My October trip to Greece coincided perfectly with the Kalamata harvest season. Olive trees were ripe with fruit, and over several weeks, we observed great quantities of olives being handpicked and brought to the mill to produce some of the world’s best olive oil. This lovely time of year was ideal for a getaway focused on Greek culinary pleasures.
The first few days of my trip were filled with delightful tastes of wonderful morsels. There was roasted pork, ordered by the kilo from a roasted pork specialist with a stand set up at the side of the road somewhere between villages in Messinia. There were incredible restaurant meals, full of grilled vegetables, Greek cheeses, fresh salads, and countless traditional dishes.
Yet after sampling all of these finished, plated, and complete meals I was left with another craving: to see just where the ingredients came from, and how they arrived into the hands of local chefs. The next morning I was off to the produce market in Kalamata to find out.
Browsing the Kalamata Market
Famous for olives and olive oil, Kalamata is a bustling little port city that is the 2nd largest on the Peloponnese peninsula off mainland Greece. I arrived on a Monday morning, bright and early and ready to explore the market. Only upon arrival did I learn that a strike was scheduled for that Monday. But with a little luck, this misstep actually turned out in my favor.
What was usually a noisy, people-packed, friendly market with little room to move or to stop and inspect the produce was now a relatively empty place. There was, however, a fairly good number of stalls still open for business. The first thing I saw was a crate full of snails, wriggling around, just waiting for a buyer.
Fresh, fragrant produce came next. Perfect zucchini with flowers still attached were lovingly arranged on wooden tables. A bundle of wild greens, complete with squash blossoms and fresh dill, was tied and ready to be transformed into a traditional soup. And carrots, barely resembling what many Americans are accustomed to seeing in grocery stores, were still attached to the greens and were etched with irregular lines and full of lovely lumps.
Local Kalamata Specialties
During my trip to Greece, I sampled countless versions of the traditional dish spanakopita, or spinach pie. Only when I sampled spanakopita in someone’s home did I experience the delicious potential of the dish. In addition to fresh spinach, what really gives this dish such distinct flavor are the wild greens. Throughout the Kalamata market I saw these bunches of wild greens for sale. While some are grown in gardens, others are gathered in the mountain forests and brought to the market to sell.
Another local specialty is called mountain tea. Bundles of dried, fragrant, wild herbs, flowers, and leaves were piled up in boxes alongside several market stands. These herbs create the foundation of mountain tea, a traditional drink that is said to possess a wide range of health benefits.
From the teas-to the spices-to the buckets of produce, this market was full of fresh, seasonal, local ingredients that form the core of Greek cooking. While the seasonal and local cooking movement has taken over in the US, this way of cooking never went out of style in Greece. It continues to be central to everyday cooking traditions in Greece.
The Price is Right at the Kalamata Market
Beyond the bright colors and the sheer variety of produce, the other striking element of this market is the price. Cheap, and even cheaper if you’re willing and able to buy in bulk. From plump olives to bold pomegranates, everything in this market can be purchased for just a few euros.
Even more lovely to see than the cheap prices was the vibrant community that this market provides in Kalamata. Husbands and wives own stalls and work together throughout the day. Senior citizens gather and chat between crowds of customers. People read the newspaper. Others step outside to smoke a cigarette, and still others linger over a hot cup of coffee.
Leaving the market, I began to think that this atmosphere of community is just as responsible for the spread of the local and seasonal movement as the food itself. It seems that people who shop here experience nourishment beyond the fresh and flavorful produce they bring home.
Written by Jessica Colley for EuropeUpClose.com