Real food grown by real people

Many people, when planning a trip, start by researching hotels and restaurants as well as cultural and entertainment possibilities. While I eventually get to those matters, the first thing I do is investigate farmers’ markets. Everything else can sort itself out around the markets.

As Calvin Trillin says in his 1977 essay “To Market, To Market,” first published in The New Yorker magazine:

“it happens to be true that I have never missed an opportunity to go to any market with anyone at any time. . . .  Wandering through the Friday morning market at Barnstaple – poking at fresh tomatoes or bargaining for what is purported to be an antique clipboard or munching on some Farmhouse Cheddar to keep up my strength between stalls – I occasionally pause to wonder why all of the other tourists are at Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London.”

I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think I have ever met a market that I did not like.

Childhood memories

My love of farmers’ markets developed long before my love of – or even any experience with – cooking. I grew up in Waterloo, with the now-famous St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market just a few minutes from my family’s home. I remember many a happy trip to that market, before there were parking attendants, shuttle buses, people selling bananas and oranges, or much of anything other than a basic building and lots of outdoor stalls.

In those days, almost all the vendors were Old Order Mennonites, who came by horse and buggy and sold food they had grown. Organic was not a word much used in the 1960s, but this was food that had been produced without the assistance of chemicals. While the market got crowded by mid-morning, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas, overall it was a relaxed experience. Our trips almost always ended with the purchase of a sort of crueller, a flaky, fragile bit of dough shaped like a rosette that had been deep-fried and then covered with icing sugar, hot out of the fryer into our hands and mouths.

I still visit this market whenever I am in Waterloo on a Saturday, even as I mourn the loss of much of its former charm. I almost always leave with some smoked pork chops and beef summer sausage from the same vendors who have been selling them for decades, even though it means fighting my way through the crowds to take a number and wait my turn. I walk through the citrus fruit stalls as quickly as I can. I go early to avoid the tour buses that now crowd the parking lots by 9 am, and I stay away from the flea market with all of its made in China plastic doodads.

Not all of the changes have been bad. The Middle Eastern vendors with tabouli, hummus, baba ganouj and pita bread; the young organic farmers offering goat cheese; the bakers with sourdough breads: all have enriched the market.

Wherever I go

I don’t think I can recall visiting a city without making a stop, however brief, at its market. Whether I am in North Bay; London; Prague; New York City or a small town in Morocco, I find the market and head for it as soon as I can.

But the markets I know best are those in my home town of Kingston and my winter get-away of San Miguel, Mexico. The Memorial Centre Market, a relatively new addition to the Kingston market scene, requires that all food sold be grown and/or made by the vendor. It is a treat, especially on a sunny fall morning, to wander through this market, chatting with the farmers, visiting with friends, sampling the churros made fresh on the spot (the best I have eaten anywhere), without having to wade through stalls of bananas, citrus fruit and out of season berries and asparagus. I never leave without a very full basket.

In San Miguel, I visit at least one market every day. The closest is less than a five-minute walk from the house my partner and I rent. We revel in the mountains of oranges, limes, tomatillos, mangoes, pineapples and avocados, and take home just what we need for a day or two. Between my limited Spanish and my willingness to engage in pantomime, I can even get the cut of meat I want (well, more or less) from the market butcher. We have been going to this market for long enough that our fruit vendor now greets us with enthusiasm on our first visit each year. (And we make that trek the minute we have dropped our luggage in the house.)

We visit another market two or three times a week for flowers and yet another for nuts and herbs. Still another is the place to buy the best rotisserie chicken in the world. We can also shop at a market that features locally grown, organic produce, meats and cheeses.

On my way home from each of these markets, I stop to take a look at Senora Juana’s kitchen window. If the curtain is open, it means she has freshly made, still warm corn tortillas available. Five pesos (about 40 cents) will get me a dozen, which I wrap in my own tea towel for the short trip home.

Whatever market I visit, I leave with my basket full of food, my mind brimming with ideas of what I will do with that food and my soul restored.

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