Naschmarkt Food, Foreigners and Festivity

Vienna’s Most Famous and Popular Cornacopia of Produce, Cuisine and Events is a Community Open to All Commers, Friends and Strangers Alike.

Summer, 1983; a press conference at the Naschmarkt. Helga Maria Wolf of the Austrian Daily Presse, quickly took notes on what was displayed in front of her, on the long wooden tables bursting with food.

In her notebook, it said, “Dates, French and Italian cheese, Greek olives, nutmeg, Kaki fruit, pineapple (great!!), avocado (fatty), anchovy (yucky), pomegranate (looks poisonous, but tastes delicious)….”

Sellers were praising their exotic foods to the journalists invited to the market to write about the newest, most exotic, highest quality produce that the Naschmarkt had to offer to the Viennese of the early 80s.

Fall 2006. Twenty years later, the Naschmarkt has its own staff of journalists writing about its delicacies, speaking in its own voice in a new magazine Der Naschmarkt, produced and distributed at and for the market neighbourhood.

“The market and the area around have developed such a dynamic and vivid life that people wanted to set up something that would bring us even closer together,” said chief editor Angelika Herburger. With the help of the merchants at the market itself as well as the restaurants and shop owners of the Freihausviertel – who finance the paper through their advertisements – the first issue of the magazine came out in October 2006.

“The Naschmarkt and its Freihausviertel are like a colourful, lively yet laid back village in the midst of grey, hectic city of Vienna,” Herburger explained. The market is far more than just about shopping, but about variety – culturally, socially and food wise – and community.

“Der Naschmarkt ist eine eigene Welt” – the Naschmarkt is a world of its own,” the magazine claims on the cover.

Devoted to exploring the variety, background of the exotic and traditional goods available; the magazine is filled with commentaries, insider tips and advice from the various sellers. Next to quality, the exotic atmosphere has always been one of the Naschmarkt’s leading features.

“From its beginnings up until the 1960s, 70s, the Naschmarkt offered food that you couldn’t find anywhere else in Vienna and the area; it was the only place to go to,” explained Dr. Helga Maria Wolf, author of Alt Wiener Märkte. By now, of course, most are used to the variety and exotic allure of anchovies, olives or avocados.

However, other offerings are more unusual. In addition to the Oriental and more recent Asian influence on the market, there is also a growing trend towards good quality organically-grown food. Only two months ago, the second big organic food store opened and a third one is expected to follow.

“The market is growing and growing. I love working here,” said El Kaviv, the owner of the first organic food store.

And the Viennese love to go there. “People come again and again because one can feel a bit as if you were on a holiday, the smells, flavours and colours,” Herburger said.

Some of this activity is new. Tourists, for instance, have not always come here. The Naschmarket was not a tourist attraction when Herburger came to Vienna 20 years ago.

Today, within the space of 30 minutes on a Saturday morning, a visitor fell into conversation with a London family, three Australian backpackers, a young French woman, two Lithuanian girls and a Spanish couple, most intending to visit the Naschmarkt.

“We love it, and we will spend the one full day at the market,” said the Sydney backpackers. The Londoners found it all “just nice, but we do have something similar at home.” The Bank Street Market, too, has open stalls of produce and meats, as well as open grills of fresh ethnic and local dishes – though a recent visit was evidenced that it has neither the size not variety of the Naschmarkt.

So is the Naschmarkt really something so unique?

“Yes, in the sense that it has become more than just a shopping experience,” said Franz Kopecky, press spokesman for the Naschmarket. “Our market is in a phase of revitalisation, in adolescence, expanding, growing and developing a cultural life and importance all its own.”  A glance at the events section of Der Naschmarkt magazine, one finds jazz jams held in the middle of the market on Thursday nights, as well as readings and lectures in the various cafes and restaurants on the market. There is music and theatre, there are book clubs, cooking classes and wine sampling offered on and around the market.

“The Naschmarkt is on the point of developing a community with its own subculture,” Kopecky and Herburger agreed. Being close to some of Vienna’s culturally most important features, like the Vienna State Opera, the Musikverein, the Technical University, and several leading museums, the Secession, the Wien Museum, the Kunsthalle and the Kunstlerhaus certainly helped to create a lively cultural atmosphere around the market.

Straddling two political jurisdictions of  the 6th and 4th Districts, the Naschmarkt is a patchwork of nationalities, religious and cultural beliefs. Yet “there is a remarkable lack of political influence or controversy,” Herburger observed.

“Sometimes the politicians of the two districts, the ÖVP and SPÖ, try to have a bigger influence and presence on the market, especially around election times. But all the merchants are very reluctant to have that,” Herburger said.

There is an unwritten rule that politics and religion should not be discussed. “Maybe that’s the reason why the cooperation works so smoothly,” the chief editor said.

Some of the stand holders like the fruit and Kuczera’s vegetable shop, or Gurkenleo,  specialising in cabbage, or Erika – die Gemüsefrau, have been here for over 30 years. “Not to forget ‘Futzi,’ Herburger said, “the crazy flea market guy, that nobody takes serious but everybody likes.”

The market is in a kind of heyday today thanks to the restaurants and to the Turkish and Russian merchants who came to Austria as guest workers in the 1950s, said Herburger. “Without my colleagues from abroad, the market might have died, at that time hardly any Austrians were willing to do the hard work a market booth requires.”

Georg Dis from the Greek speciality shop, agreed. “At one point the Austrian merchants began to be too lazy to get up at four in the morning, and that’s why my father and many other workers from abroad came into play,” he said. “The foreigners worked twice as hard because they had to, and today being at the market is very lucrative.”

Gurkenleo agreed that the market is stable and a good place to do business. Having helped his father at the stand when he was a boy, he went on to university and opened a business in Belgium. But Vienna and the Naschmarkt always drew him. Here, business is better, he said, thriving on the competition of one fruit, vegetable, meat, cheese stand rubbing shoulders with the next. The market has it’s own hierarchy. At the upper market closest to the city centre are the most traditional booths, also with the highest prices. At the other end, the lower market, the Turks, Russians and other former immigrants, whose prices are among the lowest of the city.

Are their tensions? Most just smile. “We all get along,” Herburger said. “It’s the market itself that counts; people tend to stay with their own, but there’s room for everybody.”

And the scene? All the art, literature and music does not belong at a market, some purists say. Gurkenleo is one of these. At a real market, “there is no room for food and restaurants or other goods like clothes or cosmetics,” he complained

But “eating has always been part of the Naschmarkt.” Wolf writes. “Knödelköchinnen und Pretzlbrater were the fast food people of the Biedermaier.”

And most merchants agree. Even though, a 2006 law limits the number of new restaurants, it is the eateries and cultural events that have helped the market revive.

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