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As I wrote about a few days ago, Chile is very much an agricultural country. Twenty-five percent of their economy is based in farming, representing about four billion dollars of annual exports. Driving through the Colchauga Valley one sees the multinational influence, with names like Dole, DelMonte and Calavo alongside large local producers and exporters.
The interesting thing is that the Chileans don't actually consume much of that produce. In speaking with researchers here I am told that only 15% of the population consumes five or more fruits and vegetables per day. In truth, that is not a lot better than in the United States, where only about 14% of adults and 10% of adolescents consume more than 2 fruit servings and 3 vegetable servings per day. (1)
The amazing thing is that the produce is widely available at small produce stands, weekend farmers' markets, at the supermarket, and I have even seen vendors in traffic selling strawberries, avocados, and tomatoes.
The best of all, however, is at the Mercado Vega.
We had been taken to the Mercado Central the second day in Chile and didn't have the time to cross the river and walk through the other market. I had been disappointed in the Central Market with its paucity of produce, small size, and the overwhelming amount of underwhelming restaurants.
Wow, were we in the wrong place.
Mercado Vega is huge.(2) This place covers what feels like about 25 square blocks and has pretty much anything you may want - spices, beans, fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, beans, salsas, pasta, rice, quinoa, paper goods and even pet food. I have been in some fine markets, and until now the main market in Barcelona was my favorite, but no longer. This is the sort of place that makes me want to retire to Santiago and find an apartment about five or six blocks away.
Here are some pictures to whet your appetite and afterwards, go have a piece of fruit (or two).
This is one short lane in the market. Multiply what you see in this picture by about 200 and you have the inside of the Mercado. Wrapped around the market are the wholesalers housed in individual warehouses.
The prices are amazing. These beans are 800 pesos a kilo. That works out to about 77 cents a pound. They will even string them for you.
I wish I could purchase blue corn this easily in the U.S.. There were dozens of stalls selling these.
There is every kind of onion. Large spring onions, shallots, yellow and white onions, garlic, leeks. All of them amazingly fresh.
This celery is HUGE. The size of a large baby. Celery leaves are used here like parsley to flavor dishes.
Here's the obligatory picture of a hog's head. Cheap at about $1.90 per pound.
There are stalls that sell nothing but grains with open bags of rice, cornmeal, beans, quinoa and the like. Others will have spices or pickles sold the same way.
You can even buy pet food by the kilo.
And a good thing, too, as there were cats and kittens everywhere.
What I really went to get was merken. This is a local smoked paprika (more on this in columns and recipes to come).
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.