Monday, 11 May 2015

Tour of Riga Central Market

Any market would have found its way onto our itinerary anyway, but in Riga's case the trip to the Central Market could have, in itself, been the itinerary for the whole day.

Opened in 1930 Riga Central Market is located in 5 converted Zeppelin- hangars (that'll give you some idea of the sheer size of this operation!) and along with the market that spreads around it, it is a foodie's paradise. They have everything. From pig's trotters to caviar!

Hypermega-onestop-supermarkets have, of course, made their way to Latvia too,, but markets have held their own. Almost 100 000 shoppers wander through the corridors of the Riga Central market every day.

The adventurous ones might want to check out the Farmer's market that fills the area after midnight in the summer. Until around 7am, they sell their goods to the local vendors and everything is about half the price.

Vegetable and fruit, dairy, bread, meat and fish vendors all operate in their own halls, known as pavillions

In addition to food, there are cafes, pharmacies, at least one tiny supermarket, arts and crafts and of course souvenir stalls, selling for instance Baltic amber. And honey, which for a long time was the only sweetener used in Latvia.

Another interesting local specialty is birch sap, which is tremendously popular here. We were told that in the summer, people go through litres of it every day! It's full of nature's own nutrients and cheap, too: a 3-litre jug is yours for just a couple of euros!

The market is largest of its kind in Europe. When it was opened, it was also the most modern. That's the direction marketing manager Ivars Jakovlevs wishes to steer the market towards in the future, too. I don't see anything to worry about though: it's clearly got a very strong hold of Riga people's heart's and wallets.

In Riga the market has always been a natural shopping venue but these days this kind of markets are shoppers' way of striking back at clinical and impersonal supermarket aisles so I can't imagine how traditional could be bad. It does have its very particular charm: vendors greeting their regulars, gossiping with one another, scarf-clad babushkas haggling over prices of, well, babushka scarves.

My views are without a doubt tinted by the plans by city of Helsinki to close one of its markets, Hakaniemen halli for modernisation. That's a €12,5 million project that would shut my trusty shopping venue for 21 months. Not excited. 

There have been several ventures shaking things up a bit. The pavillions have hosted a variety of cultural events, such as concerts. And discos (!)

It's easy to spend hours and hours poring over the goods on display. Meat comes in all shapes and sizes - from pigs' tracheas to chicken hearts. Everything is about the third of what it costs in Finland. 

But it was the fish pavillion that got us all giddy. Including my travel companion, The Boy Next Door - a veritable ichthyology Encyclopedia. 

"No, wait, is that a spotted yellowfin wagtail trout? Ooh, look -  a blue triggerfish arrowhead mackerel!"

Smoking is a very traditional method used for both meat and fish. Some of them varieties even The Boy Next Door of Google Translate wouldn't recognize. 

They also have fish that's pickled, salted, dried...

... and alive. Yep, that's got to be the freshest market I've ever seen.

I fell for smoked oil fish (tuna-like sizeable bugger) and the delicate sweetness of smoked eel.

I mean, just look at these prices! Bitter tears weren't far - the country marked as the origin was Spain but I can tell you even in there they're never this cheap. Squiddy things are not too hard to come by in Riga restaurants, either. 

They have abundance of fresh veggies...

...and at least as abundant selection of pickled veg, very typical for these parts of the world.

The best thing to do here is to take your time, pick up treats from here and there and everywhere (fresh boiled crayfish for instance at 60 cents a piece!) and sit down at one of the beer bars located along the sides of the pavillion for an impromptu picnic. Order a pint of local beer and enjoy. Beer, food and life. 

One vendor you should definitely not forego is a tiny hole-in-the-wall Uzbekistan bakery between the fish and veggie pavillions. The pasties filled with lamb (samsa ar jēra) and pumpkin (samsa ar kirbi) are simply divine. 

During Soviet occupation most of the world was shut off from the Latvia. Caucasus wasn't and Latvians have gladly adopted many of their culinary cultures into their own. Uzbekistan food is especially popular . There's a widely acclaimed Uzbek restaurant in Riga, too, but if you're already at the market, do not forget to leave some time (and room in your stomach!) for the mantis (their take on pelmenis) and sasliks of the small, homely restaurant outside the fish pavillion. 

Here are some things I bet you didn't know about the market:

- the locals know the cheese pavillion as Stalin's pavillion". Why? Because all the cheese vendors were once driven out of there so that there'd be enough room for a sculptor working on a massive Stalin statue
- the total length of the pavillions from one end to another comes to almost half a kilometre. But underneath the pavillions there's a 200 hectar storage area with hundreds of metres of corridors connecting it all.

- All the meat sold here is inspected by the department of in-house vets. 

- From one of the offices of one of the vets there's one cupboard that is actually a door leading to... (no, not Narnia!)...a small chapel! Since vendors are always at work, they too needed a place where to commemorate holidays.

Well? Did you enjoy your tour? Can your feet take any more? It's ok, let's take a break and give you guys a chance to kick back a bit. So, go ahead and have another beer (hey, try the pils!) and meet you back here tomorrow, ok? 

I'm thinking of taking you somewhere special to show you what another crazy winemaker we met is doing with that birch sap...!





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