“Do not eat anything your great-grandmother would not immediately recognize as food.” – Michael Pollan
Good food, cooked well and eaten slowly, preferably with family, is central to Spanish culture. Quality ingredients are essential, and one of the best ways to procure these in Jávea is through the abundance of local farmers markets. We’ve now settled into a weekly rotation that keeps us in fresh produce, eggs, and bread for the entire week. I’ve already written about Oscar and Elvira’s organic farm stand open on Wednesdays and nestled in the lovely (and fragrant!) orange orchards nearby our house. Then there is the Jalón Earth Market, a larger organic market open every Saturday (please stop by Cora’s fruit stand for a big hello hug, a sample of her to-die-for oranges, grapefruit, and tomatoes, and her signature “later a gator” farewell). But in terms of sheer atmosphere, my favorite is the Sunday Farmers Market in Jesús Pobre, a quaint little village about 10 minutes from Jávea on the southern side of the base of Montgó.
With fewer than 800 inhabitants, Jesús Pobre’s charm per capita is off the charts, and the village is movie-set cute. A lovely Franciscan church and former convent anchors one end. On the other—just down the little main street lined with townhouses sporting cheerfully painted doors and wrought iron window boxes filled with colorful flowers—is a large open space that hosts the Sunday market. On most other days this square is not much more than a dusty, patchy grass field. But on Sundays the village’s population swells with tourists, cyclists, residents of nearby towns, and locals. In season, which runs June through September, the market moves to the late afternoon and evening to avoid the summer heat, but the rest of the year like now it’s open from nine until two.
In the center of the field is the “riurau,” the market’s only permanent structure. Riuraus are traditional buildings unique to the east coast of Spain. They have a ceiling but no walls and were historically used for drying grapes; raisins being one of the main crops of greater Javea. But on Sundays Jesús Pobre’s riurau is filled with local vendors. There are farmers selling eggs, vegetables, fruits, potted herbs and other plants; butchers with homemade sausages; bakers offering an array of fresh breads and sweet and savory pastries; olive and olive oil sellers; and artisanal cheese mongers (my favorite of whom displays framed pictures of her goats from whence her cheese is derived). At the far end is a big stall, always with a long line that snakes around the outside, where one can buy a glass of local wine, some muscatel, a fresh squeezed orange juice, and bottled water.
On either side of the riurau, more vendors set up white tents where they sell a wide variety of beautifully handmade arts and crafts: silver jewelry, hand-tooled leather bags, baby clothing, knitted hats, shoes, soy candles, homemade soaps, hand-dyed skeins of yarn, and ceramic signs personalized for one’s villa. There is even a local craft brewer with a little keg cart offering a few different beers on tap, a welcome site to us Americans as craft beer (and dark beer for that matter!) are still practically non-existent in this part of the world. Musicians sit on stools or folding chairs on the perimeter by the tree line playing guitars and singing. Round tables with umbrellas dot the front side of the market. Groups of people—packs of cyclists in Spandex kits, deeply tanned and tattooed turistas, and locals, casually elegant in collared shirts and trousers, or sundresses and cardigans, clothed in a way that pays an inherent respect for public spaces and Sundays, even if they might not be churchgoers—mingle and chat in Spanish, German, French, and English. They drink wine or draft beer and eat bocadillos, cocas, and slices of tortilla de patatas from the bustling restaurant stall doing a booming business. Children run around playing, their faces sticky from freshly baked sweet pastries.
My first experience with the market was on our vacation last August. We went with my brother, sister-in-law, my nephews, and her sister. We bought beer, wine, and cocas for us; orange Fantas and cakes for the boys, and sat under the trees eating and drinking as the sun went down, listening to music and people watching—a typical Sunday family gathering. It was also on that first visit that my sister-in-law showed me how to look for greens with holes in them, or even better, snails in the leaves—the mark of truly organic produce. She also taught me that the smallest, most bruised pears are the most delectable, and never to trust eggplants or oranges that are impossibly big with perfectly smooth skins. I took that lesson to heart and now, the first Sunday in town as a homeowner with my own kitchen to buy for, I was thrilled to find a vendor selling organic kale. I didn’t hesitate, I checked for holes and snails, then grabbed it all. At first, she was surprised; my largely pantomimed request one of the many dead giveaways I was not a local. Kindly giving me the benefit of the doubt, she asked me twice, in that slow, carefully enunciated way one uses when speaking to someone who maybe isn’t too bright: “Quieres compralo todo?” When I assured her I did, she shrugged, smiled and handed me the lot, filling my entire bag. (We’ve since been back almost every Sunday and now when she sees me coming she grabs all her kale and thrusts it over the table at me, grinning and saying, “Todo!”)
Back in our car, loaded with an abundance fresh supplies, we pulled out onto the main road. Just around the corner we drove by a group of eight elderly men walking single file on the shoulder in the direction of the market, likely headed to a table under an umbrella for the afternoon to drink beer and catch up as friends do all over the world. They were casual but natty in their button up shirts and long pants, each with a straw fedora on his head, utterly elegant in an offhand sort of way. It was an image that struck me immediately, at one and the same time evocative, romantic, and touching. For a second, I saw my own grandfathers, American immigrants from Eastern Europe who never lost their gentleness or self-respect even when life got hard and money was tight. And it seemed to sum up in one wordless moment all that I appreciate about this country: an understated, old-world elegance infused with camaraderie and community, served up with wholesome, slow-cooked food made with love and accompanied by a Sunday afternoon beer.
Oh, and kale in Spanish, is “col rizada.”