Monday, February 20, 2012

This Week at Saxelby Cheesemongers: 
There's No Place Like Home, 
or All the World Loves a Market

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.
mercado main entranceWalking 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
 lovely vendors. 
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.
sodaBut 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
 assets.
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