Traveling in La Vega

by Liz Caskey on October 27, 2010

When my editor from Placeres magazine proposed the theme “Grand Destinations” for the travel issue, he wanted to know where I would go to eat and buy food. I immediately began to take a mental inventory of my last culinary-focused shopping sprees outside Chile. I am sure all you foodies and expats can relate. You know, the usual suspects: hard-to-find ethnic ingredients like cherished Indian and Turkish spices, or things that appear sporadically and crazy overpriced in Chile like some health food items. Life without amchur (dried mango powder) and sumac (Middle Eastern spice) are pretty unfathomable. I also stock up on coconut oil, hemp protein, and things that drive me wild like Kombucha. In fact, on my last trip to Mendoza, I did not bring home a single wine. Nope, this time just six different brands of the native Arauco olive oil, and of course, dulce de leche. So after thinking about how I obsessively bring back food from my travels, it seemed err, boring, for this magazine column.

Writer’s block ensued and I decided to forget about it and headed out on my normal Sunday escapades. What else? The market. Suddenly, yesterday, in the midst of my weekly shopping trip to La Vega market, between procuring recently peeled artichoke hearts and the first red tomatoes from Limache, I had an ephiphany. My “grand” destination for food wasn’t abroad. Hello! It is here. In Chile. In Santiago. Heck, it’s actually right down the street from my house. It’s La Vega. Of course.

Doesn’t it tend to be like that? The things we most take for granted are the ones we rarely stop to see–and appreciate. In all my years in Chile (gulp, almost a decade now folks), La Vega has never lost its novelty as a market. It is constant motion. Forever changing. There’s no other place in the world like it. No. Other. Place. It’s got its own personality, pizazz, feeling. Going to shop there is not just about procuring fresh produce. No, no, no. It’s about enjoying the journey, the pleasure of shopping and interacting with human beings. I think it is the reason us patrons go back again and again.

Every Sunday, I walk from our place on Parque Forestal, recyclable shopping bags in hand, towards La Vega. More than a duty to eat healthy, I feel its an indulgence. A total pleasure. A pleasure to nurture my own body and spirit, and that of my husband, with vibrant, vital produce at good prices that also supports small growers and green grocers. For me, it’s the sensation of filling our home with Chile’s abundance directly from its countryside from north to south. It’s a privilege to be able to eat with the seasons and enjoy fruits in their peak sweetness, bursting with flavor, as they should be. For somebody who conceives the world through ingredients, it’s truly a sacred moment to find inspiration, enthusiasm, and let my senses run loose. I go c-r-a-z-y with the colors, smells, textures, and ideas to cook and express (culinary) self during the coming week. And of course, to connect with the people there, my caseros. In actuality, stocking my house with produce this way feels more like going to visit old friends since each stand brings new conversation and laughter.

As I arrive to La Vega, the bells of the Franciscan church on Recoleta Avenue announce the beginning of mass. Within the depths of La Vega, ironically, it sounds more like a Saturday night party. Groovy cumbia is blaring from speakers. There’s a ranchera karaoke singer belting out ballads. There are Chilean flags flying tied in neat rows along the iron beams of the roof. Festive, in a word. I have my specific fly by order to not miss my favorite caseros, vendors, and hopefully score some less frequent, “exotic” veggies (at least in Chile) like baby spinach, fresh lemongrass, snow peas, and okra in the summer time.

I head down the fruit aisle which is impregnated with the smell of strawberries coming from the coastal village of San Pedro. Perfect for my morning protein shake. My lettuce casera is hawking crisp red leaf organic lettuces, purple mint, and French tarragon. It looks almost too beautiful to mince. I stick a bunch in my face and take a deep breath. I do a 180 and gasp: new, white asparagus. My favorite steamed, tender and sweet. I stop to see Gabriel, my avocado guy. Today he has avocados the size of softballs and the shiny black variety, La Cruz, that are perfectly ripe. As I pick through the pile, he tells me how La Cruz is the most Chilean variety of them all and I must honor them on a toasted marraqueta or in a avocado-celery salad.

Next to him, I buy a dozen blue eggs from the native Araucano chickens, fed only with lettuce and corn. The yokes are screaming orange and perfect for my broccoli, Spanish-style tortilla. The adventure continues to see my Middle Eastern produce hook-up, Antonio, where my cucumber obsession resurfaces. I buy three types of mini cucumbers (Persian, Alaska, and pickle-sized) and hello! baby ciopplini onions. I am so pysched. Thankfully, I am almost out of cash and cannot carry anymore. And that’s how I always arrive home. In a state of euphoria, satisfaction, and complete creativity. And that was just to go “buy” food.

As you can deduce, going to shop at La Vega is not exactly about doing a hit and run, my usual attitude in most (Chilean) supermarkets. It is all about the journey of going to La Vega and what that means. It is about taking the time to eat fresh, healthy food. Enjoying the ride. Taking in the market’s chaotic environment for what it is. And of course, what I most love about La Vega is its people. Mis caseros. Seriously, I consider these people my friends. They share with me the origin of the products as many have their own gardens and orchards outside Santiago. I want to know how they prepare the food they sell every day of every year. They share their cooking tips and simple recipes with me, maybe from their wife or grandmother.

As I go along, I fill my bags with pure, natural food. The only thing between me and the earth where these vegetables and fruits are born are these beautiful people. They are my life line. My connection. La Vega brings them together and lets them express their own true nature. And expression in the form of a unique market, city, countryside, people, and nation. Chile. Truly, it is a grand destination for me that fills my soul, and refrigerator, each week with inspiration.

Liz in Wonderland? Absolutely. And lucky me, I didn’t have to board a plane nor fall down the rabbit hole.

Thanks to my Dad, Tom Caskey, for these great pics on his last visit to Chile.

I personally host our private, signature Culinary Santiago tour for special guests wanting to experience, taste, and explore La Vega and several other of Santiago’s colloquial fresh markets and food shops with me. Afterwards, we prepare and share a feast of the glorious local products in our private residence and professional kitchen overlooking Parque Forestal. For more information, email us at info@lizcaskey.com.