A two minute walk from our Airbnb is a farmer’s market  called Emiliano Zapata. It’s open 7 days a week from first thing in the morning until 2 in the afternoon. Our host, Dixon, says it is the best market in the city for fresh produce. He told me it was so good that all the restaurants get their stuff there. Over-sell not necessary. He had me at farmer’s market 🙂 

My brain has a set of images that automatically pop up when I hear ‘farmer’s market’. I think outdoors, collapsable tables, umbrellas, and a series of stalls each manned by a vendor. That is not the case at Emiliano Zapata. It is housed in a permanent structure with lots of open walls and courtyard space but not quite fully outdoors. The market covers the whole food gamut – a red meat butcher, a fishmonger, the ‘polleria’ (a new one for me – the seller of all things chicken), the tortilleria.

The Tortilla Production Line

And of course, the reason for my enthusiasm, the fresh produce vendor. 

The produce vendor is the bustling hub of the market and is certainly no small, collapsable table type set-up. It’s more like a small semi-outdoor grocery store with heaped aisles of abundance. It’s bursting with color and goodness from every nook and cranny. Mountains of perfectly ripe mangos, papayas, pineapples, limes, bananas – all the usual things that I associate with Mexico. Together with all the utilitarian basics my heart desires – onions, garlic, ginger, sweet potatoes (so fat and abundant!), and colorful baby potatoes. All the veggies that make a Goddess Bowl worth eating – crisp cucumbers, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, red cabbage, red onions… All sorts of red and inviting tomatoes. Tucked behind the counter – great bunches of cilantro and mint and dill. 

The avocados. Round and robust. I’m still schooled enough in my Canadian winter that I expect any avocados that I buy to be so hard and unforgiving that I wouldn’t dream about even trying to cut them open until they’ve snuggled up with some bananas for a few days. But the avocados here – a totally different story. When I give them a little squeeze they give just enough  to say ‘of course I am perfectly ripe’. It’s nothing like the avocados at home that go from rock hard to over-ripe in the blink of an eye. These avocados are proud to be avocados.  

When we first arrived, Dixon gave me fair warning that produce from the market does not last nearly as long as what I am used to buying at grocery stores at home. In other words – don’t get too carried away. (It’s like he already knows me) Oh Dixon, do you know how hard this is for me when faced with such abundance?? 

Here’s my favorite rhythm of Mexico: I go to the market every day and just buy what I need.  

‘Narrow’ doesn’t quite capture just how tight the aisles are in this space where every square inch is packed with fruit and veg. If I bend down to pick something up from a lower shelf, I have to turn sideways – otherwise I might accidentally topple the display behind me like I’m in some kind of Three Stooges skit. And whether they are restaurant owners like Dixon says, or just a lot of locals very serious about their produce, the place is always packed with folks buying a lot of stuff. I am often the only ‘gringa’. A majority of my fellow produce shoppers are significantly wider than I am. The aisle etiquette is like snooty high end grocery stores in downtown Toronto. There is no acknowledgement that someone else may wish to get by. It’s not unusual to find myself trapped in an aisle cul de sac, walled in by gorgeous produce, waiting for a substantial taco stand owner to patiently pick through hundreds of tomatillos to find the twenty he would like. 

Every day it gets a little easier to believe that the anxiety of waiting 3 endless minutes won’t kill me. There’s so much packed into every nook and cranny of this place that standing still and just looking around always means that I see something that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. 

I’m getting my routine honed down. There are no grocery carts. Instead there are strategically located stacks of large plastic, flat bottomed bowls. I grab one of those as I edge myself into the fray. These shopping-bowls are a surprisingly comfortable fit tucked against my hip with one arm stretching across it so I can hold the far edge. Plus it doubles as a tool to nudge my way through the crowd (much less aggressive than accidentally on purpose running into people with a grocery cart – just kidding – sort of.)  I’m starting to appreciate that getting jostled and being on the receiving end of the odd stink eye is just part of the fun. 

I pick out what I need for the day. At first – it feels like a completely different way of thinking about what I need. Normally I fill a grocery cart with whatever produce catches my eye with a experienced mental tally of how many greens I need, how many berries, cruciferous etc for the week… Then when I am making lunch or dinner – I open the fridge and grab what suits my fancy. 

Doing a daily market run isn’t so different – once I wrap my head around it. The whole market is like my fridge. I do a quick survey and decide what I feel like eating for the day. All my choices are at the peak of their freshness. So it is ideal.  

I plunk each carefully chosen treasure into my plastic bowl-bucket. A mango, an avocado, a sweet onion, a cuc, a pepper, a couple of tomatoes, some red baby potatoes, garlic, cauliflower, garlic… I usually do end up buying more than I need but I am getting better. There is something intrinsically satisfying in eating the fridge clean each day.

It’s all Spanish at the cash register. Which is good. I’m insultingly shy about trying to speak Spanish if there is even a hint that the Mexican I am speaking to speaks English. (I am determined to go beyond my comfort zone and get past this!) I don’t actually have to say anything (unless I want cilantro which they mysteriously keep behind the counter. But this is not exactly a taxing foray into Spanish – I just say ‘cilantro?’ with an upward inflection.) 

There are a few different check out ladies and they are all friendly and fairly patient. They can’t really understand my stubborn determination to not use plastic bags. And when they see the panic in my eyes after they say how much I owe, in rapid fire Spanish, they kindly turn their monitor a little so I can see what the total is. So I only feel a little bit like an idiot – but I am getting better at understanding. 

A day’s worth of fruit and veg is usually around 120pesos which is about $9 Canadian and about $6.50 US. Not too bad. And it all tastes so good!

I’m still trying to carve out the best time to go. The morning is best for selection and it’s not as hot for carrying stuff home (though it really is so close that it’s not a big deal). The problem is that the morning is also when I am most productive at work and in a good groove. I’ll just keep tweaking it 🙂