Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Valdivia Market

Despite intermittent earthquakes and a conflagration that consumed most of its traditional, wooden structures a century ago, Valdivia stands right where it was founded in 1554. The city owes its longevity to a resilient economy based on timbering, agriculture, and ranching in the uplands to the east and the rich, marine resources of the Pacific Ocean to the west. This mix of land and sea colors the local palate and the daily produce market that is the subject of this post.

The opening of the Chilean economy, a hallmark of two decades of military dictatorship, brought a plague of supermarkets to the country. Mass merchandizing, prepackaging, and long distance hauling have undermined some sectors of food retailing. But in a way that locovores have recently adopted in the United States, Valdivia offers an alternative to the supermarket. At the foot of the Paseo de la Libertad and beneath a crazy quilt of plastic tarps, farmers and fishermen offer their wares from 8 AM to sunset.

An aisle divides the market into a realm of vegetables and another of fish. I found the green groceries familiar. Mounds of potatoes rose beside flats of strawberries, green and red peppers, baskets of peas and pints of the locally-abundant bing cherries. Across the aisle, many of the offerings lay outside my vocabulary.

Torpedo-shaped pescada stared up from pallets with eyes so shiny that they appeared ready to slip back into the water and swim away. (Since “pescada” differs by only one letter from “pescado,” the generic name for fish, I asked several times for clarification.) A large, pink-skinned fish whose body tapers to a finless tail carries the name congrio. It’s delicious, by the way. There were also some familiar species: salmon (wild, I was assured on more than one occasion), flounder (merlusa), and pejerrey, a brakish-water fish introduced to Lake Titicaca fifty years ago with disastrous consequences for its ecosystem. I did not see octopus (calamar) in the market, but I found some later in the day in a soup.

Shoppers chose both their fish and its processing: au natural, beheaded, scaled, filleted (or any combination). Butchers followed individual orders and tossed fish heads, entrails, and scales toward the river. Most of the discards never touched the water, though, as flocks of gulls and white pelicans hovered in the air hoping for some easy pickings. And patrolling the water’s surface, huge sea lions (lobos marineros) silently feasted on the largest bits and noisily received the leftovers at maket’s end—nothing wasted here.