When you travel, in the homeland or out of country, you can dip into the “high” culture — museums, concerts, etc.—— or you can indulge the “low” culture, with its street life, neighborhoods and areas off the tourist radar, and a variety of less well-known activities, some of them considered unsavory by the champions of couth among us.
One of my favorite pursuits when I travel would probably fall at the low end of the spectrum.
I am not referring to the Red Light District in Amsterdam, the Times Square area back in the early ’80s, or the side streets and doorways in Pigalle, though they certainly have their allure.
I’m talking about markets. Markets big and small, from tiny storefronts to the monsters, the markets of legend.
There are some monsters here in the U.S. In a corny sort of way, the Farmers Market near Fairfax in LA fills the bill, and there are great places to eat at that venerable destination. The Santa Monica Farmers Market is a dandy, given the right season. The Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco makes a lot of lists of favorites.
The Portobello Market in London offers a bit of everything to the visitor, with food being, perhaps, the least interesting aspect of an entertaining visit. I had a piece of haddock there, once, where the fish should not have died.
A quick walk to Campo di Fiori from Piazza Navona in Rome fulfilled a longtime market dream of mine, though I arrived too late for peak business.
Suffice it to say, I find markets more interesting than monuments. A leisurely stroll through a market, for me, bests a tour of nearly any tourist site.
Kathy and I visited two markets on a recent trip to Spain and France, both of which I researched over the years, both that I wanted to experience while I still had the physical and economic wherewithal to do so.
It is rare to find a market anywhere in the U.S. outside a major food center that compares to La Boqueria, in Barcelona, or the Arles market in the south of France.
Don’t get me wrong, the folks who do their best to organize and promote a farmers market here in Siberia With a View have undertaken a noble task, and the weekly summer affair is worth a visit. But it is, in total, the equivalent of one booth at the Spanish and French extravaganzas. In our alpine roost, we lack the extended growing season and fertility of soil existing near sea level in the south of France, and the shore is but a mile or so away from the Barcelona market. Our options in Siberia With a View, even with a superb season, are few. The splendor of the markets near the Mediterranean and Balearic seas is common.
Like food? Like crowds? Like surly merchants?
If so, La Boqueria, technically Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, is for you.
This renowned market sits under a giant roof, its sides open, entry a short block off La Rambla.
It is safe to say there are few items not available at La Boqueria from the vendors whose booths border the jam-packed aisles. Weathered and wily grandmothers match wits and elbows with chefs as they cruise for produce and fish, the best cuts of meat, their favorite cheeses, wines for the afternoon and evening meals. Incredibly fresh vegetables and fruits are stacked high in tilted bins. Carcasses hang ready for the butcher. Sausages are coiled in display cases. Fish, eyes clear, gills red and fresh, are positioned like design elements in huge, shallow trays, the fragile flesh cushioned by crushed ice.
Interspersed with the vendor booths are stands offering everything from snacks to full meals to beverages of all kinds. Want a sandwich, say Iberico and a whiff of queso? No problemo. How about a beer, or a cocktail? It’s yours. Grilled, fresh fish, a hunk of charred cephalopod? Mighty tasty. In the mood for monkfish liver, cockles, lamb’s brain to spread on a slab of toasted bread? Rest easy, you’re in the right place.
Just don’t dawdle. I made that mistake at the front of a fishmonger’s booth. I was stoked, eyes wide, heart beating pitter-pat. I was, after all, at one of the most famous markets in Spain. The sounds, the smells, a few sips of a handmade mango and orange concoction — they flipped me into a reverie.
Suddenly, there they were: a platoon of fresh sardines, lined up perfectly on the ice, like little silvery soldiers ready for a parade. I was enthralled, my nose about an inch from the tiny fish. In my imagination, I could smell the critters as they grilled over hot charcoal. I could imagine the taste — oily, meaty, like the sea, totally different from the canned, smaller varieties we find in our stores here. A splash of fresh lemon juice and …
I realized someone was yelling at me.
At me? The jovial, gap-toothed fat guy in the garish Hawaiian shirt?
Yep. It was the proprietress. She wanted nothing of my appreciative meditation; she wanted me outta there. I didn’t understand Catalan, but I understood a scowl, yelling, waving and indiscreet hand gestures.
Kathy and I made our way through the rest of the market. We were there for at least an hour. I left determined to eat some fresh, grilled sardines. I enjoyed mackerel and pulpo tapas later that night in a place in the Bario Gotic, but the sardines stuck in my mind.
The second great market is in Arles, that once-Roman outpost in the south of France (the land given by Julius Caesar to the members of the legion who demolished their foes in Gaul).
Not a bad deal.
The land at the tail end of the Rhone is an agricultural hot spot: vineyards abound in the region, farms crank out spectacular produce of all kinds.
We stayed in Arles at an eccentric little place run by Eric, a noted ex-chef and cooking instructor, a bohemian squat that keeps Kathy on the alert for pathogens and disease-bearing insects. Eric teaches cooking classes in a huge kitchen on the first floor. A class underway on a Saturday morning included students — professional and amateur — from the U.S., England, Thailand and Brazil, all there to learn more about the cuisine of Provence. I checked out the items on the blackboard: brandade, ratatoiuille, roasted leg of lamb persillade. Been there, done that. I opt out.
I took a walk while Kathy scouted out a decrepit laundromat. I strolled down a narrow street in old Arles to Place Voltaire. I headed down Rue Voltaire to the old wall of the city and a gate marked by two eroded, round towers.
There it was: the famed Arles Market — a four-block-long walkway with tents, trailers, booths lining both sides.
The experience couldn’t have been more different than the one afforded by the brusque bustle of La Boqueria.
Not to say I was well equipped to deal with the situation.
I studied French for seven years and I was put through the drill the final two years of my studies by Charles Pinckney — savant, linguist, perfectionist, pinched prude and relation of Charles Pinckney, governor of South Carolina, a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the U.S. Constitution. My Pinckney wore a suit, tie and vest and prowled the language lab like a prissy tiger. All the “masters” at the school wore coats and ties, but Pinckney dressed and acted like he was going to the coronation of the queen — with him as queen.
After all the work, all the pain inflicted by my nitpicking overseer (Pinckney flunked me all but one semester), I can proudly say I speak French well enough to point at something, grunt and nod my head when asked (usually with obvious sympathy) whether I want to purchase the item.
Fortunately, I didn’t need fluency at the Arles Market. The vendors were an international lot; they were used to inarticulate clowns like me.
At nearly every stand, I was offered a smidge, a taste, a sip. I spent an hour nibbling and drinking my way down one side of the promenade and back up the other. I ate superlative cheeses, sampled artisanal charcuterie, sampled wines from vignerons working mere miles away, enjoyed slices and chunks of ripe fruits and veggies picked that day. I smelled herbs, savored spices, revelled in the abundance and quality of goods at the market.
I hustled back to the laundromat, spelled Kathy and she made her way to the market, making the trek before it closed at noon.
That evening, dinner at Le Gaboulet, located on Rue Docteur Fanton, provided a taste of some of the goodies I saw at the market earlier that day. They say Van Gogh once frequented the restaurant. I can’t imagine he had the cash.
My favorite part of the meal was an unusual salad; one I intend to make here, soon.
The ingredients: fresh micro greens, steamed green peas, pearl barley (or Israeli couscous) lardons (blocks of crisped, unsalted bacon), crouton (chunks of heavy, crusty bread sauteed in the lardon drippings) sauteed mushrooms (ditto with the drippings, plus some extra virgin olive oil), all resting in a slick of glace viand (veal stock reduced to syrup). The melange was stacked just so and a soft-cooked egg went on top, all runny-yolk good, with flaky fleur de sel available on the side. When the yolk of the egg was pierced, the goo ran down into the elements of the salad, finally hitting the glace viand and creating ambrosia, a mix for the gods. The meatiness of the mushrooms, the porky delight of the lardons, buoyed by the fresh produce and the carbs from the pearls of barley created an umami-blessed depth of flavor that was stunning.
And merci (a nod to Pinckney).
Incidentally, I ate grilled sardines the next night. And no one tried to shoo me away.