A Perfect Market
Photo: Inga Wittneben
Far and away the best, is the Carlsplatz Markt, a short walk from the Königsallee at the edge of the Altstadt, or Old Town. No matter how ambitious your menu, you’re bound to find the right ingredients here amid a mind-boggling array of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, flowers and herbs.
Although it’s obligingly open Monday through Saturday, quality and variety reach a crescendo as the weekend approaches: a Saturday morning stroll through the stalls leaves you in no doubt that you’re grazing at the top of the food chain.
Like the city itself, the Carlsplatz market blends cosmopolitan sophistication with down-to-earth virtues – locally grown cabbages and carrots are flanked by wild litchis from Thailand and white apricots from Tunisia, and truffled ham from Tuscany vies with fat-speckled local Blutwurst, or blood sausage – the latter perhaps not for beginners or the faint of heart.
Everywhere the accent is on freshness, quality and the kind of human interaction that’s almost completely lacking in a Muzak-benumbed supermarket. On their feet for long hours in all sorts of weather, the men and women who make their living at the Carlsplatz market are miraculously good-natured, nearly always finding time to tell a joke or share a recipe while picking out a pound of perfect potatoes or filleting a fish. What’s more, the guild-like camaraderie between people who are often in direct competition with each other has to be seen to be believed – everyone seems to be per Du. Even if you’ve strayed away for weeks, months or years, prepare to be welcomed back like the prodigal son; they possess an uncanny memory for names and faces.
Regulars all seem to have their favourite stands. For me, no visit to the Carlsplatz is complete without stopping at Schier. Greengrocers extraordinaire, four generations of this Franco-German family have catered to – and indeed helped to shape – the increasingly sophisticated tastes of their clientele. Michel Schier, hands-on managing director of Schier GmbH, presides over what is surely the most prestigious stand at the market, bringing a little rue Cler flair to Düsseldorf. So evocative it is of Paris that the Primeurs sign is perfectly warranted: a lot of their produce comes straight from Rungis.
Feasting my eyes, I ask the inevitable question: How many different items in all? Michel Schier responds with Germanic precision and a Gallic glint in his eye: “Four hundred and eighty two.” He adds that “It’s all a far cry from the forties, when my grandmother would ride into town with a horse and cart laden with root vegetables from surrounding farms, picking her way by the light of a kerosene lamp. Here, try a slice of dried wild mango from Indonesia; they’re amazingly sweet.” Indeed.
Incidentally, for Anglo-Saxon devotees of the lowly turnip, Schier is still the best bet in town; Germans have never really regained their appetite for them.
Yes, the prices are commensurate with the quality: a single bunch of Schier’s tiny, torpedo-shaped radishes can cost nearly as much, I suppose, as a Happy Meal at McDonald’s or a packet of cigarettes. But think how much healthier they are; besides, I basically won’t serve pâté without them. By the way, if there’s a better place in this town to buy pâté than Chez Jean-Luc – another longstanding Carlsplatz stalwart – I certainly haven’t found it.
A note for Americans: you don’t have to go cold turkey at Thanksgiving in Düsseldorf. With a few days notice, Stüttgen and other poultry dealers are happy to purvey the festive fowl – fresh, no less. You may never settle for a frozen one again.
Nor need shoppers go hungry while at the Carlsplatz: interspersed among the stands are a variety of generally upscale emporia offering a quick, multicultural bite to eat. And remember, if you greedily burn your mouth on a Bratwurst, sizzling potato pancake, falafel or fish sandwich, the nearest glass of draught Alt is only a few paces away. On cold days – and the Carlsplatz market is open all year round – you might want to choose from the half a dozen high-calibre soups and stews on offer daily at the Gulaschkanone, a Düsseldorf institution dating back four decades; in summer, they even do decent gazpacho.
True, bargains are few and far between at the Carlsplatz, but it pays to shop around – after all, it doesn’t take an economist to recognize a perfect market. So no excuses, Auf geht’s!