We woke to a fine morning and after the usual continental breakfast we went out into the town to visit the market that was close by. There was an outside area with rows of colourful pitches with stalls straining under the weight of fruit and vegetables all presented for purchase in an untidy but satisfying way but the best part of the market was the covered building constructed of iron and glass which housed the butchers and the delicatessens and best of all the fishmongers.
Now I always thought that fish was in short or declining supply but you wouldn’t have thought so here. European Union fishing regulations as well as the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean do not seem to have had a serious impact on the availability of marine produce in Pula. The agreed fishing quotas must be very generous indeed because this fish market looked as though someone had sucked up the entire seabed and delivered it right here at this spot.
On closer examination of the produce however it soon becomes clear why we have to put up with stock shortages whilst the Croatians, and most of the rest of Europe as well, have such an abundance of choice, we are just far too fussy and our preference for fish is restricted to two or three species that we have fished into a crisis of extinction whilst the Europeans will eat a much greater variety of sea food. We like to buy our fish in little blue polystyrene trays, trimmed and gutted and without heads or tails and ready for the frying pan but here the slabs were brimming with fish so fresh some of it was still alive and flapping about and winking at us as we inspected it.
Excuse me a recollection here but this illustrates my point perfectly; once on holiday with my mother and presented with a menu that included a cod dish she actually asked the waiter if it was served with its head still attached! These things can be two metres long for goodness sake!
There were crabs still frothing at the mouth and octopus with tentacles still writhing and with an eye open daring anyone to buy it and take it home and tackle preparation for cooking. The colours were eye-catching too, sparkling silver, gleaming green and radiant reds and trays and trays of vivid orange scampi and other intriguing and colourful crustaceans.
One of my personal favourites was some unpleasant looking spiny specimens, which are used as a principal ingredient in a Croatian fish stew called Brodet. They looked rather like the submarines which the Aquaphibians used to use in Stingray and which used to shoot a torpedo from a flapping mouth and bearing that in mind I made a note to avoid it if I came across it on a restaurant menu.
In a separate part of the indoor market the butchers presented their abundant produce in display cabinets and negotiated with customers on cuts and joints for purchase, there were cheese and dairy stalls and fresh pasta and other local delicacies. What I liked was the smell of the whole place. In England supermarkets have no smell at all because everything is over-packaged and presented in plastic trays and vacuum packed containers, which makes shopping a wholly unsatisfactory and sanitised affair.
The aromas reminded me of the smell of shops as they used to be in England, in particular I can remember an old fashioned Sainsbury’s in Catford in London where I would be taken by my grandmother when I was quite young when she carried out the weekly shop. It wasn’t a Sainsbury’s that anyone would recognise now, it was white tiled from floor to ceiling in a Victorian sanatorium sort of way and had counters around the outside with shop assistants who served the customers properly. You made a selection and then this was cut on a slicer and then meticulously weighed before being carefully wrapped and passed with care to the purchaser. Much like this market in Pula there were meat slabs, cheese and dairy sections and a delicatessen, but what I remember most is the competing smells of the goods, you could almost taste the produce and I can still recall the distinctive atmosphere of the shop after forty years or so and a place like this helps to keep the memory alive.
Outside the covered market were the vegetable stalls set out under the shade of Plane trees with rows and rows of choice and I know that I have gone on about this before but the variety of available produce never ceases to amaze me. Adjacent to the market were some metal lock up cages that looked like storage containers but on closer inspection turned out to be homes for vagrants, some of them were quite nice too and seemed to have a full range of living facilities; we saw one man leave his abode and carefully lock and secure it before walking off into the city for a day on the streets.