As good farmer-worshiping transplant Oregonians, the Llama and I understood our adopted state’s message loud and clear: go to your local Farmers Market. Expect to spend more than you expect to spend, and feel great about it.
The Ashland Farmers Market on Saturday mornings was as charming as everything else about the town. Upon engaging in conversation and conscientiously selecting the best and most worthy items to bring home, I would delicately place the five items we had purchased in the white basket of my second-hand teal Schwinn bicycle. We’d ride home smiling ear to ear.
It was always my intention to honor the produce purchased at the Farmer’s Market with special feature billing in that week’s line-up of dinner entrees. But in my effort to savor each item and give it its proper place, something always ran rotten. I have, perhaps, a little too much respect for the delicate flavors of my local farmers’ harvest. It made me feel terribly guilty.
In Chile, I’ve been liberated from that conflict.
“Feria day,” as we call it in our house where we speak a special blend of Spanish and English, is one of my favorite adventures. With Nanny, or with Claudio, or with Claudio and Margarita, we make our way through the stalls of vendors shouting into the crowd. Our first time I stopped to linger over every stall, but we’ve gotten more efficient. We make a pass through, and review what’s available and what looks good. We assess price versus apparent quality. We consult the list and make a game plan.
We fill a nineteen gallon Ikea bag with fresh produce every week. We start with the basics like onions and potatoes, move through squash and corn and zucchini and eggplant and carrots before we get to tomatoes and peaches and plums and strawberries. We stock up on palta for the week, and then check out the cilantro and hot peppers, basil and lemons, melon and cactus fruit, and choose the best. This runs about 10,000 CLP.
During the week, it’s a race to use the produce before it turns bad, but there’s less guilt. It’s fun, it’s a game, but it’s not so precious. Nanny does most of the cooking, so the pressure’s off.
Chile’s rich soil and the Mediterranean climate of its central growing region make an easy comparison to California. Being in the Southern Hemisphere also positions Chile to export many of the fruits and vegetables in demand in North America through the winter. For you, this might mean that in the months of January through April, avocados and limes and grapes show up in grocery stores from Chile.
For us, this means that the majority of the “prettiest” produce is exported to North America, where higher prices can be negotiated. What stays behind isn’t as aesthetically perfect, but it tastes just as good. I don’t have to feel guilty about boiling down delicious tomatoes to make a soup, or chopping up a massive cabbage to use for coleslaw, in a stir-fry, or while making vegetable stock. I don’t feel like I need to “honor” each vegetable and carefully plan how I’ll use it—I use it when the inspiration strikes.
Genetically Modified Organisms exist in Chile, and larger amounts of land are dedicated to GMO crops every year. We felt strangely comforted to know, however, that GMO produce is only approved for export, not domestic consumption. Dark, right?
As far as flavors go, I will note that the onions here make me cry mercilessly. Margarita tells me this is because they are younger onions and haven’t been stored for as long. There are fewer kinds of apples, and more kinds of peaches, and they taste sweeter without getting soft, which was misleading at first. The potatoes have an earthiness that reminds me that they grow underground.
Produce can be twice or even three times more expensive if purchased in the grocery stores of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso. The produce found there looks sanitary, geometric, and pretty. It feels sterile in contrast to the atmosphere of the feria, where wild dogs roam, and bees feed on exposed pieces of sweet melon.
This is my new normal, and I look forward to it every week.
Feria: The word means fair, less in the meaning of justice and more in the meaning of a carnival. The feeling of excitement and over-stimulation is much the same as when I was a young girl visiting New England’s Great State Fair or “The Big E” in Western Mass.
10,000 CLP: about $14.60 USD
Palta: Avocado, of course! Palta is the name for avocado here. Since the letter ‘h’ isn’t pronounced when speaking Spanish, “Hass Avocados” sometimes becomes “Palta Ass.” Even better is an avocado sandwich, simply reduced to a Sandwich “Ass.”