In the summer, farmers’ markets both bloom and smell, just as the proverb runs. Especially in the morning. Especially those by the railway stations. Rosy-colored countrywomen flock there at the crack of dawn, just back from the milking, carrying zinc buckets, one in each hand, covered with a piece of cloth, baskets tied round with the towels, small bags, and bundles.
You can set your watch by these women, since their time is still stable, regardless of any civilizational achievements. Its axes are fixed tight by the vegetable garden, the poultry, the cattle. These women rarely settle down in the morning market. Usually, they sell their simple offerings to the keen middlewomen before daybreak—usually, for next to nothing.
“I picked them myself two hours ago!” a woman disguised as a villager—a floral headscarf, country-style sacks at her feet—swears to a shopper.
“Look at my hands! I milked the cow and drained the cheese with these hands right here! Nice and fresh! Swear by God!” a matronly woman in a blue coat over a checkered dress tries to catch sight of an icon and, not finding any, crosses herself, looking up at the station clock.
Polite, sleepy, and not really fastidious urban dwellers seem to believe them: they go ahead and buy bunches of radishes, baked milk, or ryazhenka, as they call it here, fennel, parsley, cucumbers, zucchini or Queen Elizabeth II strawberries. It depends on the season. If you want to make borscht or a simple salad for your loved ones, this is the best place to get everything you need. Oxheart tomatoes don’t look very nice, that’s true. An irregular shape, rough skin, groves and cracks. But good housewives know that they’ll make a kingly salad. In fact, those weird times — when we rushed to buy huge pale-green Polish apples with neat stickers on every fruit — are long gone. Now we realize that those apples are a perfect fit for a photo shoot, but they taste watery, neither sweet, nor sour, just bland. Back in the late 1990s, we eagerly bought all things perfect and identical. Things have changed. Today, you’d go to the farmers’ market and, passing the ‘legal’ booths standing there every single day, look around for a countrywoman. Here she is! A string of garlic, four beetroots, and a few plastic bags with tomatoes, just like you need: one tomato too ripe, one too green, one a bit rotten, one lopsided and miserable. The salad will come out just as you want it.
One of my friends recently posted on Facebook that his giant African snails preferred to starve to death rather than eat the cucumbers that were on sale at the supermarket. Those nice, straight, identical cucumbers. Sometimes I wish I were a snail and could feel the difference between the beautiful and the useful — two concepts which have seemingly become mutually exclusive.
You should take care, shopping for food — especially for meat and dairy — at the busy central markets. They’re usually governed by the laws of wilderness. If you know this mushroom — get it. Otherwise, steer clear of it. You can surely look for people standing in lines and take it from there, but lines are dubious guideposts. The best way out is to make friends with an emergency room anesthesiologist. In one evening, he’ll tell you so many real-life stories that you’d never buy cottage cheese from random market women again. To pave your way through the market, you have to know its laws. It’s not about economy at all. Three middlewomen would let you taste the cream they sell, one by one — and all three samples would taste the same. Why? Because they each bought a jar of good cream from an honest country woman that morning to let people like you taste it, while they keep something completely different in their buckets. Something for a gullible urban dweller who should have made friends with an emergency room guy a while ago.
Does that mean you can’t get any good stuff in a city? Is that impossible? No, not really. In the morning, old shabby cars come around to the unkempt yards far from the residential neighborhoods where mostly young people live. Do you remember those almost surreal, almost extraterrestrial shouts: “Mi-i-i-ilk! Mi-i-i-ilk!” around six or seven in the morning? That’s it! If you are lucky enough, living in one of those areas — run for it. And don’t forget to elbow your way in. The path to the delicious ryazhenka and cream is quite thorny. One of my friends lives in a neighborhood like this, but she rarely gets hold if it: the village producer keeps only one or two cows, delivering his delicious goods to his trusted clients.
“No cream. Sorry,” a middle-aged man in a gray cap makes a helpless gesture.
“But you’ve got a jar right there! I want to buy it. Please!”
“No, it’s for an old lady from the third block. She can’t walk by herself, so I’ll take it to her place when the milk is sold out.”
Try to ask that man to bring you a jar of cream next Friday or Tuesday. Luck will surely come your way some day. If you don’t live in an apartment block with a dozen of old ladies who know how many beans make five in this world and who are visited by that bird of paradise called “Mi-i-i-ilk!” every morning — welcome to a supermarket. You’ll have plenty of time to buy everything there. In comfort, twenty four-seven, all things familiar. Although one of my friends, a security guard at a dairy factory, complained that he hadn’t seen a milk truck for a while. For three months. Maybe four.
“Everything’s made of powder,” he says. “Sour cream, ice-cream. Everything.”
Farmers’ markets both bloom and smell in the summer. Radish is followed by strawberries and, later, by sweet cherries and cucumbers. Cherries, early summer apples, and apricots come next. Then, tomatoes and eggplants, almost at the same time. And, finally, pumpkins — big and small, chopped carefully, one piece for one pot of porridge. Pumpkins would be on sale throughout the winter, mellowed, with a slightly darkened skin and a bright orange inside.
I went for a walk yesterday night, no cash, only a credit card should I want to buy some ice-cream. Passing through the market, I noticed an old lady standing behind an empty stall. She was sitting like a jackdaw in the dark, a plastic cup of mulberries in front of her, trying to catch a passer’s-by eye. She was shifting about uneasily in her folding chair, probably in a hurry for the last train. A black headscarf, a black sweater — you wouldn’t find another one like that anywhere any longer — and mulberries in the plastic cup, also black. Only ‘night matrons’ were around, selling bunches of wild, unpretentious flowers for late-night romantics. This one, though, was like a jackdaw of a black evening, catching your eye with her eyes.
In two minutes, I came back with my wallet.
“Seven hryvnias only.”
“Do you have more?”
“No, that’s the last one.”
She pulled the money out from under the plastic cover on the stall — to give me my change. It was obvious that she wasn’t used to selling things in a city. Who puts the money under the stall cover anyway?
Having poured the berries into a plastic bag, she started to pack. I didn’t dare to stare at her any longer, even though I somehow wanted to.
Her mulberries tasted different than those bought at the market. They tasted like mulberries that had grown right there, by our gates. I was walking and eating until I ate all of them. Next morning, I threw my t-shirt away. I searched for that old jackdaw today, too. In early morning. In the afternoon. In the evening. She was not there. It’s alright — she’ll probably come tomorrow.