One of the things I love best here is the open-air markets. These aren’t farmers’ markets, per se, although some of the sellers are selling their own products. But, really, you can get everything: meat in all sorts of shapes and sizes, much of it not refrigerated; chickens either whole or in bits, including big tubs of feet; lately rabbits whole and skinned; fresh-made sour cream and cottage cheese (tvarog) and salted cheese (bryndza); fish — the smoked fish selection alone is astounding — plus tins of caviar, squirming buckets of crayfish called rak and, occasionally in tubs placed outside the market, live carp.
Some of the items are indisutably Slavic. There are mushrooms, fresh, dried and canned (look next to the big basket of berries, which are medicinal kalyny):
There are more potatoes that you’ve ever seen before, often being sold straight out of trucks parked outside the market:
There are grains and beans, different kinds of flour, various grinds of buckwheat, and things I can’t identify:
And — of course! — a whole section devoted to pickles, with great heaps of sauerkraut shoppers stick their fingers into to taste as they cruise the crowded aisles, plus pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, mushrooms and, yes, whole small watermelons.
There are plenty of exotic items, too. On one trip we found feijoas, one of Randy’s favorites, and they turned out to be not only cheap but perfectly ripe and delicious. Although we think of the former USSR as all bleak semi-tundra, it’s a good reminder of the abundance of good things that come from the nearby Caucuses and, a bit farther away, Central Asia. Right now, two of the big specialty stands are persimmons and pomegranates (plus a stand that squeezes fresh pomegranate juice, YUM!), which probably come in from Georgia or Armenia. And of course, all year round, there are the dried-fruit-and-nut men, who are as aggressive in hawking their wares as any seller I encountered in the Turkish bazaar.
There are non-food booths, too, and the specialty is astounding. Yesterday, I bought a couple of brooms from one of about five broom-makers tucked away in the corner of Privoz, the largest markets. There are shops with just toys or knitted goods or shoes or CDs. There are booths or stands that seem to just carry string and rope, or just plastic bags (which are taken very seriously here), or just cooking implements.
There are shops that just seem to carry buckets and mops:
Shops for bras:
And fishing equipment:
And pets. In fact, these pictures and the two above come from the market that specializes in hardware, outdoor gear, animals and animal supplies:
(Don’t worry, the bunnies were at the pet market, not the meat one.)
I’ve always loved open-air markets — there’s just something about the rush in the air, the buzz of picking out exactly what you want, and the opportunity to roam the aisles and compare. Then, when I started getting into food, I quickly learned that the closer you can get to the source, the better, and it’s hard to beat buying dill picked that morning in some babushka’s backyard or fish caught locally and brought to the market swimming in a tub.
But now that we’re preparing to leave, I realize there’s something more: the people. While customer service is generally a gaping black hole, people get it at the market. They call out to shoppers to offer a taste and a smile with their wares. They’re usually shocked to find an American shopping there, since few tourists stray outside the city center, and usually pleased to tell me what different foods are or which apples are sweetest.
Our time here has been so short that we’ve made just a few friends, but I do feel an odd bond with my regular market vendors. Oh, sure, Privoz is such a zoo that half the time I struggle to find the pickle section at all, much less remember which woman I bought those delicious eggplant from last week. But at the smaller market, Alex and I are enough of a novelty — and we’ve been routinely enough — that the woman with the good pears now has a big smile and a greeting for us, and Korean salad lady may present him with a little gift of carrot slaw. It’s really very sweet, and it’s going to be very hard to leave.