Regular visitors to Queen Victoria Market will know that Melbourne's famous 'wet' produce market has varied moods and a changing tempo depending on the day and time of visit. On a few of our trips there, even on a weekend, the market can be strangely subdued, with its displays of fruits and vegetables looking disappointingly past their best and the seafood trays uninspiringly stocked with little variety or re-thawed fill-ins. On other visits however, the market is on song. Bustling with the excitement of lively shoppers, of playfully competitive shopkeepers vocally vying for attention, deli stallholders beamingly convincing you to sample tasty wares, rows of verdantly crisp produce, and fish that gleamed like they just flopped straight from the deck of a boat onto the ice on which they were displayed. This was just how we found QVM when we recently took some friends that were visiting us from overseas there, and they were impressed. We were in luck, since our secondary goal was to show off some famed Australian seafood for dinner that evening. We got a couple of dozen freshly shucked Tassie oysters, around a kilo of live black mussels and did a double take when we spied whole cooked crayfish for $20 each! They weren't large crayfish by any means and each one was neatly bundled in a meshed sock that may have indicated that they travelled from afar, but I can't remember when I last saw rock lobsters (or crayfish) for only 20 bucks each locally. Too good to pass up so we got three, which meant we could look forward to half a cray each.
So dinner that evening had oysters for starters, a dozen served naturale with just a squeeze of lemon and a dash of tobasco, and the other dozen briefly grilled with a light ponzu dressing then garnished with a few flaky strips of nori. I made a pot of my popular yet simple chilli mussels; the shellfish tossed in some hot oil flavoured with sweated onions, thinly sliced fresh chilli, ginger, garlic and shallots, then steamed open with white wine and the lid on. Once the shells have opened, a tablespoonful of tomato paste and a similar dollop of buttery roux to help thicken the liquor and it's ready to be served with crispy chunks torn off a grilled baguette. Sides included Kipfler potatoes roasted with rosemary, and a mesclun salad with Packham pear and King Island blue brie.
The crayfish were halved, slathered with homemade basil pesto and dollops of butter and grilled very close to the flame until the butter started to bubble and the edges of shell just slightly charred. Removed from the flame and served with wedges of lemon for immediate squeezing, the crays turned out to be succulent and fresh so we got a good deal indeed. Our guests wished they lived in Australia.