Sunday, July 21, 2024

An Irishman in Colombia: ‘I miss Dunnes, but shopping here is a welcome step back in time’

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On a whistle-stop trip to Ireland, I recently went to a Dunnes Stores mega market in Galway. I was wowed. Supermarkets in Spain can’t compete; at least, not the ones that I know. Supermarkets in Colombia? No way.

To visit the in-house Sheridan’s cheese market at Dunnes in Knocknacarra was to prompt my taste buds in ways hitherto unrecognised. The fish counter on the west side of Galway with its choices in fresh cuts of salmon made me wish to have something similar where I live in Colombia.

Along one aisle, I noticed the lentil and hummus bites. This was not the Galway of my childhood.

And yet.

And yet, I don’t live in Galway. I live an ocean, and a 10-hour flight away, in Colombia.

What Colombia lacks in supermarket sophistication, it makes up for in other ways.

Much of the country is tropical year-round. Drive two hours or so out of the capital, and you will find yourself in tierra caliente – literally a “hot land”. Bogotá, on the other hand, is high above sea level in the Andes; its climate is mild from June through to the following June. What this means is that you can live in Bogotá’s perfect spring year-round, and yet enjoy tropical produce day-in, day-out.

‘Pause for a moment in front of the hanging bay leaves, generous aloe vera branches and orange caléndula blossoms

Colombian oranges are more often green than orange, far from uniform in shape and without pretension.

Guess what? They still produce heavenly fresh orange wherever you are in the country. In fact, Colombians are spoiled by an overabundance of fresh juice choices not only in the morning, but throughout the day – uchuva, maracuyá, lulo, feijoa, mango and guanábana, to name but a few. In the Olympics of Juice, Colombia easily walks away with the gold.

Every town, village or municipality in Colombia has a plaza de mercado; these are the fresh food markets that cities throughout the world are now trying to replicate to reconnect with their food origins, often on Saturday mornings.

Here in Colombia, these markets are a fundamental fact of life for communities across the country every day of the week. If you want to buy maracuyá, lulo, feijoa, mango or guanábana, this is where you go. Bogotá has close to 20 plazas de mercado spread here and there in its vast sprawl.

The most popular by far is the downtown plaza de mercado at Paloquemao, open from 4.30am daily. Forget juice for a moment. Here you will be gobsmacked by the incredible flower power of Colombia, the second largest flower producer in the world. Perhaps for the only time in your life, you can pick up three or four dozen fresh roses for under €7 – total.

I’m glad I never got the things my younger self thought I wantedOpens in new window ]

Buy a bunch of Heliconia Pendula for your Airbnb or hotel room as if it was the most common thing in the world. It is far from it. But enjoy! You are in Colombia.

In Paloquemao, you will be thrown back to Les Halles in Paris, and Covent Garden in London many decades ago. Here, you will find more than one herbal stand, chock full of natural remedies for any ache or pain that you might be feeling, be that pain emotional, physical or mental. Pause for a moment in front of the hanging bay leaves, generous aloe vera branches, orange caléndula blossoms and a thousand other plants and leaves that you have never seen before.

Just imagine yourself in a place where any solution to any dilemma in life were within your reach. This is where you have arrived. This could be nirvana. For a moment, this is where all your questions of existence might suddenly be resolved.

Pay attention now. The stand attendant is busy with other customers. You have come to one of the most popular displays in the marketplace.

How to phrase your ultimate life question?

Even before you have time to verbalise your thought, the attendant points nonchalantly to a bunch of white flowerlets. He has read your mind. Give me enough for a year, you say. I mean, for example, of course. The attendant gives you your remedy for pennies in the world economy, and you walk on.

In Bogotá, huge bunches of fresh spinach, espinacas bogotanas, are sold for the equivalent of a pittance

At one of the handmade kitchen tool stands, among the handcrafted wooden and aluminium implements, you spot simple streamlined glass containers perfect for the excess of flowers that you have allowed yourself to purchase just this once in your life. You buy them.

That is Paloquemao.

In addition to plazas de mercado, there are fresh fruit and vegetable stores throughout Colombia, often strung along with names based on fruit or vegetables – fruver, fruitiver, fruitimercado, fruiti express, fruitería, surtifruver.

Stop in them and look around. Random piles of mandarin oranges are par for the course, as are pyramids of full and halved papayas. You will see that, in Colombia, red peppers, not green, are the most common variety. In Bogotá, huge bunches of fresh spinach, espinacas bogotanas, are sold for the equivalent of a pittance, and without the sand that makes preparing spinach in the US and elsewhere such a pain.

Here you will see tables of dirty potatoes; yes, that’s what they’re called, papas sucias. You want to wash the potatoes at home, that will cost you a lot less than the washed potatoes in the next bin.

‘I was a lone traveller, with a one-way ticket, going to a foreign place where I knew no one’Opens in new window ]

The same applies to peas; you want to shuck in your own kitchen? Lucky you. The price for peas in the pod is much less than for a plastic bag of shucked peas. Onions, in general, are sold with their outer skins already removed, ready to chop.

In addition to all of the above, most corner stores in all cities, small towns and villages here sell a small selection of fruit and veg. You can find the ingredients for a vegetable stew wherever you are, tomatoes, a carrot, a potato. Most importantly of all, in all corner stores in all barrios, you will find coriander and parsley. You can buy just a few stalks, whatever you need, no waste later.

Oh, and in each and every one of these stores, you will find small bouquets of laurel and thyme, a variation on the French bouquet garni. Now you’re talking.

When shopping for food, we once had a closer connection to community

Now you have found the secret ingredient of Colombian cooking. And here it was hiding in plain sight all along.

Add this bouquet to some coriander and parsley, and all at once your kitchen will begin to smell, and your food will begin to taste as if you were born in Colombia.

Dunnes mega store in Knocknacarra is special. I wish I could clone one and take it with me to wherever I go. However, Colombia’s way of bringing food to the table is to step back in time.

This is how many of us once shopped for fruit and vegetables in Ireland, of that I’m sure; locally, and face to face with and within arm’s reach of the providers who made a small profit from our purchase.

When shopping for food, we once had a closer connection to community. Luckily for me, In Colombia, I still do.

And that’s why I stay.

  • Christopher Burke is from Galway city. He left Ireland in 1971 and lives in Bogotá, Colombia.
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