Croatian Farmer’s Markets
Big markets, little markets, fancy markets, simple markets. I love them all. During our years of sailing in the Mediterranean, I spent hours wandering the stalls of weekly farmers’ markets, strolling through dozens and dozens of supermercatos (Croatian translation: a shop with shelves that may hold 50,000 varieties of food and household products – or 50) and browsing the displays of numerous butchers, fishmongers and bakers. These markets supplied us with food for our table, helped me keep track of the culinary seasons and provided me with treasured connections to local residents. Best of all, in Croatia I got plenty of hints on how to cook like the locals. Friendly vendors were willing, through an often humorous combination of halting words and expressive hand and facial signals, to provide useful and tasty suggestions for serving a springtime fruit or braising a winter vegetable.
Exploring the coast and traveling in inland Croatia, I discovered an enormous variety of markets and market styles - a reflection of the amazing differences in Croatian lifestyles. Urban residents, who lead typical 21st century lifestyles, are apt to shop at a genuine supermercato, very often a part of a regional or national chain. At these markets, it is one stop shopping - everything that the dual-career family of four needs to put a hastily prepared dinner on the table. But what a contrast that supermercato is to the tiny shop that serves the 30 or 40 full-time residents in one of the remote villages that we found so irresistible throughout the islands and scattered along the coast. During our cruising season, it was those little markets in distant and isolated settings that provided us with our food lifeline.
In most of these villages, the few year-round residents lived their simple lives off the land and the sea. Consequently, the “market” was likely to be one simple shop with limited hours and limited inventory. If the shop had a reliable source of electricity (and that was not always the case), they may have stocked a few packages of frozen goods: chicken, chops, sausages and an octopus or two were the most likely choices. Well-packaged and preserved meats and cheeses, long-life UHT milk (milk that has been sterilized at ultra-high-temperatures and packaged in sterile air-tight cartons), bottled water, beer, wine and a limited selection of household products completed the inventory.
But I really got excited and my adrenalin began to flow when I approached a tiny street market ... the beckoning aroma of syrupy sweet fresh figs recently plucked from the tree, an irresistible pile of carefully mounded fuzzy peaches or picture-perfect bunches of deep purple table grapes or tiny zucchinis with their bright, tender yellow blossoms still attached. These were ingredients for extraordinary meals: figs wrapped in prsut, crepes filled with peaches or a simple summer pasta enhanced with gently slivered zucchini blossoms. My imagination (and our menu) was limited only by the selection of ingredients available from the market or already stored in our galley. In these small villages, provisioning was all about being in the right place at the right time.
Being in the right place at the right time could also mean being anchored in a quiet bay or tied to the quay in a small town when the market boat arrived. In this water-dependent nation, market boats were common … and they came in all shapes, sizes and descriptions. When we anchored in seemingly deserted coves, we looked forward to the boat-side visits from small, traditional, old wooden fishing boats powered by noisy but reliable outboard motors. These brightly painted vessels were typically captained by slow-moving, sun-wrinkled gentlemen who would call out a cheerful “dobar dan” (good afternoon) as he lifted up his limited articles of trade for our inspection: a few bunches of grapes, a handful of walnuts, a couple of eggs and an occasional loaf of bread. We always made a purchase.
Those humble entrepreneurs represented an astounding time-warped contrast in style and expectations when compared to the newer, custom equipped powerboats that were genuine markets on the sea. Often complete with commercial refrigerators and freezers, these market boats could provide all of the ingredients for a gourmet meal as well as all of the household products necessary to clean up the mess.
The amazing wonder of these markets at sea struck me one very hot summer day. I had just finished my grocery shopping on one of them and I was strolling back to our boat while slowly licking a frozen, chocolate-covered ice cream confection. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that I was on a small, uninhabited and barren island surrounded by ancient Roman ruins, and I was enjoying this quintessential modern-day delicacy. That was a genuine “wow” moment.
In Croatia, with the big markets, little markets and floating markets, the process of gathering groceries may have been challenging and unpredictable but it was always interesting, fun and rewarding.