Tuesday, 28 April 2015


Casablanca Souk

Whether they are the little flea markets that sell tat or unwanted memorabilia or the colourful, fragrant spice markets in Morocco, they all hold a fascination for me..

A market traders life must be the same worldwide; the pressure to find the goods and the hope of selling out on the day; the search for items that will sell easily and the balance of cost of acquisition against selling price. In no other place is this balance in such open view as the markets of Morocco. Yet everywhere, if you take a moment to stand and watch, wherever you are you will see the price of this search in the stall holders face, the lines around his eyes from the sun and the worry are a testament to the strain of buying and selling. The disappointment of no sale and the welcome joy of a good price leave equal traces on the face of the market trader, as the wind and rain leave patterns in the dunes of the Moroccan beaches.  

Cape Verde's Markets were very crowded...
I always have an urge to head for a market whenever I get to a town or city, I love the sensory attack that accompanies these places, whether indoor or out. The riot of colours shimmering in the air, the sounds and cries, the smells of meat, fish, vegetables, spices - even clothes and books - and recently, on a long cruise I had the chance to head for the stalls in a variety of places. Tenerife, Cape Verde, Agadir, Casablanca and El Ferrol all provided a feast for my hunger of markets and not one of them let me down. Yet even in the UK I migrate to stalls like a traveller makes for the warmest Inn. I look for the book stand, the green grocer, the baker - oh yes the baker - at this one stall alone does the olfactory sense shift into overdrive and I drool physically at the smells and mentally at the ideas, the shapes, the artisan skill and the ingredients, I imagine the bustle of the early morning bakery, the flour dusting the very air and the heat from the ovens as the bread is shaped, patted and baked. 

Oranges By The Cart Load

The Spice stalls in Casablanca were all I hoped they would be, colours ablaze and glowing in the damp sunshine, oranges by the cartload, chillies and peppers, lemons, limes and the muted hues of the mounded spices themselves; the ochre of turmeric, the deep red of ground chilli, whole nutmegs and cinnamon sticks in shades of chestnut and burnt umber, the rich pastel shades of the lentils glistening in the low December sun. 

Pastel Shades of Spices

UK fish stalls are fun places, fishmongers having a humour all of their own, but the colours are muted. Mackerel, cod, plaice and salmon are subdued in shade and lack the vivid reds and blues of mullet, snapper and wrasse from the Mediterranean or the frightful appearance of the monkfish and scabbard fish from the Canaries. The spangling sardines from Portugal, the Tuna from St. Vincent and the coin-scaled mullet from Spain are on neat display in rows of bright eyed freshness in most markets. I say most, because a couple of the Tuna that were brought along for inspection for our onboard chef in St Vincent were not as fresh as our local fishermen purported, judging by the limp flaccid flesh and the red eyes of the specimens - they were a day or two old at best. But most of the fish on display are caught that day, brought stiff and fresh straight from the boats. 

Scabbard Fish

Vivid Reds...
 And that's another great thing about markets; you get to inspect the goods, discuss them and haggle if you're brave enough. In the UK haggling isn't really the done thing, we don't argue, discuss or debate the goods on offer, we accept them and buy them - or we don't. That's it. 

All over the world deep, meaningful conversations take place around the efficacy, quality and price of the items. Markets are places to haggle, argue and act insulted, to quibble over cents, pennies and proportions. You spend time comparing and handling, learning to trust the stall holder, relationships are forged or trashed, cemented or destroyed as you spend your time buying your essential items. I was sitting at the indoor market in Bath recently watching the cheese counter as fists were bumped, hands shaken and friendships obviously made through trade were on display. There was a respect, an honest mutual liking and of course money and cheese changed hands as I sat and supped my afternoon tea. 

Don't be afraid of markets, respect them certainly, but watch, if you can, over a cup of coffee, tea or a beer and you'll see the exchanges, the colours, hear the sounds and smell the aromas. You'll see friendships, respect and disdain all in one stall, you'll observe peculiarities, oddities and strangeness, but most of all what you're looking at is human nature in its most basic, intrinsic honesty, you're watching life. 

English Market in Cork City