Thursday, 14 May 2009

Athens Portraits: As Fresh As It Gets

If you really want to get a taste of a country, you have to head for its outdoor markets. And in Greece that means the local weekly ‘laiki’ market.

It’s there – amid the mountains of locally-produced fruit and veg, cheek-by-jowl with stalls piled high with knock-off designer bags and clothes – that you will find ‘laiki man’.

He is one of the many players in the theatre of the laiki. And it’s a heady and colourful set against which he plays his part.The market is a treat for (and sometimes an assault on) the senses. Crowds jostle, trolleys trundle (sometimes right over your toes), hawkers shout each other down in contests to grab your attention and veteran buyers examine the goods and haggle over prices.

The air is filled with the sweet scent of ripe strawberries and cherries; the sharp aroma of fresh lemons; the pungent twang of huge purple onions the size of my hand or heads of garlic like a fist; and the heady smell of fresh basil plants or dried local herbs (oregano, marjoram – good for anxiety and headaches, thyme – recommended for asthma and coughs, and something called ‘louiza’ which is supposed to aid weight loss). And putting the cherry on the top of that intoxicating cocktail of smells are the souvlaki sellers grilling a constant parade of skewered pork cubes over hot coals from daybreak til traders and shoppers alike surrender to the midday sun, pack up and go home.

The feast for the eyes is no less seductive. You’ll find none of the clinical uniformity of a British supermarket’s fruit section here. Large and small keep company, and there’s not a waxed orange or vacuum-sealed package to be seen anywhere.

Instead, you’ll find shiny fat black aubergines nestling next to their slimmer mottled mauve cousins, plump red tomatoes, scarlet peppers shaped like horns of cornucopia, massive watermelons like striped green bowling balls – some cut open to display their succulent red innards - and a veritable rainbow of fresh flowers, plants and herbs.

It's here that ‘laiki man’ is in his element. And he’s as 100% locally produced as the fruit and veg he sells. Whether he’s a moustachioed giant with a belligerent belly or a wiry tanned chancer with a cigarette permanently clamped between his teeth, he’s as authentic as they come. There’s no sophistry in him - he is the Del Boy of the Greek stage.

Despite having been up since before the crack of dawn, he’s always ready for banter or a good-humoured argument about football. And he’s always on the look-out for a chance to rake in a little extra profit. No sooner does his neighbour start shouting out a new reduced price as the end of the market hours approaches, he will shout out even louder an even lower price, and a well-rehearsed ‘spontaneous’ war of words will ensue before they sell-off the last of their wares and pack up before parting like brothers.

Like the best salesmen the world over, they’re all convinced of the superiority of their produce – or at least they’re very convincing. Theirs is the sweetest, the freshest, the firmest, the juiciest – and if you don’t believe them, they’ll cut open a sample so you can try for yourself.

So, you can forget pretentious overpriced delicatessans, or the clinical anonymity of the supermarket shelves. Good food, fresh food, real food, is all about authenticity and passion – and ‘laiki man’ is brimming over with both.

1 comment:

  1. Me laiki. ;)

    There's a market in Brighton called Taj (two in fact, at opposite ends of the city) resplendent in Indian produce and pots and pans. Fresh baked bread, vegetables and fruits all wet and gloriously coloured and spices, grains and pulses as far as the eye can see.

    It's a total treat for the senses - jewelled colours and the scent of freshness all mingling. It beats the sterile supermarket anyday, and I'm heartened by the proliferation of such places deep in the urban jungle.

    Apart from anything else, they make you want to cook and experiment - no popping a plastic packet in the microwave for bland mouthfuls of glop.

    Kudos to fresh produce!!