For a vivid look at local culture, just follow the crowd to the market.
It’s a little scary to breathe in the spice market of Fes. Don’t get me wrong. Inhaling is some kind of heaven. The mingled scent of cinnamon, dried mint and paprika is indescribable. It’s exhaling that feels tricky. The spices are displayed in perfect foot-high cones, a mini Alps of powdered flavors that look as if they could collapse if you “Ooh!” too close to them. I’ve never seen it happen though. After hundreds of years of experience, these merchants have their secret tricks to prevent spicy avalanches. It’s all part of the magic.When I travel, I never pass up a market. I’ll schedule a village visit to line up with peak market day. Roaming the stalls – even if I can’t imagine what to do with hairy red rambutan fruits in Luang Prabang or slippery whole calamari in Lecce – plugs you into the energy of a place. At a market, you see life happening. You don’t need to speak the language to appreciate the banter between vendors and lifelong customers. Housewives pinch pesos, kids pitch their universal plea for whatever is sweet, old friends perch on the edge of a fountain and gossip. Of course, markets are photo ops, par excellence. (Admit it: you have at least a dozen flower stall pix somewhere.)I’m a firm believer in shopping, not just browsing. In fact, I defy you to keep your euros in your pocket at the market in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It’s just about the best place on earth to put together a picnic. For bread, pull a skinny baguette from the baker’s basket. At the cheese stall, look for a disk wrapped in chestnut leaves: that’s creamy goat cheese called banon. In this culture, you won’t find a lot of prepared food, but you can surely score a couple of slices of pissaladiere, the local thin-crusted pizza heaped with caramelized onions and olives. A handful or two of cherries or apricots, and you have a meal. You’ve also have a lot of fun personal exchanges in the process…and shop like maman.The effect of the Ejido market in Havana is drastically different but just as revealing. First, you need to understand that Cubans still live by a strict rationing system, and staples like rice, sugar and milk (but only for children) are purchased with coupons in state-controlled stores. Here, the market is for the extras. Tomatoes or a pineapple or maybe a whole chicken can be extravagances for many Cubans. At the wise suggestion of my guide, I shopped the market with a typical budget, the equivalent of just a couple of dollars. At the end, my bag was surprisingly light, and you can only wonder how a family squeezes a week of meals from so little. It’s an eye-opener and, as far as I’m concerned, a crucial key to understanding Cuba. (Afterward, our purchases were donated to local families.)Wherever you are, visit a market with a local friend (or better yet, a chef) who has access to a kitchen if you can. For instance, the Udaipur market in India is a great jumble of peculiar vegetables and other inscrutable items. But shop it with a chef and it’s like prospecting for gold – even better if she’s willing to turn it into dinner for you. Though you won’t find a “microwave-ready” anything, this is a great spot for my other market passion: street food. In Udaipur, for instance, you go for a kachori, a little crispy fried dough stuffed with spices that one writer rightly called “a dome of happiness that is the queen of our tummy’s heart”. Don’t get me started on the barbecued fish-on-a-stick from the market at Luang Prabang in Laos or a cob of Inca corn smeared with cilantro paste in Peru.
I love how the farmer’s market ethos has taken hold here at home. The difference is that the markets you see when you travel are deeply ingrained in everyday life, not just a trend. Stop and smell the lavender (and the roasted duck and the pickled caper buds and the empanadas). You’ll learn more about local life than any museum can ever teach you. And your tummy’s heart will be happier, too.