Our food comes from air, land and sea, and most of us first encounter it in the market. My favorite markets are in the Mediterranean because that’s the kind of food I cook. Three Mediterranean markets with different perspectives give a sense of market life today and how markets inspire our cooking. They are in big cities and little. As a traveler, if you go to these markets, you’ll want to buy something then regret you can’t cook in your hotel. But that’s no reason to pass them by. The Vucciria of Palermo, Sicily; the Souk al-Luq in Cairo; and the market hall of Sant Feliu de Guíxols in Catalonia, Spain, aren’t the three best markets or the three biggest markets, they’re just three markets that provide a portal into Mediterranean culinary life.
Vucciria of Palermo
During my first visit, the hottest August in 100 years, the market umbrellas there were a welcome relief from the sun.
The Vucciria is not one market plaza but a warren of small alleys where vendors sell a wide variety of essentials for Sicilian cooking. Giuseppe Coria, a noted Sicilian food writer, tells us that Vucciria means a place where one finds butchered meat, deriving from the French word for butcher, boucher. It’s just off one of the main drags of Palermo, the Via Roma. This raucous and colorful market is spread across the narrow streets making up this old section of town. The market probably began to form in the 1300s when the French ruled Sicily.
The fishmongers sell whole swordfish, hung from posts above, the head and sword of the fish prominently displayed to entice customers. As you stroll through the market, the babble of Sicilian barks from left and right. You will see signs that describe the food as sempre fresche, “always fresh.” In one instance, this referred to an unnamed cake made of farina, sugar, yeast, egg yolks and salt. There were spitini skewered with bay leaf, onion and meat. I saw two kinds of fish with which I was not familiar: savori and sgombretti.
Black raisins and pine nuts are a classic mixture for stuffing Sicilian involtini, meat roll-ups, and they were sold in bulk. Nearly every vendor seemed to have a large wicker basket filled with babbaluci, small live snails trying to make their hopeless escape. Other baskets had many kinds of olives marinating in olive oil and rosemary. Prepared food was popular too — everything from polipetti, which are baby octopus, to panelle, which are chickpea fritters, to vastedda, which are spleen sandwiches.
Casually dressed men examining fresh anchovies with great care were side by side with housewives tasting capers while their daughters tasted the olives. In one stall, a mixed bag of small vongolette, little clams, were sold while another basket contained bablusc, another kind of small snail. The butchers hang their carcasses outside. I wondered about freshness and refrigeration. The whole environment seems ideal for the growth of bacteria, even if it is under market umbrellas. I suppose this is another example of those interminable things about the Mediterranean that seem so contradictory yet contribute to its charm. I recently read in the New York Times that the vibrant life of the market is beginning to fade as new real estate developments squeeze the market out. That’s sad.
Souk al-Luq in Cairo
In a sense, Cairo is one big market because mercantile activity defines the essence of the city and so much is sold out-of-doors. Many markets are indescribable. The markets of Cairo have been famous since the city’s founding in the 10th century (considered late in Middle Eastern terms). The most famous market is the Khan al-Khalili, but that is a general market not strictly a food market.
One of the most interesting food markets, devoid of tourists even though it is within a block of the American University of Cairo and the Ethnographical Museum, is the Souk al-Luq in an area known as the Bab al-Luq, where an old gate once was. When I was there in the early 1990s, it was a pretty orderly place, and because it was devoid of tourists, it was devoid of touts as well. The Souk al-Luq had a few home-grown vegetables but it is mainly a large poultry market. Life swirled furiously around me as I watched black-robed women questioning the butchers quite intently about the chickens they were buying. I couldn’t imagine such a scene in America, where shoppers pick up plastic-wrapped unidentifiable skinless boneless chicken parts with the same concern they use when choosing gasoline. These chickens were squawking, and I imagined the women were asking questions about how old they were, what they were fed and bargaining the price down. I watched one woman bargaining with a chicken vendor but left after 10 minutes as she still had not settled.
Nearby, I bought some simit, a donut-shaped ring bread covered with sesame seeds that was soft and delicious that I ate as I wended my way back to the hotel.
Costa Brava in Spain
Sant Feliu de Guíxols is a Catalan town surrounded by hills on the coast of the Costa Brava north of Barcelona. The waterfront is delightful with a wide beach and inviting cafe-lined promenade. Although it was beautiful, the first photos I took after I arrived were not of the bustling market but of what was becoming common even in the early 1990s on the whole Costa Brava: ultramodern mid-rise condos built into and over mountain ledges.
It’s all quite impressive and attests to the fact that the whole Costa Brava is a large tourist resort. Every town had real estate offices with signs in English, French, German, Spanish and even Dutch. It also means something else: that you will be hard-pressed to find any good food outside of the home along the Spanish coast from Catalonia to Gibraltar. There are places, but you will need to be guided by natives and not guide books.
Sant Feliu de Guíxols had several streets running parallel to the beach and I walked along one of these to find a local market where I bought a delicious peach for 33 pesetas (about 35 cents in pre-Euro terms). Next to this market was a large indoor market, like a Halles of Nîmes, with charcuteria, fishmongers, and greengrocers. The meat markets sold various kinds of cured and dried sausages and meat, including a cigarette-thin sausage called cigaletes. A lot of different cuts of pork were sold.
The fishmongers sold a huge variety of fish, all of which were whole and there was not a fillet in sight. There were pagell, a 10-inch-long pandora, all silvery pink; panagas, redfish with its big eyes and bright red luscious jewel-like color; mollas, a catfish-looking fish; rogaret, a little fish with a red blush; popas, small cuttlefish; and andcintés, a long eel or eel-like fish of bright light orange, almost pink. There were of course sardines and anchovies but also maira, blue whitings with a brown stripe and a silver belly. Besug were red breams, fat silver fish with red tails. Peix roca, I believe was red mullet. Another fish sold was lluç, the famous hake, the Spanish national fish it seems, a long fish with a soft white belly and sharp pointy nose with a silver top, about 12 to 14 inches long. Rap was a kind of bottom dweller, a small species of monkfish known as angler-fish.
I stopped at a cheese shop and tried two cheeses, queso don sancho, a very light sheep cheese with a white dough with small holes, and serato, another sheep cheese, very nice and lightly creamy, not too strong on the sheep side of things. Once I left, I stopped by a paquita, a shop selling salt cod and thought, “oh, how I wished I could go home with one of these women to cook.” The markets of the Mediterranean are memorable and if you can’t bring home their produce you’ll be able to bring home their inspiration.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photos, from top:
Vucciria market in Palermo.
Butcher in Cairo.
Vegetables at the San Felix de Guignols in Catalonia.
Credits: Clifford A. Wright