Outdoor markets have been my saviour this past year. Even under some of the toughest coronavirus restrictions, I’ve still been able to escape the day to day and quickly slip into my favourite markets, picking up essential bits of shopping and allowing myself some small moments of joy.
On a recent Friday, with the possibility of dinner with friends abandoned due to new rules, I decided to cycle to my nearest outdoor market, with hopes of breaking the rotation of endless episodes of Friends. Even with the unfamiliarity of masks, sanitizer and social distancing, shopping at a market still reminded me that things outside of my living room - other fruit and veg seeking strangers, new kinds of cheese and unusually shaped peppers - still exist.
When I think about it, markets have been big parts of some of the happiest times of my life. When I was doing cookery training at my part-time job at a cafe in Brixton market, the early mornings were made worth it by browsing the treasure trove of Nour Cash & Carry. I’d breeze past the main part of the shop, picking up cafe staples like a giant tin of our favourite crumbly feta or a tub of halva, and slow down to peruse the narrow fruit and veg section, with its own entrance onto Electric Avenue where the outdoor market stalls were. I’d pick up vegetables from our rosta of revolving favourites, kohlrabi for slaws, sweet mini peppers for roasting or huge chunks of delica pumpkin to be dressed in sticky molasses and bright sparks of pomegranate.
The shop recently won a battle against Hondo Enterprises, who were intending on shutting down Nour to make room for a new power source. It is testament to how loved and how essential shops like Nour are to both the businesses in the market and the nearby residents that it had such a show of passion and support, both monetary and otherwise, to help continue its existence.
When I arrive somewhere new, the local market is usually the place I’m most excited to see. Magical markets that stay with me include a large local market in Santiago de Cuba, where you walk past row upon row of plantains to see huge queues snaking round metal shipping containers giving out plastic bags of local meat. A world away is Copenhagen’s Torrvehalle, far more of a tourist trap than the Cuban market, but filled to the brim with some of the city’s best street food - soft cinnamon rolls filled with more vanilla cream cheese than you could possibly need, or GrØd, serving savoury porridge.
In a last minute trip to Valencia, it felt like magic that our Airbnb host hadn’t mentioned that our tiny studio had a sliver of balcony overlooking the city’s biggest and most beautiful market, famed for its stained-glass roof and sweet oranges. On my first day in New York City, it felt meant to be to fall across a huge brownstone-lined street market in midtown, where I tried my first cloyingly sweet, fake-cherry flavoured New York cheesecake.
There’s an undeniable kind of magic about stepping into an environment where all your senses are engaged. It’s entirely overwhelming and calming all at once. It’s a feast for uninspired minds, the most hectic form of relaxation. That’s why it was the perfect antidote to the kind of numbness the pandemic has brought me, the lack of new experiences and sense of business and adventure.
My Friday excursion brought on an addictive quality to markets, and later that day I was back in Nour, where I picked up my favourite velvety, green-skinned pumpkin for pasta and screaming red chillies for pickling. For some Christmas presents this year, I stocked up on sweet Romano peppers and long red chillies from the market for homemade chilli jam, and although the smell of apple cider vinegar lingering in my kitchen for days afterward did not feel magical, the act of shopping small and creating something that felt connected to its producer did.
Although now our opportunities for wonder, new experiences or even the small act of enjoying a leisurely stroll at a Saturday farmer’s market are so limited, I’m grateful that something so essential - shopping for food - can be made so joyous. Side-stepping the superstore queues and ducking into an outdoor side street market still feels special to me, even in times as dark as these. And most importantly, shopping this way will always bring me little bits of drip-fed magic every time I come home clutching a blue plastic bag.