09 November 2011

Palafrugell Market

Traveling for a long time, senses become dulled to some extent. Certain things (cobbled streets, headscarves, horsecarts) lose their impact, the flavors of a place become less exotic. It’s that way with markets - they start to feel normal, even when they’re extraordinary. Recently, with four fresh pairs of eyes around, we awakened a little, and went on something of a shopping spree.
Some villages are blessed to be market towns. Palafrugell, a jumbled town just above the rocky, Mediterranean coast, has a wonderful daily market, which is about the only thing they have. We stayed in Palafrugell with four guests for four nights, a heavy rain keeping us mostly inside.
Just outside our door, though, was excitement. What would have seemed only useful to us was interesting to everyone else, and our refrigerator was filled quickly. We bought prunes and olives by the pint, sheep and goat cheese from local farmers, eggplant, carrots, tender lettuces, home-cooked chickpeas and enormous peppers. Having more people around didn’t just heighten our awareness of the food, it gave us license to buy more of it.
As is the case in a lot of places, most of the Palafrugell fruit and vegetable stands sell imported or factory farmed produce. Between a few local melon stands and the orange sellers, there are cartons of Turkish tomatoes and Chinese apples. But inside, on the ice trays, a wealth of fresh fish and seafood glistens, just pulled from the Mediterranean. The smell is clean and salty, the fish look almost alive.
There are meats, too, arranged in the stands in atmospheric layers – heavy cuts of raw beef and bloody rabbits lurk beneath, sausages twist in the thin middle, the rarified air above is reserved for hanging hams. Wine is sold alongside them, cooked lentils, cheeses and baccalau empanadas are arranged around the fringes.
Every morning, while the vendors set up, the cafes fill with old women and their market baskets. They gather with croissants in small, gossipy clutches, their husbands sit quietly with beers and coffees. At nine, when the market opens, the mood changes and the cafes empty. The early rush of shoppers is the most combative – with friends becoming rivals along the more popular stands, and quick hands pawing and pinching in search of the best morsels and leaves.
Fall is a time to feel food as much as it is to eat it – it’s a raw season, the end of growth. In the hot months, the sun and fertile earth make abundance seem everlasting. Winter foods, grown to be calculated and kept, are a shadow of the summer bounty. But in autumn, with drizzle and buffeting wind, tangerines and grapes are sweet, there are still things to be picked, one appreciates the dying season and the final crops. Textures roughen, tastes deepen, food is brought indoors to stew and soften.
We ate like kings, both in our apartment and outside. On a rare afternoon in the elements, we picnicked near crashing waves. Blood sausage and smoked cod, olives and tomatoes, salty cheeses and a thick slice of membrillo. It was all delicious stuck to crusty bread with gobs of mustard and a few bottles of hard cider to drink.

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