Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Big arrows pointing the wrong way.

Elli's Deli was always too small. It was square, with counters all around. The staff stood on a postage stamp in the middle while hundreds of customers came at them from all sides. The staff were separated from the customers by display cases several feet in width. Goodness knows where they put the money. Probably under one of the cheese wheels. Elli's Deli was a Coburg institution. Some people came to Coburg just to visit the shop. Elli's had a Greek heritage, but it sold all foodstuffs of the type that was once called 'Continental'. Entire suburbs grew up on Greek and Italian home-style cooking for which the ingredients came from Elli's Deli. Those same ingredients in turn came from Melbourne's foodie suburbs. No, not St Kilda or Fitzroy, or even Brunswick. Look at the packaging on the basics on the shelves in Elli's Deli - sauces, fresh cheese, pasta, pita bread, etc - and you'll see Thomastown, Reservoir and Tullamarine addresses. That's where the small to medium factories are. There are other suburbs where you can buy overpriced gourmet imports, and where you can sit around in cafes whose customers like to think of themselves as the leaders of some kind of culinary nouvelle vague, but the real engine room of Melbourne's food scene is the industrial belt that has supplied Melbourne's immigrant population for close to sixty years.

I walked past the other day and it was gone. I had noticed a sign in Elli's window late last year saying they were moving farther south down Sydney Road. But in its empty windows were six or seven sheets of white butcher's paper drawn with giant arrows in blue Texta underlined in red pointing the other way - back into the market and reading "Deli at back of market". Odd. I walked into the market past the tobacco shop and the cheap hairdresser and the chicken shop and the fish stall. No Elli's Deli. But another deli. The competition.

I walked back out on to Sydney Road and down the street. It was only about ten shops down. It was massive; a huge space with stalls up to the ceiling and, in that, four or five skylights made from rescued Edwardian stained glass windows; and a coffee bar at the front. The ladies who serve you have a football field to themselves now behind the display cases and the customers don't have to stand on anyone else's toes except their own, because they are still short and the counters are still tall.

"I went into the market," I told the lady who served me. "Who put the arrows the wrong way?" I must have sounded like one of those cartoon characters who have been duped by a gangster flipping the roadsigns.

"The other deli," she replied, putting two leek sausages and ten slices of kefalograviera into a plastic bag. Looks like their former premises are owned by the market.

"And you couldn't specify a notice in the window pointing to your new shop?"

She smiled. "We don't care. We got enough customers. They'll find us."

They really didn't care. This would cause fistfights, court cases and drawn lawyers at VCAT in 999 out of 1000 other cases.

"That's the life," the lady added. She meant "That's life" but she was translating c'est la vie direct from French into Greek into her head, and then re-translating it into English.

And anyway, I knew what she meant.


Martin Kennedy said...

I remember that place...was always so busy. Glad they moved and not closed down.

kitchen hand said...

The test will be when their ageing clientele passes. Will a younger generation raised on TV cooking shows sustain an old-school deli?