Room to Improve?
by Kermit Lynch
I brag to French friends about Berkeley’s farmers’ market: how great the quality is, what a large selection of organic produce it features, and that vendors here really are farmers—dear Annabelle Lenderink, for example. The growth of farmers’ markets in this country is amazing. For that luxury I give credit to the one and only Alice Waters, who also helped American wine drinkers learn to appreciate rosé, by the way.
Near Bandol, where I live when I’m in France, my village’s market has only one farmer, and he’s not organic. The other stands sell the same crap that you can buy in the supermarket, so the “farmers’ market” is almost a pretense.
However, as I learned last week in Sicily, we Berkeleyans can still improve. Sicilian cuisine is based on the fact that the island is surrounded—aren’t they all—by water. Tuna, swordfish, anchovies, sardines, and octopuses are ever present in restaurants and markets, along with an incredible variety of other sea critters—often for sale still kickin’! The difference between the taste of a cooked live shrimp versus a dead one, for example, is huge. Our Berkeley market boasts a single fish stand, with a very limited, pre-packaged selection.
At the market in Isola di Ortigia, I found a stand that serves only two things—the guy opens a raw oyster and also pours you a paper cup of sparkling white blah from liter bottles. Maybe I’m easy, but around 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., a cold raw oyster and a gulp of fizzy blah hits the spot. Across from him was a guy deep-frying fresh anchovies, salting and selling them by the paper-cone-ful. So cheap, so delicious—that’s my favorite way to eat anchovies. I’d like to import him, anchovies, paper cones, and all. Yes, anchovy cones in Berkeley, available daily! I could provide some tasty plonk with which to wash them down—if California law allows such deviant behavior. Oh, yes, and then I saw a stand that sells nothing but red peppers. Wow, a big pile on a wooden table is beautiful. And, if you are pressed for time, the stand has a funky portable barbecue so you can buy your red peppers already cooked and blackened. Simply peel and serve. Or, next to the red pepper stand, a snail stand—nothing but raw, lively snails for sale. Next to that, an old fellow selling nothing but sea urchins! Alive, too. And there were stands with pots full of boiling octopuses. Sicilians buy them simply boiled and then snack on them as they wander through the market.
See what I mean? We Americans are not doing our part in the search for happy shopping experiences. I know we can do better. Look how we’ve grown competitive in such a short time with our wines, olive oils, and cheeses. There are jobs here waiting for the unemployed—an ocean right offshore to fish, hungers to becalm, tasty pleasures to provide to your fellow citizens.
Meanwhile, if you go to Sicily, don’t spend all your time in the ruins or on the beach. You’ve got some serious snacking ahead of you, too.