Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The shopping may have ended, but something lingers on...

What is it about the fresh produce markets of Israel that makes me go back there week after week, come rain or shine? Am I attached to the market by elastic, unable to completely cut myself off? Is it the freshness of the produce - chickens that were still having breakfast not half an hour before I arrived? Could it be the camaraderie, the same cheerful faces that greet me each week? Or is it the stallholders’ friendly banter, and their inexhaustible knowledge, evident as they freely dish out their well-tried recipes for ragu alla napoletana, or olive tapenade?
Well, I may be exaggerating, but you just can’t beat those markets: from the veteran Shuk Hacarmel, and Jerusalem’s ever popular Machane Yehuda, to the more ethnic Shuk Hatikva. Now Tel Aviv has a newcomer, Shuk Hanamal. It's indoors, clean and modern, European and nouveau-riche. Some could accuse it of being too faltzani (פלצני - pompous), a local take on the Boqueria in Barcelona.
But these markets are indeed wonderful. On busy days, they’re heaving, noisy, and fun--far more so than your antiseptic supermarkets--and, thanks to heavy tax and import restrictions, they mostly sell Israeli-grown fruit and veg, hence the seasonality. None of these all-year-round pineapples and artichokes that you find incongruously on sale in Sainsbury’s, mid-winter, on the edge of the Pennines. In Israeli markets, summer means a plethora of peaches, plums, mangoes and apricots, while winter abounds with grapefruits, oranges, tangerines and strawberries. You're as likely to come across a watermelon in winter in the market as you are to find someone saying "Oh, I'm ever so sorry for bumping into you".
(By the way strawberries are winter fruits in Israel; they’re summer fruits in England, don’t you know).
Shuk Hacarmel, the largest, has been going strong since the 1920s. Shuk Hatikva, recently and sensitively renovated, is more spacious, and more comfortable to stroll through, though I find it has a more limited variety of products. The new market in Namal Tel Aviv is another kettle of fish entirely. Or another tureen of boillabaisse, as they would probably say there. It’s a culinary journey through the hills of Tuscany, the vineyards of the Golan, and the smoking kilns of Scandinavia, bypassing most of the Gush Dan region, if at all possible. It smacks of European chic, and in a nutshell, is delightful. On Fridays it expands, and outside includes a Farmer’s Market too, offering a smorgasbord of organic produce at prices that would make you weep before you’ve even started peeling your onions.

So where’s the rub? I hear you ask, in Hamlet’s words. How can it be that I’ve got nothing but compliments to dish out in this post? Have I changed my medication? Am I in love? Have I been accepting unmarked brown envelopes from the city council? (Halevai! They know where I live, but I’m still waiting...)
The rub is plastic bags.
Yes, we in Israel are deluged by plastic bags. In a bustling outdoor market one sees literally thousands of plastic bags being bandied about, when the rest of the enlightened world has moved on, having become more attuned to their inherent dangers. Research undertaken at the Technion concluded that Israelis use 5 billion plastic bags a year. Five billion! I’m gobsmacked! (There, that should confuse the Americans among you. Go figure!). These bags are environmentally unfriendly, taking over 400 years to biodegrade, and they can endanger wildlife, particularly sea animals if dumped into the oceans. In some parts of the world, consumers are now more aware of such negative environmental impact, and have switched to biodegradable. Legislation and consumer action have had drastic effects, whilst here in backwater Israel, even in the ever-so-chic and high-tech city of Tel Aviv, one is still dependent on the omnipresent plastic. Surely one day these markets will wake up, and with an eye to the enlightened consumer, they’ll wrap up your purchases in yesterday’s newspapers.
I’m sure my local grocer considers me a recently arrived alien from Mars, as I invariably insist on not requiring a plastic bag with every purchase. I can quite easily carry the cornflakes and the milk home in my arms, thank you. He always smiles at me, amused. These English, he’s clearly thinking, they have the oddest behaviour, I wouldn’t be surprised if they add milk to their tea.


  1. A few years back, I do not want to show my age.... There were very few plastic bags in Israel. When you did your shopping, you brought your mesh bags along.

  2. I too try to avoid the rash of plastic bags, but I use them for garbage bags. I have a wire rack that hangs on the outside of a cabinet and I hang a plastic grocery bag from it. The problem is that at least half of the bags have holes in them so I throw them away completely. What do you use for garbage bags? Sarah

  3. Sarah, I also use the plastic bags for my garbage (we call it rubbish in UK:). Of course they have holes in, these bags were designed to last no more than 12 minutes. Gary