One of my favourite television programmes at the moment is First Dates, a programme in which French maître d’ Fred Sirieix oversees couples dining together on blind dates in a London restaurant (and, more recently, at a French hotel). The focus of the show, of course, is an exploration of how attraction forms (or does not), but what interests me most is the setting: excellent haute cuisine food, enjoyed à deux, is what creates the mood for romance to blossom. Often the menu interests me as much as the couples!
I love to cook, especially for family gatherings and parties; it gives me an excuse to try out the recipes I collect on my travels. But before cooking comes shopping, and this, I find, can be even more pleasurable. I am not referring to supermarket shopping; there is little soulful about that. I am referring, instead, to shopping in the old-fashioned way, at a market.
In France, where I live in the summer, I love going to the market in my local village for fresh fruits and vegetables, breads and olive oil. It’s a social occasion, a chance to meet friends and neighbours, to talk to stallholders and try their new wares, and invariably I come home laden down with bags.
When I travel, often I am staying at a hotel and thus am unable to cook, but I still like to visit the market and browse, taking in the sights and scents and flavours, the bustling atmosphere. That is how I came to visit the covered market in Cadiz, while researching my Andalucían Nights trilogy. Such a vibrant place! It’s housed in a large, Neoclassical, rectangular building that teems with life – so many people, from housewives buying ingredients for meals at home to chefs stocking their restaurants, all talking at once, questioning, haggling. The moment I took in the scene, I knew I must bring one of my heroines here – for before me was everything I love about Cadiz in one place: light, energy, passion.
When Luna, heroine of Legacy, arrives in Spain, she is plunged into a strange new world. Although she is half-Spanish by birth, she has grown up in America and has few memories of fleeting time spent in Andalucía as a child. She comes across the covered market soon after coming to the city, and enters wide-eyed at the colourful, clamorous sight.
Today, I’d like to take you on a little tour of the Cadiz market, as taken by Luna:
Stall after stall was heaped with fresh, colourful local produce from land and sea. Luna paused to admire the day’s catch of fish lying on slabs of ice, their silver scales glistening under the neon lights; some of which were specimens she had never heard of. She wondered how they were able to keep them looking still so appetizing in the heat.
‘We have the best red tuna in the world, fished locally in Tarifa,’ the fishmonger proudly told her. He grinned broadly. ‘Only for you, beautiful señorita, I will make it half price.’
Luna laughed. Even the fishmongers here turned on the charm. ‘I’ll come back in a few days, and you’ll have to tell me how to cook it.’
Then she sees eggs on display: rare large white organic eggs, and she decides to gather ingredients for an omelette. After purchasing milk and butter, she peruses the vegetables on offer:
These ranged from incredibly thin beans, tender spinach, young petits pois, baby carrots and globe artichokes, to large cabbages, enormous potatoes, oversized tomatoes that looked more like small pumpkins, and thick asparagus fingers, the like of which she had never seen before.
Luna settles for organic red vine tomatoes, crunchy yellow peppers, and wonderful spindly green chives.
As she moves on, Luna is captivated by the many foods on offer:
There were stores selling Serrano ham, chorizo sausage and the famous chicharrones – fried pork rind – from the coastal town of Chicalana. A woman nodded to Luna, gesturing at her to try a sample from a small bowl. Luna smiled and thanked her, popping a piece into her mouth. It was delicious, but rather heavy and rich. Maybe another day. Instead she chose a bunch of black grapes and a couple of juicy-looking peaches and nectarines, whose sweet fragrance filled the air…
She stopped at the dry foods stand that offered a vast assortment of nuts, glazed fruit and jars of cocoa and ground coffee, and bought a couple of jars and some pistachios. At the next-door counter, the region’s cheeses were on display, so she selected some queso de cabra. On the way out, she picked up a medley of olives, a bottle of olive oil, and a loaf of bread from the bakery.
Quite a shopping spree, I’m sure you will agree. It is inspired by my own visit to the Cadiz market, where I first tried chicharrones and I bought all kinds of foods for an impromptu picnic on the beach. I did not, however, sample the Albariño (a kind of wine) sold at the oyster stall, which my hero Ruy notes ‘can make you lose a whole afternoon’. Cadiz is too fabulous a city to waste a moment!
Do you visit a local market? Have you visited any abroad? I would love to hear about your experiences.