When I left Canada, it was the very end of July. The bountiful harvest of sweet summer fruit was just beginning. My favourite summer fruit, local Ontario peaches, had just arrived at our neighbourhood grocer literally the morning we were leaving for Chile. No time for a taste.
I have been paitently awaiting peaches ever since. Finally, last Saturday, Alex and I – along with our friends who frequent the market – went to the La Vega market here in Antofagasta to pick up some summer produce. This market is loved by Antofagastinos because it is renowned for the freshest produce in the city. (And that is important: remember, we are in the middle of the desert, hours from the nearest naturally-growing tree, so the availability of really good, fresh produce is something to celebrate.)
We arrived early (early is 9:30 am) in the morning to avoid the Saturday crowds. Our friends showed us their favourite sellers. The market was located in a warehouse-type building, with dirt floors and open sides. We had to be careful not to walk in front of men hurriedly pulling piles of produce on rustic wooden carts back and fourth between the stands and out to delivery trucks, or to slip on the squashed tomatoes or lettuce leaves that had fallen on the ground.
I frequently visit the markets in Montreal, particularly Atwater market. However, this market was a distant cousin to tidy Canadian or U.S. markets. Atwater is a charming little farmers market which is even open in the winter: needless to say, they supplement their local produce with produce flown in from all over the world when items aren’t in season. Everything in Atwater is neatly arranged in tidy, well-lit displays, cut and bunched into neat bundles and placed cleanly into boxes.
La Vega, in contrast, had heaps of veggies and fruits piled in spartan crates and boxes. All of the produce came from the region (Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Brasil) instead of halfway around the world. Gigantic bunches of bright green lettuce, apple-sized radishes and monstrous carrots all looked as though it had been cut from the fields just that morning. This was no produce beauty contest: garlic was still encrusted with dirt, strips of roughly-cut cinnamon bark were sold in bold slivers instead of tidily curled sticks, potatoes came in all shapes and sizes and looked as though they’d been lifted from the ground hours ago. Some sellers were adding to the hectic environment by yelling to advertise their bounty: “apio!” or “durazno-damasco-cereza!” Patrons visited their favourite sellers and recognized them by face, not name, as no table or booth was marked with a business name.
We visited the stand of a quiet, kind gentleman whose booth was spectacularly overflowing with green lettuces, herbs and bright vegetables. I told him what I would like – he sometimes offered suggestions, as it was difficult to see everything he had in the heap of green leaves – and he gathered it together and placed it in a bag for me. For around $8, I got freshly shelled sugar peas, a red pepper, fresh, big bunches of mint and cilantro, green onions, chives and a pile of bean sprouts.
We also stopped by a seller from Peru, who offered a unique variety of potatoes. In Northern Chile, I usually just run across one type of potato, which has red skins and a yellow interior. I was glad to finally find a few more types of potatoes at this seller’s booth: he had a small sweet potato and a few white potatoes. We tried them that evening roasted with a little bit of salt and pepper. The sweet potatoes were delicious: they were the sweetest, freshest tasting sweet potato I’d ever tried. Like candy. The white potatoes were also good, rich and creamy with a warm, earthy taste. I suppose it’s inevitable that the most delicious potatoes will come from Peru, where, after all, potatoes were first cultivated thousands of years ago!
We picked up rich fresh figs (my husband likes them, undoubtedly owing to his Sicilian blood,) mangoes, cherries and – of course – peaches, which I promptly baked into a peach crisp.
After returning with the bounty, I spent a while soaking everything in a special produce wash in the sink. I’d been warned that much of Latin America still uses strong pesticides that have been long-since banned in the U.S., Canada, EU and other developed countries. In addition, there is always a threat of diseases such as typhoid. Disinfection was necessary. Small inconvenience to ensure that I wasn’t exposing myself to anything too harmful.
The entire experience highlighted a different attitude towards food. In Canada or the U.S., we like charming, sterile farmer’s markets. We think that we are getting a more earthy, rustic experience by shopping neatly marked booths and tables in the open air instead of our artificially-lit supermarkets. In reality, though, farmers still have to maintain a picture-perfect, dirt-free display of produce in order to appeal to patrons. My trip to La Vega reminded me exactly where all of our food comes from: the earth. And the market wasn’t too far removed from it.