First off, sorry cheese lovers for the lack
of communication over these past few weeks.
I was out of town, playing serious
hooky and eating as much Costa Rican
cheese as I could get my paws on. The mecca
to conduct this glorious (and a bit gluttonous)
sampling was none other than San Jose’s historic
central market, a sturdy, amiable, and decidedly
simple edifice nestled into the heart of town.
Walking into the cramped, bustling corridors of this 1880’s market gave me pause because for many years, customers entering the Essex Market for the first time, though they hail from destinations across the globe all have the same comment: ‘This market reminds me of home.’ There is some kind of universal sensibility that allows people to recognize and immediately identify with a public market. They wander the aisles, their eyes taking in the myriad piles of fruits and vegetables, ogling tiers of baked goods, smelling bunches of dried herbs hanging from hooks, and sizing up slabs of meat.
In many ways, San Jose’s Central Market is
very much like Essex: a simple square of a
building, low to the ground, stalls divided from
one another by steel beams, with high ceilings
and skylights of glass enmeshed with shatterproof
wire to let the daylight seep through. However,
if the Essex Market boasts 30 stalls, San Jose’s
has 300. The place is absolutely labyrinthine,
or perhaps more appropriately, onion-esque,
with a core of stalls at the center extending
outward towards the edges of the building
in hectic concentric layers.
The sensation of wandering this market is one
of true wonder (and a bit of vertigo) as you try
to make your way around, and is even more baffling
when trying to find your way back to a particular stall.
Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbed and backward
GPS system would have definitely come in handy
more than a handful of times as I tried to
retrace my steps back to some especially
There was the old gentleman with all manner
of knives… I was in search of one small enough
to make a picnic with, but his shop was a nod
to the overwhelming nature of the rainforest,
agriculture, and the sprawl of the city over
the years. He sold everything from pocket
knives to full on machetes. Coils of lasso with
varying thicknesses and colors adorned the
walls from floor to ceiling.
Then there was the helados shop, a business
started in 1901 and thriving till the present day
with just one perfectly sweet and refreshing flavor
of sorbet: vanilla mixed with cinnamon. Young boys
in blue caps and aprons served a clamoring clientele
that flanked the stall’s three outward facing
countertops, dutifully scooping mounds of the
ochre-colored confection as quickly as it
was gobbled up.
The cheese shops were simple affairs, consisting
of refrigerated display cases filled with trays of
locally made fresh cheese. The most popular was
a cheese called Turrialba named after a nearby town.
Soft and queso fresco-like, the cheese was sold in three
stages of ripeness: ‘tierno’ meaning soft and fresh,
semi-curado, and curado. Then there was the
queso palmita: a mozzarella-like ball of cheese named
for its likeness to heart of palm.When cut open,
circular layers of cheese surround one another
concealing a tart and lemony core of fresh curd.
But the most impressive sights of all were the sodas, diminutive mom and pop lunch counters that served quick, hearty, and simple meals to marketgoers. The one that we stopped at made me blush for ever calling my own shop small. It was no more that 6 feet by 6 feet, and contained three workers, a cutting board station, a sink, and a small flat-top grill where my lunch of tortillas and salchichon with shredded lettuce and crema was prepared. We cozied up next to our neighbor on two of their three stools and savored our delicious lunch. The kicker came when the woman washing the vegetables loaded a bus tub of dirty dishes onto what appeared to be a low-hanging shelf, only to watch it be hauled up via pulley onto their second floor of operations! A tiny room was perched atop the I-beams of the diner, cloaked in corrugated metal. It is to this day the tiniest restaurant I have ever seen.
So I sign off this week with a rallying cry (and I guess
a bit of a gushy love letter) for markets. In their very
humble way, they are among our cities’ most important
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