“To market to market to buy a fat pig… So says the old nursery rhyme. That is almost the way it is in Mexico.
In the States, we go to the super market, where we can buy almost anything we want in one fell swoop. It is not that way in Mexico, at least outside of the larger cities.
Oh, there are “mercado commercials” (remember to accent the last syllable) — commercial markets somewhat akin to a super Walmart, only much smaller, selling everything from soup to nuts and I don’t mean the kind you eat either.
The locals in Taxco shop at the “mercado grande” – a giant multi-floor maze of shops and stalls inside and outside, upstairs and down, and all around a conglomeration of buildings and alleys downtown, near the zocolo at the city center. There are permanent shops in the mercado that sell meat, dairy, nuts and seeds, fruits and veggies, and more general stuff like watches and batteries, clothing, wine and liquor, flowers, engine parts and repair, plastic household goods, and even a hair dresser or two.
On Mondays, the market swells to include people from miles around selling fresh produce, herbs, maize for tortillas, and anything else you can imagine. And of course, Taxco residents buying what they need for the day or week.
One recent morning I accompanied Irma on her weekly shopping expedition, and I mean expedition quite literally. Come along…
First we grab the giant economy sized shopping bag, and walk to the market, about 3/4 mile up the cobblestone street that winds through the downtown, down a little alley that by-passes the zocolo proper and up the other side (think of walking through a mixing bowl), around the corner and into the multi-hued semi-darkness of streets covered with tarps (red, blue, green, and white).
Follow her past the cacophony of vendors and shoppers, haggling over quality and price, through a maze of corridors, dodging dangling underwear, winding around the glow-in-the-dark bras, assorted housewares, and hardware vendors, and inhaling the aroma of the comidas (little food stands).
We continue to wind around and around, up the stairs, and around the corner when I come face to face with a pig — well it was a pig, now just its head (with one eye poorly sewn shut so that it seems to be peeking at me) nicely nestled next to four feet (with toes that look strangely manicured) in some sort of odd and disjointed repose. Next to this is the rest of the animal, sliced, diced and hung in chunks for sale. Across the aisle is the beef vendor with cuts of meat hung from hooks. Irma orders something, they take down one of the slabs of meat and slice off what she wants, and hangs the rest for the next customer.
Next we head down the stairs and around another corner where the chicken vendor is busy chopping up whole chickens and slicing the breast into one long thin slice, which is pounded and later cooked up quickly for tacos. Though I saw one foot on the table (in some circles the feet are more highly prized and expensive than the breast), this vendor does not make a sculpture of them like they did in Chilpancingo. Irma buys one large chicken breast, which by the time she gets done stewing and pulling it will feed a family of four or more, and off we go past the sausages and organ meats, to wind around, up, and down some more until we come to her favorite queso (cheese) stand.
Mexican cheese comes in three basic styles, mostly the same cheese just in various stages of “ripeness” or maturity. There is crema, a thick sweet cream about the consistency of American sour cream, that they dip with their plastic-bagged hands out of a 5 gallon bucket, turn the bag inside out, tie the ends and send along home with you, the soft, crumbly “fresca,” which sits in giant rounds waiting for you to order a chunk or have the vendor grate it before your eyes. There is also Queso Oaxaca – the Mexican version of string cheese, which is the same cheese only it is pulled like taffy while it is solidifying. Oh and, you can get all three cheeses dipped and cured in chili if you like. This shop also sells milk, yogurt, and canned beans and chilis — sort of your one stop taco or quesadilla fixin’s shop.
Down another set of well worn steps that originally led to a street but which now is permanently part of the market, we come to the women selling maize – a corn flour mixture that any self-respecting housewife takes home to make tortillas (2 kilos please).
Down more stairs, then through what appears to be a broken down wall (they just knocked it out and you descend on steps cut into the rubble which under the passing of thousands of feet have turned into a heap of gravel), then up another we come to the bakery section, where Irma buys bolillos (a short, wide loaf that is sort of a cross between French and Italian bread only softer) remarkably unburned; bread here is often cooked in wood-fired clay ovens, so many times it is more than a little black on the bottom or around the edges. Toast these on a cast iron tortilla pan with a little butter and sprinkle of sugar and it is to die for.
We wind around some more (Are you lost? I know I am.) and come to a set of steps, filled with vendors selling produce, herbs, and live jomillas, the little bugs that give golden salsa here it’s unique flavor.
The steps and the alleyways beyond are full of little tables, or sometimes just a blanket or baskets on the ground, where people from the surrounding countryside come to sell their fruit, vegetables, and sometimes crafts in front of permanent shops selling meat, flowers, hardware, sundries, CDs, toys and you name it. This part of the market is outdoors so you don’t really realize that you are almost out of it until you pass the last stall and there you are on the busy street. We emerge into the bright sunlight, right across from the combi (bus) stop; good thing too because by now our shopping bags must weigh 20 pounds each.
We head home to unload our goodies, but wait, we are not done yet. We empty the bags, peel some fruit and start it and that chicken breast stewing on the stove, and head out to the little mercado around the corner from the house where Irma selects the oranges, parsley, cucumbers, papaya, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and other basic (and heavy) ingredients for her homemade fruit waters, tacos, and more.
Are you hungry yet?