Not ashamed to admit my unabashed love for traditional markets. The swirls of aromas that awaken the senses, the bustle of people, conversations that tickle the air like a swarm of temperate bees, the cacophony of delivery trucks and squeaking carts lazily arriving and departing, the barking of sellers and serious faces of determined buyers. Sure, you can find farmers’ markets in the U.S. and they’re fine, but you already know that’s not the kind of time tested and well worn, town market I’m talking about. You gotta go to Europe or the Americas south of Texas to find what I love.
No pretend markets for yours truly. Gotta be real. Gotta be alive. Gotta have stacks of fresh vegetables and fruits, flanked by seafood that still carries a hint of salty air and juicy red meats ready to be cut to your liking.
In the big grocers found on the corner of in every American city and good-sized town, most of the fish is frozen. Oranges and lettuce completed the sea-swaying journey from South America a couple of weeks ago, or longer. All the meats weren’t on the hoof yesterday, or even last week. Everything is washed, processed and cellophane wrapped to sterile perfection.
I heard a French wife say she wouldn’t buy a vegetable that didn’t have dirt on it. I’m with her. Bring it to me fresh picked and bearing an earthy smell. I’ll do my own washing. Even the eggs. Speaking of which, ever noticed American eggs need refrigeration and European eggs sit unrefrigerated in paper cartons on market shelves? Ever wonder why? American eggs MUST be pre-washed and sprayed with a sanitizer, which takes off a natural coating that protects the egg from bacteria. European egg farmers don’t have to do that. Their eggs stay fresh and impenetrable on your counter top.
Rather than dwell on wash or don’t wash, you can read the whole story here:
But, let’s get out of the hen house and back to markets. In Europe you’ll discover old stone markets that have stood the test of time and they’re not just to impress the tourists. Restaurant chefs, housewives, house husbands, and serious amateur cooks crowd in, shoulder to shoulder, picking out the best of what the local farmers, cheese makers, vintners, bakers, pastry makers, fishermen, butchers and herb and flower growers have to offer. Found one of those in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Mercado de Abastos de Santiago is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (0900 – 1500).
How old is this place? Looks like a photo of forever and your eyes don’t deceive. The area’s been a center of agricultural commerce for over three hundred years. The current group of buildings date to 1941, but the gray stone-walls sport a patina of historic use.
Ok, I’m a suitcase-toting tourist, so why would I want to shop at a market? Hey, I bought thick bars of chocolate for hot chocolate. Spanish hot chocolate is almost as thick as pudding and American coco is not in the same ballpark, or the same league. Not even the same game!
Also, as a cook, I shopped for regional herbs. Living in Europe, I don’t have to worry about custom officers having a fit over what I’ve purchased in another part of the EU. Surrounding the market, other overstuffed stalls offer kitchenware, t-shirts, glassware and goodness knows what else.
But buying is only a small part of my market visits. I like to chat with the locals, ask about recipes for favorite dishes, stop and sip a wine or three, smell the flowers, watch how the locals interact, grab an offered taste of this and that. Every vendor I saw in the Santiago market was happy to whack off a sliver of ham or sausage, slice a bit of cheese or bread to whet my appetite, or answer questions about agriculture, or explain the fruits and wines and flowers I’d never seen before.
In a wine stall, I sampled several vintages and got my eyes and taste buds opened by the wine merchant, ever so happy to tell me about his products. The ones I tried were delicious. Funny thing. He had no wine and beer license, so he couldn’t sell his juice by the glass, but he offered small bottles to slake my thirst while we chatted.
A European open market is truly a place of wonderful discovery and one of the best chances you’ll have to interact with the locals and even share a laugh or two. Want to find out what real food tastes like? Let the stall keepers turn you on to flavors, then eat at a local restaurant. They all shop here too.
The Santiago central market is a wonderland of everything a market should be.