“A riot of colours, the heady perfume of the fruits and vegetables and herbs — and the ice creams from Lolo Mora,” muses Alfredo Echeverria, when asked for his earliest memories of San Jose’s Mercado Central. The celebrated sorbeteria stall of Lolo Mora, with its original signboard depicting the elderly founder in red neckerchief and apron labouring over a wooden pail of helado surrounded by tropical fruit, still occupies its alley in the market, and still uses the original recipes. And its hundreds of neighbours throughout the blocks-wide complex — the butchers, bakers, dairymen, greengrocers, fishmongers selling everything from ready chopped ceviche mix to shark oil — include a dozen businesses of almost the same vintage as the market itself, which dates back to 1880.
Prominent among them are historic sodas, Costa Rica’s popular cheap restaurants with vinyl-covered communal tables and great steaming cauldrons emitting mouth-watering aromas. The 84-year-old Dona Tala’s is famed for its crispy crusted corn tortilla filled with moist Torrealba cheese, while the Tapia Sisters’ speciality is their flaky pastry arreglado, containing succulent beef shin and ground beans.
Alfredo Echeverria’s childhood passion for the market has turned into a profession. After two decades in catering management, he now leads an industry-wide association, the Club of Epicurian Gastronomy. As a sideline he runs food tours of San Jose, visiting the Mercado and equally fascinating highlights of its surroundings: the atmospheric old bar El Gran Vicio, where market traders pop in for a shot of rum or guaro among the dark wood shelves and hundred year old graffiti, or the Crystal Cafeteria, whose fragrant olla de carne — a meat stew packed with vegetables and herbs — he considers the best in town.
“The central market has always been the heart of the city, but 20 years ago it had become insalubrious; there were pickpockets,” says Echeverria. The turn-around came as part of a far-reaching national food plan launched by the government five years ago. At around this time, a new management team took over the Mercado Central with an equally visionary project. “When I went to the market with my proposal for gastronomic tours, they were very rigorous and informed,” says Echeverria. “I was amazed to find they’d been to study the best markets in Madrid and Barcelona.” As a result of this, there’s enthusiastic support for innovation. Fishmongers like El Pesqueria del Rey have started adding eating counters to their stalls and serving new dishes like Creolized pulpo gallego, and coffee dealers such as El Central and El Tostador offer tastings and demonstrations.
Important as it is, the Mercado Central is only one part of San Jose’s market panorama. Many chefs enthuse about the newer farmers’ markets where producers sell directly to the public. Every weekend, beside the big blue Plaza de Toros in the suburb of Zapote, hundreds of traders from around the country converge in a great open-air fair of food, flowers, utensils, and a compendious array of mobile sodas and street food, from sizzling pinchos, meat-packed corn pupusas, bowls of chifrijo and vigoron to ranks of juice-makers squeezing sugar cane, guava, tamarind, mint, and exotic specialities like chan, mozote, guanabana, yerbanuena and remolacha (with or without parsley).
The market scene also extends into the world of San Jose’s fashionable catering. The district of Escalante, a spacious residential area composed of former coffee plantations, has transformed itself over the space of five years, into a foodie hub, with over a hundred smart little bars and restaurants. Among them are mini market complexes like Lolita’s or the Mercado Escalante. The latter is the project of a dynamic chef named Jose Pablo Gonzalez, whose nearby restaurant Al Mercat is renowned for its use of the choicest produce the San Jose markets can provide, cooked in the simplest, purest manner. In Escalante market, brightly painted shipping containers house young entrepreneurs selling modernized gallo snacks, traditional casado meal plates, ceviches and cocktails.
Costa Rica is tiny compared with regional culinary giants like Brazil and Mexico. But this gives it a great advantage, according to Alfredo Echeverria. “We can actually analyse and plan country-wide development in a way that would be impossible in a huge territory.” At the rate the country is going, Costa Rica may well be challenging its superstar neighbours in culinary power before very long.