I should have known the market would be a mistake if I wanted to travel light.
I left weighed down with bulging bags, just like everyone else. Plastic bags, no fancy baskets here; this is Rhodes, not Provence.
Every Wednesday and Saturday in Rhodes town, near the cemetery and the little beach of Zephyros, is the laiki, the people’s street market. On the other side of the busy road, most people pass by the ancient Hellenistic city walls without noticing them. Twice weekly, families arrive with produce from farms all over the island; mostly fruit and vegetables, with the occasional bowl of eggs or jars of home-pickled capers or vine leaves or fruit preserves; and mostly everything is marked by the area where it’s grown: Soroni, Kritinia, Fanes.
Men and women, young and old, trawl the aisles looking for the perfect ingredients, and it’s a social occasion too. A young woman gently rides her moped up to say hello to a friend and is handed a bag of nectarines.
‘Rodakina, glyka san emena!’ shouts a man’s voice. ‘Peaches, sweet like me!’ Peaches are in season and piled high, filling the air with a heady aroma, one euro a kilo. There are colourful peppers, including hot ones, long and twisted like witches’ fingers, tied with string for 50 cents a bunch; and gigantic squash pumpkins. Although the season is almost over there are still a few figs around, and frangosika, Frankish figs or prickly pears. I stop to admire big green olives and am invited to taste: they’re meaty and tangy.
‘They’re this year’s, that’s why.’
Thick green olive oil in old plastic water bottles is going for four euros a bottle, and will make any meal (my Greek-better-half insists he could live on good oil and bread). Grapes – white, black, or rosy – are also in season. One stall has pale green and ebony black bunches strung all around, invitingly.
‘Afto eineh magazi!’ comments a passerby: ‘Now that’s a shop!’ I ask if it’s OK to take a photo and I get a free bunch of grapes. Another stall has a sweet dessert made from the must of the grapes, as well as what looks like bottles of the clear grape liqueur, souma.
The orange melons smell delicious and I apologise to the stall-holder that I can’t carry one back with me. He cuts me a slice anyway, and juice drips down my fingers; it’s sweet but not too sweet, grown in the fertile fields beyond the airport on the way to Kameiros. Just yesterday I visited Ancient Kameiros and learned about the flourishing farming community that existed there in the 6th century BC, until the city state of Rhodes town took over. The combination of gluttony and history is persuasive. In the end I am powerless to resist, and ask the melon-seller to choose me the smallest one he can find, which costs me 1 euro 50 cents. And, somewhat missing the point of my original protests, he throws in a second one for free. My bags are getting heavy.
The fresh fish stalls glisten silver with sardines, while one boasts a scary-looking swordfish head. A man is cleaning the purchases of their scales and insides, ready for the frying pan or the barbecue. My hotel would not appreciate a kilo of something fishy in the fridge so I can safely pass by. But just when I think I can escape, I’m halted by the garlic stall. Local garlic has a much richer, smoother taste than the imported Chinese stuff. Another customer stops to choose a string of bulbs.
‘I bought one from you last year,’ he says to the vendor, ‘and they last for ages! I’m only just finishing it.’ The vendor is happy to sell me just one bulb.
In a market in Provence last year, I was chastised by a cheese seller for photographing his stall, so I’m careful now to ask. But no-one here minds at all. The garlic seller even tidies his stand especially for me and asks to see the picture so he can show it off to his friend. (Greece, I love you.)
Olives, grape must dessert, grapes of all hues, melons, garlic, parsley – the herbs, fresh or dried, smell fantastic – ensure the bags are digging into my arms as I drag myself away. I’ll have to leave the peaches for another day. However sweet they are.
Jennifer Barclay lives in Tilos, Greece, and has been staying in nearby Rhodes for a week of research (and a little bit of shopping). Her blog is www.octopus-in-my-ouzo.blogspot.com and her new book Falling in Honey: Life and Love on a Greek Island will be published in March 2013
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