29 November 2010

Centrāltirgus, Riga

The Riga central market was so great, we had to go back. The size of the place is hard to fathom - aside from the outdoor vendors, which are around to the back, there are four enormous buildings housing just over 3,000 stands. The structures above are the heart of the market - they are actually former zeppelin hangars brought to Riga in 1930 from nearby Vainode. The entire complex covers 72,300 square meters (which is 17.9 acres). According to the market's website, it attracts between 80,000 and 1oo,000 people per day. It certainly felt like it did, because it was packed.
Inside, the stalls are broken up into sections. There is a honey department (surprisingly large), a liquor department (surprisingly small), a candy section, a cheese lane, a spice corner, etc... These are all arranged inside general groupings based on the different buildings - or "pavilions." There is the meat pavilion, the dairy pavilion, the produce pavilion and the fish pavilion. Outside, there is a clothing market, a "manufactured goods" market, crafts spaces and hundreds more vegetable, fruit, bootleg DVD, toy, magazine, cigarette and clothing vendors. You can buy anything, as long as you can find where it's sold.
Inside the meat pavilion is a huge freezer-room where the vendors haggle amongst themselves for the choicest cuts of meat. Butchers throw around half-pigs and cow legs, all within plain sight of the customers.
The produce pavilion is perhaps the cleanest and most organized, though there are scores of sellers who sell fruit and vegetables outside and in the other pavilions. The thing that seems to get the privileged vendors in is the quality of their wares. And the variety. Instead of a few root vegetables, these counters are laden with all sorts of seasonal grub, most of it organic (if you believe what they tell you).
It's confusing to be inside, with precious few landmarks. Every now and then one of these directional signs will pop up - but they don't help much.
The fish pavilion is perhaps the place that offers the most oddities and delights. It is divided in two, with cured fish on one side and fresh fish on another. The fresh fish are often half-alive, flopping around in tanks or moving their gills as they are sprawled out on ice. The cured fish are much stiller. Often, they would be arranged in buckets like flowers in a vase, head up, stiff as twigs.
I don't know how one would eat these fish. Are they dried, smoked, salted? I don't even know what they are, frankly.
This time, we didn't buy anything except lunch. We each had a few morsels from one corner or another, some interesting, some pretty ordinary. I waited for a minute to get a donut at a popular spot - but it was really just a donut. I also had a meat-filled pastry that was pretty extraordinary, with a taste that was very difficult to decipher - but which reminded me of apples and curry.

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