“Shopping in a market is nothing but the reinvention of the art of living simply, and together.” ~ Jean-Claude Izzo
I grew up with the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables. Corn just picked and shucked. Red, ripe tomatoes. The raw, green scent of beans dangling on the vine. We had a big garden and it was a lot of work. Dirty, sweaty, exhausting work. I could always think of a million things I’d rather be doing. But I soon discovered that nothing in a produce bin tastes as good as its just-picked cousin.
Every spring I look forward to shopping at the farmer’s markets. It’s not the same as walking down the lane a bit and picking the corn right off the stalk, but an old farmer who frequents one of my local markets has amazingly sweet, fresh corn every Friday morning in the summer and the blackberries taste as good as the ones that came with chiggers when I was growing up.
When I travel I also like to visit the local markets. It’s a great way to get a feel for the city or town or village and experience its colors and smells. I like the voices heard above the noise, no matter the language. “You gotta taste this!” Someone always offers a few berries or a slice of watermelon that’s hard to resist: “Have you ever seen a riper melon?” And there are baskets of tomatoes, zuchini, eggplant. Broad beans and broccoli. Batches of basil and mint and oregano. Cut flowers and potted plants. And some of the most colorful markets have everything from strange fruits and artwork and woven rugs to pigs and chickens and goats. Exotic gifts and local doo-dads. It’s all good.
Four of my favorite markets –
San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rica This market is in one of the prettiest natural settings of any I have ever visited.
Farmer’s Market, San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rica; Photo:KFawcett
The town of San Rafael is surrounded by stunning scenery — rolling green hills and valleys, rainforests and volcanoes. Heredia is an agricultural province only 20 minutes from San Jose, but it’s a world away from the busy capital city. The market is filled with a rainbow of tropical fruits. Some are more common as they are exported to the US, such as bananas, pineapples, and papayas, but others are harder to come by outside the tropics. The strange, heart-shaped anona with its milk-white pulp and rosewater flavor was once described by Mark Twain as “deliciousness itself.” Vendors sell hearts of palm and sugarcane and the reddest strawberries imaginable. And there are baskets of caimitos, which are similar to star fruits and taste like mangosteens; cashew fruit is soft and juicy with its kidney-shaped nut attached at the lower end; and granadilla (a type of passion fruit) is almost liquid when ripe and is best eaten with a spoon. The weather here is always warm, but every season brings special offerings – guanabana and guava, loquat and sapodilla, pejibaye and rambutan and zapote. The mombin is like a plum but not a plum. It really doesn’t taste like anything else. Both juicy and spicy, the mombin grows wild in the forest.
A band plays at the local market, San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rica; Photo:KFawcett
There’s music in the market, too. Lots of smiles and laughter and a real sense of community. The local landmark is a gorgeous Gothic church that sits just beyond the market stalls, and the surrounding cloud forest is home to some of Costa Rica’s largest coffee farms.
San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico El Mercado, in the historic center of town, is a magical place.
Mercado, San Miguel de Allende; Photo:KFawcett
Fruits and vegetables are plentiful at the market and in every color, size, and variety. But my favorite stalls have wonderful handmade rugs and blankets and a variety of trinkets — masks and metal stars, silver mirrors and milagros. Thousands of milagros (“miracles”/votives, religious folk charms) are available to fit every occasion for celebration or offering.
Folk Art, San Miguel de Allende; Photo:KFawcett
Mercado, San Miguel de Allende; Photo:KFawcett
San Miguel’s vendors also sell hot tortillas and baskets of herbs and big bundles of fresh cut flowers with perfect blooms – and cajeta, those great little caramel candies that you have to eat right on the spot.
(For some nice pics and more info, check out Martha Stewart’s “El Mercado in San Miguel de Allende“)
The Otavalo market in Imbabura Province in Ecuador is one of the largest markets of its kind in Latin America. I like everything that makes this market distinctly Ecuadorian. The vendors are almost exclusively indigenous people who come from the surrounding villages to sell their wares in the market square.
Otavalo Market, Imbubura, Ecuador; Photo:KFawcet
It’s all about atmosphere here. The men and women wear traditional dress, the men in white pants and dark ponchos, the women in dark skirts and beautiful embroidered blouses with flared lace sleeves. Everyone wears a hat. At a distance Poncho Plaza on a Saturday morning can look like a sea of fedoras! Otavalo is famous for its textiles and some of the best weavers in Latin America come from nearby Iluman and Agato and Peguche, but the surrounding villages are also known for other handicrafts — Cotacachi for leather, San Antonio for wood carvings — and there are pan pipe makers and others who carve tagua nut jewelry or embroider tablecloths and clothing. A live animal market sells cows and chickens and guinea pigs (a delicacy in these parts) and vegetable stands offer a multitude of grains grown in the Andes and more kinds of potatoes than you could sample if you ate potatoes at every meal for a week.
Textiles, Otavalo, Ecuador; Photo:MFawcett
Ludmila spins the yarn and her husband Tomas is the weaver. Their creations depict the villages and volcanoes, the people and their customs. The colorful bag hanging on the wall behind her has been my sturdy travel and beach duffel for more than a decade and it’s still fit to travel.
Eastern Market is Washington, DC’s oldest continually operated fresh food public market. It’s located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and it’s as much fun to visit and just hang out as it is to shop. Weekends are best, but it can be very busy, especially during the warm months. If you want to get a crepe from the crepe maker, for example (and it’s something you shouldn’t miss), you have to get to the market well before 2 pm.
Eastern Market, Washington, DC; Photo:KFawcett
During strawberry season the scent of fresh berries fills the air. Ditto for the basil and mint and rosemary. Lots to look at — arts and jewelry, antiques and collectibles, T-shirts and masks, and animals made from aluminum cans. Flowers. Lots of flowers! I like this market’s busyness away from the usual business of DC. It’s a great place to spend a sunny day.
Jean-Claude Izzo in an essay titled “I Am at Home Everywhere” says this: “…there is no point going anywhere else if we do not recognize ourselves in the eyes of the Other.” Perhaps this is what I enjoy most about outdoor markets, both foreign and familiar. The sights and sounds and feeling of community make me feel at home.
Do you have a favorite market? What makes it special? What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen, done, or bought at a farmer’s market?
***Jean-Claude Izzo was best known for being the founder of the modern Mediterranean noir novel, but I like best this slender book of essays about his beloved Marseilles and its food and markets: Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil: Essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean Cuisine, and Noir Fiction.