Shopping around

laiki agora
The people’s market is a national institution, found in almost every town in Greece

A few years ago, on a random health purge, I decided to try a radical new way of eating based on a diet of raw foods. Popularised by blissed out Californians, the premise is, you only eat food that’s uncooked, unprocessed and close to it’s natural state as possible. It’s a tough and time consuming regimen, but the health benefits are numerous. Your energy levels go through the roof, it’s virtually impossible to put on weight, I challenge anyone to give it a try for a month or two.

Having never previously gone veggie, let alone a raw vegan, I was forced to come up with creative ways to make uncooked vegetables, nuts and seeds into palatable dishes. Ultimately however, going 100% raw wasn’t for me, and after six months I reverted back to a more typical omnivorous lifestyle. But far from being in vain, my veganic odyssey prompted a renewed fascination about eating habits, nutrition and food culture in general.

Take food cravings for instance. The ancient, reptilian part of our brain is typically biased towards food sources that were historically scarce in the environment, such as salt, sugar and fat. These days that translates to high calories, especially junk foods. A raw foodist doesn’t do meat, dairy, cakes, chips, chocolate or anything  that could vaguely be regarded as a treat, so you start to become slightly obsessed with seeking out the most flavoursome fresh fruit and vegetables in order to sate these desires. (Raw celery btw is an excellent example of something healthy that cures salty cravings.)

But getting hold of good quality, nutritious food isn’t as straightforward as it seems. One of the biggest lessons of my raw experience is that when it come to fresh produce, supermarkets suck. Instead of focussing on taste, seasonality and freshness, these giants seem to have an unhealthy fixation with homogeneity and cosmetic appearance.

Like a dysfunctional mass media pumping out airbrushed images of youthful perfection, supermarkets have Photoshopped our fruit and veg. Unless an apple is pert, shiny, waxed and blemish free, there’s no chance of ever basking in the bright lights of Tesco or Sainsburys. But good looks come at a cost, and in this particular Faustian pact we have embraced superficial beauty at the expense of the flavour of our food.

Why supermarket food is tasteless

Of the senses, taste and smell are often the most indelible in the memory. I can still vividly recollect that cheese and tomato sandwich in my school lunchbox. So why then, do supermarket tomatoes taste as bland as an X-factor runner up doing a cover version of a James Blunt song.

Earlier this year, I had my answer. Scientists recently discovered that efforts to make tomatoes more attractive accidentally rendered them completely devoid of flavour. It turns out that decades of selective breeding has inadvertently caused a genetic mutation which depletes vital sugars in the plant. But the discovery came too late. Supermarkets loved these pretty little things and packed their shelves full of them.

This phenomena has happened on a global scale, but whilst it’s still possible to get hold of beautiful but bland tomatoes in Greece, food shopping hasn’t (yet) been totally monopolised by the scurge of the supermarket. Take for example our neighbourhood, Argyroupoli, a typical suburb of  Athens. Less than five minutes away we have a small local supermarket, but more importantly we also have two bakeries, a fishmonger, a butcher, a deli, two greengrocers and even a shop that will grind fresh coffee to order.

But food shopping really excels here every Saturday, when the laiki agora (people’s market) comes to town. Founded in the early 20th century by revolutionary statesman Eleutherios Venizelos, laikes agores were set up to help agricultural producers sell their produce to nearby towns without dealing with a middleman. The market in Argyopouli, one of dozens in Athens, brings countless local suppliers together offering fresh and locally sourced fruit, vegetables, eggs, fish, honey, olives, herbs, dried goods etc. The selection is vast, the market spanning a good kilometer and a half  stretch of the local residential streets.

Granny trolleys at the ready

Whereas in the UK, farmer’s markets are prohibitively expensive for everyday shopping, in Greece, the opposite is true. Food at the laiki is cheaper, fresher and there’s infinitely more choice than in the supermarkets.  As well as farm produce, traders can import certain goods and sell them at the laiki, from Cretan bananas, to sweets, housewares and rugs. So every Saturday , the locals mobilise en masse, each sporting a granny trolley to transport their wares.

But apart from being a hub of pure commerce, the people’s market is arguably one of finest examples of a living, breathing ‘community’ in action. The linear layout of the stalls means you’ll undoubtably encounter a familiar face or two on your weekly shop, a chance to catch up on gossip or just exchange  niceties. Strong relationships are  built between shoppers and traders too, some lasting for decades. Let’s face it when you’ve got 50 stalls selling oranges, how do you choose where to spend your money? You do it because you have a history with the farmer, an allegiance, a trust, maybe even a friendship.

As a food lover, I’m thankful that fate has brought me to Greece. Although I miss lots of things about my country, when it comes to the UK’s eating habits, we have destroyed any food culture we may once have had. The relentless pursuit of profit has annihilated small, independent traders and supermarkets reign supreme. Ironically, by providing more ‘choice’ under one roof, they have destroyed the notion of buying fresh, local food for the vast majority of the population.

Every country needs their own laiki agora. Small independent producers selling their goods to the local inhabitants, with no concern for shareholder interests or the latest fashion in cuisine. It’s a simple concept, tasty seasonal food at affordable prices from a vendor you can trust, you never know it might just catch on.

Words of the day

  • μηλό -apple -(mee-loh)
  • πορτοκάλι – orange – (por-to-kah-lee)
  • ψαρί -fish – (p-sar-ee)
  • αυγά -eggs -(aff-gah)