19 May 2009

I did some sleuthing

When I food shop at the Saturday farmer’s market (Noordermarkt) in Amsterdam, the least I seek is to be accused of being stuck-up. It transpires that getting your food from the farmer’s market is synonymous to social snobbery in Amsterdam. Or so I was told in a poetry workshop. I’ll explain promptly.
For every weekly workshop in my university, we the students are given a theme for our new poem. Some time earlier it was suggested that we go out and write impromptu verses about a moving object, a person, or a sound that would strike us, or at least make us want to put our visual or auditory impressions on paper, however unmoving. My assiduous work resulted in this light-minded poem:

The market music

Slap-slap, click-click
flip-flops, high heels:
sounds of hundreds of feet.
How much is this cheese?
And what about that bread?

Fingers point to crispy greens,
mouths agape.
Whoosh, whoosh --
the rushing of a sudden wind.
Do, re, mi
fa, so, la, ti
a hungry musician plucks the strings
of contrabass.
(He could not know,
but he will not earn much today.)
Boom, boom of thunder.
the market square is half-empty.
The musician will stay hungry.

After I cheerfully recited the piece at the recent workshop, I was asked, rather curtly, ‘What kind of market is that?’

‘Uhm, the farmer’s market on the Noordermarkt’, said I, smelling bellicosity of the question and starting to look rather apologetically, even sheepishly; blushing too, for good measure.
‘Ahh, that one where people show off, a hot-spot where folks want to be seen!?’

(I was right about bellicosity.)

In her judgments of food-shoppers my ‘opponent’, a Dutch girl with a poetic soul and red lipstick, laid the paint on white and black, or rather black alone. For her, the eating mankind that got stocked up on organic food was a bunch of scoundrels.

‘Wait a minute’, I piped in, ‘wouldn’t you agree that the farmer’s produce, apart from being an accessory of snobbery as you would think, at least tastes better than your average supermarket stuff?’ I was on the roll – the good food was being discussed.

A gloomy silence ensued. A few other people nodded their heads approvingly. My stomach was churning – it was lunchtime. I thought of salty, nutty, marble-looking chunk of Parmesan and a ripe, juicy pear.

‘True, it may taste good, but is expensive all the same, wouldn’t you say?’

Luckily, we were interrupted, because I considered mild cursing as a reply.

I wish I would forget this discussion, but a cloud of acidic doubt hang above my head -- what if the girl was right, even if only partially. Indeed, couldn’t most of it be a mere performance of who-can-afford-what? I resolved to investigate the matter by sleuthing who is who next time I would visit the place.

Sleuthing of any sort needs a spirited state of mind, so promptly after arriving at the market I ignited mine with a crepe with a Grand Marnier filling – that was the first so-close-to-authenticity crepe I ate in my life – made to my order at a crepe stall. A crepe-maker, a delicately aged Dutch lady with hair white as a dandelion ball, and voice soft, almost whispering, asked me where I was from. I told her, and heard her exclaim ‘Oh, you have blini!’

I gave her a smile – she and I are of the same ilk.

She told me she was making crepes for as long as she could remember (a long time). A big chunk of her life she spent in Normandy, France, where she was absorbing the art and knowledge of crepes’ making. Now she was passing her wisdom on the Dutch and the others by selling her thin, almost transparent, lacy crepes at the farmer’s market. A bunch of hungry customers – there is always a crowd at the stall -- resemble a swarm of whizzing bees, so noisy. I think it’s because the crepes are served with various sweet as well as savoury fillings: chestnut puree, melted chocolate, brown sugar with lemon zest, jams, Grand Marnier; fried bacon bits, and cheese. Absolutely impossible to keep quiet, let alone to resist.

I promised the lady I would come back soon to gradually eat my way through her crepes’ assortment, and went further into the ‘field’, where purple and crimson peonies were piled up on wooden counters between the crates of emerald cucumbers and glossy aubergines; fragrant apples and voluminous pears cried out for man’s attention; young cabbage heads looked dewy, or so I imagined because most likely some farmer just sprinkled them with water; crispy salads, and herbs, smoked sausages, and fresh, yeasty breads suggested visions of too many a beautiful and simple meal; adorably smelly cheeses oozed their nutty, grassy, earthy, flavours, filling the air with admiring oh’s and ah’s; people – some grumpy, some other chatty - waited in lines at virtually every counter.

In people’s hands, I saw neither Vuitton bags nor keys from Lombardinis, so that meant that at the first glance nobody seemed to be showing off.

The average prices for local – this is key -- produce are not higher at the market than elsewhere. On the contrary, a fat bunch of fresh basil or any other locally grown herb is priced around 1.75 euro, while at a supermarket, only a few thin, wrapped in plastic sprigs of, say, parsley, cost as much. Apples, especially second-choice ones, whose only fault is bruised skin or awkward shape, are sold not for more than 1.10 euro a kilo, and one will be pressed hard to find organic fruits for the same price elsewhere.

But while ogling and admiring the scenes, I nonetheless kept my saltcellar handy. I learnt there is a grub category that goes by the name of‘raw foods'. This may cost as much as a Vuitton handbag, I fear. What’s more, lads and gals who gather around raw food stalls have a spooky appearance of somebody bestowed the knowledge of 'the truth’. Usually, they also look like they haven’t washed their clothes for weeks; have more than three skinny children who also may need some hair- or face-editing (read: washing); and exuberate – at least for me – a determination to burst into celestial chanting and singing after every intake of a raw cocoa bean, for instance. Once I was asked by one such folks if I knew the difference between raw and roasted cocoa bean. I said yes, I did, but did not plan in the near future to give preference to one over another. He looked as if he was going to smack me into my face. This was somewhat intimidating, so now I make sure I propel my way past these chaps unnoticed, sinfully carrying a sausage that drips with juicy fat in my bag and thinking about roasted dark chocolate. (I appreciate a diversity of opinions nonetheless.)

A cliché, but still they say the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. For me, the farmer’s market is a triumph of a human’s wish, a right, and even an obligation, to enjoy the season, be it a ‘grumpy’ winter or a ‘chatty’ spring. After all, generations of our (great) grandparents lived in harmony with the nature circles, contentedly ate what was in season, without attributing this to luxury or snobbery. Why shall a man be accused of it now?

P.S. On a side note: please go here to read a short (and I hope humorous) article on the Dutch by yours truly.


Cinnamonda said...

Great post! :) Here in Finland organic food is considered by many as somewhat "overdoing it". It is often very pricey, and food in general being expensive here that really is a hindrance for many to use organic products, even if they would like to.

Oh, and a nice article,too! :)


anya said...

Tiina - thank you dearly! Indeed, organic sounds posh for many, and I am absolutely not sure how to feel about it...

Anna said...

great post, anya. i love love love farmer's markets and i think it is so important to support local farms and businesses. it's so funny that people think 'loca' and 'organic' mean snobby or too liberal or all these weird things. doesn't it only seem natural to by food that was grown in your area? or to eat food that is just food, no chemicals added?