Wednesday, May 13, 2009
ATHENS CENTRAL MARKET
Athens Central market is divided by a two way street, into the outdoor produce market, and the “COLORFUL” indoor meat and fish markets. I guess in Athens when they tell you it’s colorful, they mean grisly, surreal, and barbaric. Excited to get a dose of some local “color”, I dove head first into the long, dark meat hall with ancient sky-high arched ceilings. It was an artificially lit artery of gory traffic, stalls on each side run by smoking butchers with huge bellies under aprons who’s white only illuminated the layers of dried blood and market grime. Some were busy selling the lamb’s insides and outs, and others hacked away loudly and sloppily at sheep primals. Some vendors seemed content to take a break from their daily grind to entertain themselves by shoving plastic buckets filled with goats’ heads in our faces and making far from tempting sexual advances. The most memorable of stalls were those featuring whole skinned rabbits. Pristine furry tails offset pearly pink flesh, and white hind feet were kept intact- should there be any question as to whether they were real rabbits, they had the thumpers and cottontails to prove it. A couple of bloody butcher’s hands groping at my arms was all it took to get me through the meat hall in just one breath. Free from the wild ride of the meat market, I was laughing, gasping, and wide-eyed. The parallel fish hall separated by a cement wall was of equal intensity, but a different scene. The vivacious sea creatures sat on mounds of crushed ice in wooden crates, lit by gorgeous bright bulb lamps with green metal shades. It smelled of captured, salty Hellenic sea breezes and cigarettes. There was something assuring about the constant trickle and flow of the ice melting and being carried away by a tiny drainage system running throughout the hall’s stone floors. I weaved through the stalls in total awe of the octopi, squid, and prawns. Flesh taught with swim, and colors that still belonged to the surf, their graceful jet propulsion could be seen in the curled tentacles. An aging housewife with a grey bob and wide pumps stood in a pool of wet and chatted amiably with her fishmonger. He laughed with her as he scooped kilos of baby octopi into a cone he had made of sturdy grey paper printed with blue writing. Water began to seep into the soles of my boots and we made our way back into the light of the afternoon and across the road to the vegetable stands. What a welcome relief the friendly outdoor stalls were. Children and cats running loose, leaves you wanted to touch, and grocers excited to tip the scale in your favor with a smile. There is something so grounding about the market in early spring, lots of bulbs fresh from the dirt, zings of bright green, sensible purple, and roll up your sleeves kinds of brown. The market was bursting with huge mounds of Horta (a tough chicory that is boiled, chopped and served room temperature with olive oil and lemon), garlic, lettuces, dried beans, herbs, snails, and amazing flower bulbs that look like shallots and are traditionally used with rabbit. Athens’s early spring vegetables inspire work in the kitchen, with the promise of an effortless asparagus shoot next week. Had we been leaving the markets and headed to a kitchen I would not have left without paper cones of baby octopi and squid perfect for a quick fry, herb salad, and lemon. There would have been a canvas bag just for horta on my shoulder, and shallots, leeks, and flower bulbs to go alongside my rabbit with his good luck tail intact. I rarely get an alarming , gruesome twist to my usual market glee, and for this I am grateful to the Athens’ Central market.