A mere five minute walk from the Prime Tower in Zürich's trendy fifth district is the covered market.
What is supposed to be a gourmet's dream in the Limmat City has been a slow horse out of the gate. After opening with much fan fair in 2010, the location has failed to really take root in the public's collective consciousness. Many city residents have yet to visit the touted attraction.
Markthalle Im Viadukt
Inside the Markthalle Im Viadukt, the feeling is not quite what one would expect from a covered indoor market, either: It is clean, almost sterile, yet lacking uniformity (and frankly, it is too quiet). With cleanness and silence being virtues of the Zwingli City, it is not exactly the atmosphere that foodies are looking for in a food market.
Compared to markets in Italy, France or the UK, the Markthalle Im Viadukt still has one or two things to learn.
Meet Mike, the Käsermeister
One man has been responsible for attracting more people to Zürich's indoor market than any other business: Michael (Mike) Fontana-Jones. He is also known as der Käsemeister. This cheesemonger has been hawking Britain's best Cheddars, Stiltons and Yargs since the Markthalle opened.
Through great word of mouth, a fun and personal social media presence, and most importantly great salesmanship, the Käsermeister has made his way into the hearts of the Swiss, the expats and the media.
The Happy Corner: Mouse Trap Bar and Saltinbocca
Even when the market is quiet, you can almost be certain that between Mike and Momo — the jesterly Egyptian fishmonger — there will be people in the northwestern corner of the hall. "This is the happy corner," Mike tells guests at his Mouse Trap Bar - an appropriate name for a bar attached to a cheese shop.
"We get on well and support each other, make a few jokes and treat our customers like guests," adds Mike when explaining why people tend to hang around that part of the market more than other places.
Having been a frequent patron of the market for more than three years, I know that he is right! There is, however, one other man who can bring the customers in. Thus, he is an essential component of the market: Marcello.
Marcello's booth, Saltinbocca, specializes in cured Italian meats, fresh salads, and wonderful antipasti. He is a character in the market that many cannot put their fingers on: Well-humored but strict.
His iron framed stand in one of the arches of the market is beautiful and overflows with products. A trained chef with experience in some of Switzerland's finest hotels and restaurants, Marcello has been self-employed for more than 20 years.
Like any star chef, he knows how his kitchen should function and demands it function just as such. He's got no patience for indecisive customers (or dilly-dallying employees). For those familiar with the US sitcom Seinfeld, Marcello can come off a little like that notorious soup shop proprietor, which could give off the image of an angry business owner...
Switzerland's Best Focacce
It was Mike who first introduced me to Marcello two years ago when I was helping to sell Port and cheese before Christmas. Marcello makes the best filled focacce in Switzerland, hands down.
Loaded with fresh ingredients and varieties for meat lovers and vegetarians alike coming in three sizes - small, medium, large, - these heated sandwiches are exactly what many believe Zürich is missing. They believe this simply because they have yet to stop by the stand in the Markthalle im Viadukt and try them...
Best of all, in comparison with any of the other sandwiche options, Marcello's focacce are a great deal!
Try a Little Ham - or a Fresh Salad
People passing by Saltinbocca are not just drawn to the stand because of its beautiful design. Additionally, Marcello does a good job of harking people in by asking them if they would like to try some ham, salami, olives or antipasti.
With a "Wottsch es bittsli Schinckä probierä?", he gets the attention of several visitors. "Well, if he's asking, then why not," they think and come closer. He assures them that he does not bite and places some freshly sliced ham on a plate, telling them that it is from an organic farm in Italy, air cured to perfection.
The look on their faces shows that they are impressed, and they thoroughly enjoy the ham. It is a start to a conversation that will hopefully end in a purchase. This interaction shows that Marcello is actually very friendly.
The salads at Saltinbocca are made fresh everyday as are the giant focacce. Early one Wednesday morning, I caught Marcello preparing fresh salmon tartar and salads. It does not take long to see that he is a culinary artist, knowing exactly what goes with which salad. There is no counting and weighing of ingredients. And in fact, watching him make the salads, you would swear there are no recipes, either.
Taste and presentation are what guide him. Marcello will be one of the first to point out how different fruits and vegetables taste different as the seasons change. He knows what works together - which is why his food is so delicious.
The Lunch Crowd
At a quarter to twelve as people shuffle in for lunch, the stand is bustling with action. The fact that there is only one table with chairs as well as a few standing tables for customers is yet another unfortunate planning error in the market's design. It is not particularly welcoming to those wishing to dine in.
But with summer's arrival, it is much nicer to take your focaccia to the nearby Limmat river or to the adjacent Josefswiese to soak up some sun and fresh air...
As hungry workers queue in front of Saltinbocca, Marcello is busy taking orders, cutting focacce, piling plates full of salad and slicing some of the finest salamis and hams in the city. He does not have much patience for those too slow to make up their minds and does his best to make the options simple. Often, he will simply tell them what he is going to give them.
Some are grateful and accept the the help. Others turn down the dictated recommendations and continue to hum and ha. They often end up standing there as another hungry customer, probably a regular, shouts out an order that is immediately filled...
Pragmatism and Trust
As he rushes and serves four separate customers at the same time, they are asked to put their money into a Mediterranean style dish and take their own change. This unordinary practice of trusting people keeps Marcello from dirtying his hands with cash and allows him to better serve his customers.
If Marcello does not know exactly what the most frequent patrons want, they do and he is happy. Pragmatism and trust are key elements of Saltinbocca, and it works for Marcello, who knows that his revenues are directly related to how fast he can serve people.
Unlike in many other Swiss establishments, he hustles and his guests are happy. Even those who do not speak any German are delighted to find that he speaks French, Italian, English and Spanish. Patrons staying to eat will often be treated to an espresso from the noble looking machine that Marcello had imported from Italy.
The service is fast, and the espresso always comes with a piece of poppyseed cake or pastry.
Coffee and Cake
As dozens of customers are served in a time that would put McDonald's to shame, the plates and glassware start to pile up. I ask if I can help clear some things and load the dishwasher. Marcello will have none of it. He tells me that he will take care of it after the rush, and that it is his job and that he does not like people trying to help.
Fair enough, I think. After all, artists are particular in their own ways.
He does not miss a beat, though. If I am able to help with cleaning up, I must obviously be done with my lunch and ready for an espresso. Steam puffs from the machine as Marcello fills up a small cup with hot water to warm it up before grinding fresh beans and making my espresso.
Between serving the last few customers and topping off a glass of wine, Marcello finishes my espresso, cuts a slice of cake, then passes it over to me and tells me that he loves his job, he loves the creativity of working with food. The focacce are sold out for the day.
It's the People
As I pay and leave the market, I am left contemplating what makes up a successful market, and then the answer seems obvious. Apart from the products, it is the personalities. Whether it is a suave Englishman hawking cheese, a personable Egyptian selling fresh seafood, or an artistic Swiss chef creating amazing sandwiches and salads - these three men bring people into the Viadukt and give it life.
I can only hope that as the market establishes itself more, it is going to attract more distinct personalities that know how to engage with customers. For those open to something new, or for those visiting Zürich, a stop at the Markthalle im Viadukt will get you the largest selection of British cheeses outside of the UK and the best focacce North of Italy.
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