunk to only three grocers, one fresh fish market, an odd assortment of second-hand shops and a vintage car restorer. Many people don’t know the market still exists. Ondersteun developed into a speciality store to ensure its competitiveness in a terrain dominated by franchised hyperstores.

Changing attitudes, economic pressures and the industrialisation of food have almost killed the Salt River Market. Nowadays, working wives and house-husbands are more likely to buy heavily packaged, branded convenience foods than take the time to lovingly wash soil off a lollo rosso lettuce.

Adams says the city’s lack of a thriving night market — like the bustling street bazaar in Paris’s Latin Quarter — can be partly blamed on television. She reckons that people prefer staring at the box to visiting the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Ironically, Ondersteun is so beautifully appointed that it is often used in film shoots and adverts.

Despite the fading popularity of the market, top chefs are drawn, like fruit flies around a ripe pineapple, to Ondersteun’s smorgasbord of goodies. The store supplies restaurants such as Buitenverwagting, Bukhara and Mama Roma, as well as caterers and cooking schools. Regular customers include food editors and critics. Stylist and writer Vo Pollard, of Woman’s Value magazine, has been using the market for more than 20 years. Ondersteun is a regular source of fresh ingredients she ‘can’t get anywhere else. I use it a lot for herbs and different vegetables.”

Pollard enjoys the fact that Ondersteun receives its produce directly from the farmer and not via the commercial market in Epping, so the food is handled as little as possible. ‘But the trick,” she says, ‘is learning what time it comes in.” So phone ahead if it’s absolutely imperative that rocket and sorrel soup appear on your menu tonight.

Ondersteun Handelaars is open from 8am to 6pm weekdays, 7.30am to 4pm on Saturdays, and 9am to 1pm on Sundays. Tel: (021) 448 1491

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