Market day

1 February 2010

I love the Mercado de La Ribera (Signs in Basque say: Merkatua).  They have creamy, unsalted butter wrapped in paper from Burgos; thick, fragrant stalks of leeks (puerros, a word I learned last week); apples, avocados, cherries, oranges at the fruitstands; fresh eggs piled in wire baskets; forty different kinds of cheese & homemade arroz con leche in little containers; five different kinds of mushrooms (setas are the wild ones harvested from the hillsides, campiñones are the white button kind); heads of garlic & dried red peppers hanging in bunches; buckets of dried beans, spices, peppers . . . And this is just on the third floor, to say nothing of the fishmongers on the ground floor or the butchers on the second.

The market looks a little like a big yellow train station. It has skylights & colored glass windows & mosaic tiles on the outside. Two-thirds of it is rubble, right now, because it’s being massively renovated, but the last third is still open. I go twice a week, Mondays & Thursdays in the morning.

Last week I found out that one of the fruitstands sells reusable milk bottles for 0,40€ & has a machine with farm-fresh milk that you fill up for a 1€ per litre. This in particular is a revelation, because Spanish milk is always sold in cardboard boxes, quadruple-pasturized and irradiated (“UHT”) & stored at room temperature in stacks on the floor like bricks, & it tastes like chalk.

As if this wasn’t enough to keep me happy, the market features the best idea ever: a bar on the top floor, right underneath one of the skylights, so that you can have breakfast when you come in the morning (café cortado & a croissant) or a caña & a tortilla while you’re finishing up.

But really, the reason to do my shopping here in addition to all of this, and in addition to the prices (I walk away from the fruitstand, my arms sagging, having let go of 2,50€; I try six different cheeses & pay less than a euro apiece), is that in a market you do something you don’t do in a supermarket, which is talk to people. The women at the fruitstands tell you which fruits are good: Not that one. That one isn’t for today. You want this one. You find yourself in the position of having to know the names for things. After a little while you’re recognized, both because you’re one of the few foreigners (my castellano is getting more noticeably accented because I’m trying to get rid of my andaluz; people ask me where I’m from) and because you’re young, and a man, and I don’t really see many other muchachos shopping at market. I almost said, because not a lot of Spanish boys my age cook, but I think that’s truer in Andalucía, where I knew tons of young adults who lived exclusively off of their mothers’ food, frozen in tupperware, than here in País Vasco, which has a food culture (so many chefs come from San Sebastían).

Still and all, it’s a delight just to talk to people, to feel like you’re part of a city, to see a smile of recognition, to have someone tell you when you’ve forgotten to withdraw enough cash that you can pay her the next time you come in, to return to your kitchen with fresh, real things, to chop vegetables, in place of going to the crowded aisles of the Carrefour Express ten minutes’ walk away in  Zabálburu to feel lonely & listen to the piped-in American pop.

(I found a butcher, too, a German family-run place in Ensánche that makes its own currywurst & sausage & stocks this spicy imported brown mustard you squeeze from a tube that you can’t get anywhere else, also shockingly cheap; the owner is exceedingly pleasant & trilingual in Spanish, English & German.)

Now the only thing I buy in a store are staples, rainy-day food — canned tomatoes, vermouth, flour, pasta, sliced bread. I meant to wait on writing this until I had pictures, but I’m still looking for a place to develop my first roll of film.

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