It is a bucket of salt. Crusty, the white tinged a muddy brown, and with small pools of liquid. Nestled in this salty bed are sardines. An elderly woman with cropped blonde hair and an easy smile reaches into the bucket and picks up one. She uses a knife to scrape off the salt skin and cut the delicate fish into tiny pieces. I take a bite and the salt fills my mouth, lingering long after I have eaten it.
I am in Croatia, at the fish market in Split’s old town, Diocletian’s Palace. Salted sardines, a popular snack, are my introduction to Dalmatian cuisine. They are drizzled with olive oil, mixed with capers and eaten with bread, or paired with chard and a hard-boiled egg for an evening repast. I buy a jar of already skinned sardines (they are less salty, I am told) from the same woman and some olive oil to make my own version of a Dalmatian lunch.
Typically, markets—local, supermarkets, flea—are the first thing I seek out in any new place. On my recent 21-day European vacation, I scoured them for ready-made meals, porridges, local liqueurs and sandwiches. They are not just affordable, there’s much to learn from these hubbubs of activity. They are accessible and intriguing teachers of local produce, food and eating habits, or as French chef Alain Ducasse puts it, “photographs of that destination and the local culture”.
Away from the second-hand stuff at the Austrian capital Vienna’s flea market, or Naschmarkt, are stalls selling baklava, dates and local pastries. In the Hungarian capital Budapest’s Jewish district, the city’s most vibrant neighbourhood, I find the most colourful and interesting backdrop for a flea market. It’s in a ruin bar (a pub in a ramshackle building).
Szimpla Kert is the city’s most famous ruin bar but on weekends, they do more than just party. Saturdays see vendors selling records and on Sundays, a mini farmer’s market pops up—with tables selling cheese, home-made breads, potent hot sauces, spritzers, lavender products and mustard—against a backdrop of graffiti walls, mismatched furniture, disco balls and décor that overloads the senses.
It’s at these local markets that I also find filling and delicious food. I have my first taste of the Hungarian lángos, a deep-fried bread served with sour cream or cheese, at Budapest’s Great Market Hall. Housed in a grand building by the Danube river, this market has stalls of smoked and dried sausages, local liquors, fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese of every kind, sauces and spices, and more. I buy a box of blueberries. To balance this healthy diet, there’s candied fruit from a nearby stall. I gawk at the display of pálinka (fruit brandy) and the herbal liqueur Unicum, both unique to the region, and inhale the heady and tantalising aroma of sausages at the meat stalls. Upstairs, I find lángos, deliciously chewy and with a hint of sweetness. By the side, I order a bowl of beef gulyás, a hearty paprika seasoned stew. Together, they make for a filling meal.
My favourite markets on the trip are in Split, especially its Green Market, or pazar. It’s a riot of colour and activity. Sunlight glints off bottles filled with green and golden olive oil, bundles of artichokes and chard make pretty bouquets. There are stacks of strawberries and blueberries, flowers, and grilled, cured and smoked meat. I spend many moments watching the vendors (largely older folk) urging people to have a taste and bargaining with gusto.
I am in Split for five days and visit the market daily, eating everything I can. A moustachioed gentleman hands me a plate of candied orange and lemon peels, sugar-crusted almonds and dried figs. The candies are eaten plain or dipped in chocolate, or chopped and added to ice cream. Figs are beloved and eaten on a daily basis, as dessert, with some honey, as part of a cheese platter, or as a cake (made with almonds). At another stall, I sip on home-made astringent and aromatic plum-red wine. Elsewhere, I try soparnik, a diamond-shaped pancake of chard, garlic, onions and olive oil.
Markets are a great place to chat with people who are passionate about their produce, and, despite a language barrier, will eagerly explain things.
On a Saturday, the courtyard of Vienna’s St Stephen’s Cathedral hosts a farmer’s market where, in makeshift wooden huts, people sell sausages, drinks, pretzels, gelatos and handmade products. I buy Christmas-themed cookie stamps from a Polish lady who makes them herself. I head to a stall selling liqueurs and make my acquaintance with dirndl—a sweet, warming blood-coloured liquid made with Canadian cherries (locally called dirndl). I am told it’s a “true Viennese product”.
In Maribor, Slovenia, I find true local products at a small farmer’s market—just six stalls! I discover aronja, or chokeberry, used to make a delicious liqueur. Further on, I find Slovenian honey cake—a mildly sweet bread, dusted with sugar, and tinged with cinnamon or chocolate. I am introduced to licitar, a gingerbread biscuit made with sweet dough, painted red, usually heart-shaped, and with a verse written on it. I buy a packet of honey cakes and the baker hands me a licitar as a gift.
That licitar becomes a symbol of my trip: a food item that is a glimpse of a country’s culinary traditions and a memento of the warmth of strangers.
Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.