The clink of crushed ice hitting metal basins announces the arrival of fresh seafood. Already, there is a gleaming assortment of swimmers, like the red alfonsino with large globular eyes and the flying fish, which, when alive, dart over waves like a volley of silver bullets.
The star attraction, though, is tucked under a blanket of ice – a metre-long bluefin tuna rarely seen at fishmongers. All the specimens have shiny, unblemished bodies and bright clear eyes – traits of fresh seafood.
I am at Pasarbella, a gourmet “farmers’ market” that opened in a quiet corner of Bukit Timah earlier this year. The pickings belong to fish market Oceans of Seafood. To allow customers to savour the ingredients at their freshest, there is an attached dining area where purchases can be prepared and eaten. And it’s not only fish, but mounds of oysters and other crustaceans.
“We have Scottish brown crab and blue lobster today,” Oceans staff M. K. Teo announces from behind the counter, as he expertly catches a lobster scampering to the edge of the display. He caresses its head as he would pet a kitten.
“If you stroke the middle of the head where the nerves are, it calms them down,” he explains. True enough, the creature becomes still, a feisty beast tamed in mere seconds.
Revelations like these are what I come to expect as I walk through Pasarbella, where over 30 traders sell everything from stalks of dried lavender to freshly roasted coffee and piping hot pies.
Although Pasarbella, the name a combination of “market” and “beautiful” in Malay and Italian respectively, is touted as a farmers’ market, it more closely resembles London’s Borough Market and Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market. These are retail hubs that offer the best of local and imported produce, while farmers’ markets offer products direct from local growers. In Singapore, where only 7 per cent of the food is locally grown, such a place would no doubt have paltry local offerings.
Still, I will take the next best thing. Having lived in Australia, I yearn for the time when I would come home with a paper bag of rolled oats in one hand, and an assortment of vine-ripened tomatoes and plump summer peaches in the other.
The desire to relive that experience has brought me here this morning. After Oceans, I head for The Cheese Ark. Enclosed in wood, the stall’s design does justice to its name while serving to contain the pungent musty-milky odour of ripe cheese. Standing by a central table showcasing blocks of the stuff is self-described cheesemonger Syu Ai Ming, tending to two Japanese women buying aged Gouda.
Formerly in advertising, Syu had ditched her job to work on cheese farms in Italy and now imports rare artisanal varieties from Europe to support independent producers. These are cheesemakers who reject mass production in the belief that traditional methods will turn out a superior product. But, with higher production costs and limited output, the result is also more expensive and thus not commercially viable.
Today, the market for artisanal cheeses in France is 7 per cent; 70 years ago, it was all people ate. And this is a country famed for its cheesemaking heritage.
“We eat the cheese in order to save it,” says Syu. She cites the Montebore, a three-tiered slab the colour of ivory. “It has been brought back only in the past 15 years,” she says, placing it delicately on the table. “The original makers died out one by one.”
She then pulls out a box of Belper Knolle. Produced by only one cheesemaker in Switzerland, the cheese comes in dark brown orbs that bear an uncanny resemblance to truffles.
She grates a small portion into my palm to sample. It is strong and spicy, made with garlic, Himalayan salt and an unmistakable hint of pepper. I imagine it sprinkled over pasta or even poached eggs to add depth of flavour.
Is Syu backing a lost cause? “People like exclusivity,” she rationalises, on why customers would opt to buy rare, expensive cheeses. “But I hope that when they come here, they remember that they’re saving it too.”
THIRSTY FOR MORE
Back outside, I hanker for a bubbly, a sweet and undemanding drink to balance the savoury flavours I’ve tasted. I need a fruit lambic. And The Great Beer Experiment has ample bottles. Like The Cheese Ark, there are no mass-produced ales here. Instead, over 150 types of craft beers line the shelves, each unique.
I pull up a stool by the small bar, where “beertender” Edward Tan explains that craft beers are brewed in small batches, sometimes, just once. “They are more exotic,” he says. “We have beer that’s brewed with whisky and even rice wine.”
On his recommendation, I try The Heart Of Darkness, a light stout with a sinister eye on its purple label. One quick swig and it’s clear how the drink is different from a commercial brew – not too bitter, with a roasted-malt taste and a hint of dark chocolate.
On weekends, the place is packed with regulars knocking back brews on overturned beer barrels. Tan says new labels will be introduced regularly to keep the offerings diverse.
“For me, it’s all about educating the customers. That’s why we’re called The Great Beer Experiment, to let them try new stuff.”
All this time, the smell of freshly roasted coffee permeates the air. The source is Dutch Colony Coffee, where head barista and master roaster Ahmad Hidayat is seated in front of a piece of red equipment twice his size.
The machine is connected to his laptop, which records and displays information on the beans’ origins and how long they’ve been roasting. He checks them at regular intervals and, once satisfied, releases them into a metal basin. A new heady aroma springs forth, this time a little nuttier.
“We’re not just a cafe, you see,” Hidayat says. “Whether you like your coffee dark and rich or light and fruity, we’ve got the beans with various methods to extract it.” The aim here is to roast beans daily, with an average of 200kg done every week. These are allowed to rest before their taste and fragrance are assessed in a process called cupping, to capture a specific roast’s profile.
Freshly roasted beans make all the difference in a cup of coffee. The liquid gets its aroma and flavour from the oils released upon grinding and degrades within minutes. For the optimum experience in enjoying coffee, experts advise grinding the beans right before the beverage is made and to use up roasted beans within seven days.
The latte I order has me wondering if I will ever go back to Starbucks. Full-bodied yet smooth, it slides down the throat like silk – the perfect drink to savour on a weekday afternoon. Looking around, I am not the only one who feels this way.
To my left, a young couple sits in comfortable silence, reading a local paper. Next to them, the Japanese women from The Cheese Ark are talking and nodding animatedly. In another corner, three retirees are in a heated political discussion, their cups long empty. There are housewives, solo patrons and artists sketching on notepads, brooding in their corners.
And then I feel it. There is a palpable sense of community here, similar to the vibe of Australian markets. Where a latte once warmed my hands on rainy winter days, my conversations with the traders here are just as comforting.
And, as I relish my coffee, I realise Pasarbella has given me a slice of what I’d left behind. Whether it’s live seafood, rare cheeses or craft beer not found elsewhere, these traders have come together to form a place with a heart, where the food is just as comforting as the community behind it.
Oceans of Seafood, K2 to K11 & K26; The Cheese Ark K28; The Great Beer Experiment K46; Dutch Colony Coffee Co. K67 to 68. Pasarbella @ The Grandstand, 200 Turf Club Road. pasarbella.com