One of the biggest differences I noticed living in the Mediterranean versus growing up in a comfortable, middle class family in Virginia was the quality of food. European friends who traveled or studied in the States would often comment about the sheer number of fast food restaurants available to us. I hadn’t really noticed it before; it was merely part of the landscape. McDonald’s on one corner; Chick-fil-A across the street; Burger King down the road, and so on. Food is everywhere in this country. Most of us are full, satiated. We do have about 10 – 15% of our society who are underfed and hungry; but for the most part, food is abundant. But this type of food is the kind that fills our belly, but doesn’t nourish our body. Foods that have been made in a factory and stripped of its natural vitamins.
In Cyprus a weekly farmers market was held in the parking lot of the municipality buildings. Everyone came on Wednesdays with cloth bags and empty baby strollers (seriously) to stock up on fruits, vegetables, olives, olive oil, cheese and nuts for the week. We walk from stand to stand amid throngs to inspect produce and compare prices. This is no ordinary farmers market that you would find in the suburbs of most cities in the US. No fancy marmalades and kettle corn made with coconut oil and sea salt. No, this is real food: just picked or pulled from the earth, with clumps of fresh, moist dirt still on the potatoes. Spinach and lettuce must be rinsed and washed at least three times before cooking or eating, because earth residue gets stuck in the folds. Have any of you all seen an artichoke sold in the market? I am not talking about marinated and in a jar. I’m also not simply talking about the round little heads (often times withered and dried out). Actually, an artichoke is a gorgeous vegetable with a long, thick stem that is edible. To me, the artichoke always resembled a long, thick, green rose where you get to eat the flower.
When I first moved to Cyprus, I bought everything I could find. Compared to US prices for locally grown produce, it was dirt cheap (yes, pun intended). I would see cauliflower heads and buy the largest I could find, especially if it was priced per item, not per kilogram. One Wednesday, I went shopping with my mother-in-law, and my eyes rested on a monstrous cauliflower head. I moved towards it, and she shook her head no, dragging me from that stall. As it turns out, Cypriots are paranoid about their food. If a vegetable is so big, then it most likely has added growth hormones in it. I also discovered this to be true for most Europeans – a general distrust about any food that appeared inorganic – too large or grown out of season. Compare this with many Americans who are pleased to eat tomatoes, pineapple and strawberries year-round, so long as we can add it to our salads, cottage cheese and smoothies.
After my mother-in-law steered me to a smaller, firmer, more expensive cauliflower, I started paying attention to the buying habits of the shoppers. Mostly, I watched the difference between local women versus foreigners, primarily Brits, shopping. The foreigners tended to buy a couple of oranges here, a handful of lemons there, a loaf of white bread and perhaps a melon or two. Then they would sit in the shade of a nearby cafe, fan themselves off and enjoy a limonata or cup of Turkish coffee (more on the coffee culture later) with a glass of water. Meanwhile, the local shoppers would maneuver a two-wheeled shopping trolley around the crowds, avoiding near catastrophes. I would follow and notice that when a group formed around a certain seller’s table. I would situate myself to catch a glimpse: a mound of tiny okra; green beans so fresh you can hear it snap; Romaine lettuce the color of spinach; eggplant of different sizes and shapes; and more pepper varieties than I can even describe.
The farmers market has always been a favorite pastime of mine. It is also a favorite morning destination to any of my visitors. One can meander and spend over an hour stopping at all the vendors, tasting the produce before buying. How many times have I skipped breakfast at home, just to go to the farmers market and have them give me slices of freshly cut peaches or watermelon, a tiny, crisp cucumber or cherry tomato? A morsel of salty, crumbly feta and a couple of chakisdes (special Cypriot crushed olive made with dried coriander seeds). Yes, the farmers want to sell their produce, and what better way to sell than to let us try first? But also, food is meant to be shared in the Mediterranean culture. Because Life is Food and Food is Life.