Monday, 21 January 2008

The open-air market (H λαική)

Everyone loves going to the street market in Greece. In most urban centres around the country (if not all), there is a laiki (say LA-EE-KEY) for every neighbourhood. In Hania, there are laiki stalls on every day of the week in different suburbs of the town. I live outside the centre, but I still like to go to the laiki, not necessarily for the fresh produce, but more for the atmosphere of the open-air market. The laiki is always held during the day, so it's also a meeting place for unemployed housewives and old-age pensioners. On a fine day (like most in Hania), going to the laiki is like going through a time-warp with its old-worldly look. Sellers are calling out "elate na parete!" (come and buy!) and "ola tzamba!" (everything for free!), women shoppers are seen picking their way through trestle tables full of stringy underwear (no doubt trying to find something in their size), and everyone's legs are getting tangled up in the wheeled trolleys that shoppers use to store their purchases. You feel like you are in an Arabian souk. It's a major hit with the tourists of our town. The new economic migrants have also added another dimension to it by selling cheap made-in-china electrical gear, while the gypsy community have been selling outrageous, out-of-season, cut-price fashion for quite some time at the laiki. If you're lucky to have a laiki scheduled in your neighbourhood on Saturday morning, it's a great place to stroll around, and this is just what I did last week when I left the children at their club activities.

Most of the stall sellers in the food section of the laiki are local growers of local fresh seasonal produce grown in fields they manage themselves. They come in their trucks, laden full of fruit and vegetables; they may be selling their products at the laiki for a better price than they would receive if they sold it to a wholesaler. Most of the products sold at the laiki look very fresh, and what's more, very local. Just think how little those farmers have had to travel to get their products sold: no more than 100 kilometres. The photographs show Cretan olives, preserved in the local fashion, along with locally produced mountain teas and herbs, citrus fruit (pergamon and oranges), various types of horta and bananas. The olives will have been collected from trees in the region; the teas and herbs are generally not cultivated, so they will have been hand-picked from mountainous hard-to-access regions; orange trees (as with olive trees) abound in the greater part of Hania; horta are both cultivated and grown in the wild; bananas have been grown locally for many years - they are shorter, sweeter and more yellow than their Ecuadorian imported counterparts.

But do beware of non-seasonal products. The peppers, courgettes and aubergines may look glossy and scrumptious, but they are all grown under greenhouse conditions (not everyone is willing to live without a year-round supply of tomatos); it's a known fact that non-seasonal products cannot be grown without the help of chemicals. If a tomato plant gets 14 hours of sunlight a day, for example, in summer, imagine how much it gets in winter, without even considering the fact that it is grown indoors. If I'm going to eat something out-of-season, I prefer to buy an imported product from the supermarket, or buy it from an organic produce shop. The cabbage, celery and radishes may not look so appetising, but they are all seasonal. Instead of courgettes and aubergines, try eating more cauliflower ratatouille; instead of making yemista with the classic stuffed vegetables, the rice mixture can be rolled up in cabbage leaves that have been boiled for a few minutes to make them more malleable.

On my last visit to Wellington, I heard that a farmer's market had started up in a disused site close to the city centre every Sunday morning. What a shame I didn't manage to visit it; I would have liked to compare the atmosphere with the Greek laiki. But I don't see how it can operate in a truly open-air manner; either the gale-force winds that Wellington is accustomed to will turn the stalls upside down, or the year-round wet weather will turn it all into a soggy mush...

I didn't really need anything from the laiki today, but I did manage to find some children's cotton pyjamas at E7, and some underwear for them at E1 apiece (of course, I'm going to wash it all before they wear it). I tried on some boots for E10, but they didn't fit me. Good thing; the temptation to buy something at the laiki is really just too great a bargain to miss.

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See also:
GAIA (fresh organic produce)
To eat or not to eat?
Summer fruit
Taste sensationalism
Eating locally
A peek into someone's fridge