When I shop at the farmers’ market in Freiburg, I feel like I’ve hit the heart of Freiburg and that I’m really a part of the city, that I belong here somehow. The quaint farmers’ market seems so cliché and so genuine at the same time. It’s not a show put on for the tourists, it’s not put on only for special occasions. It’s there every morning from Monday through Saturday, and it’s got real local farmers selling their wares and real Freiburgers buying them, and it’s all exactly as you would expect a market in a town in the Black Forest to be: abundant, bustling, colorful, wonderful.
The market is set up around the cathedral - the Münster - in the middle of town. In the Middle Ages, the market stalls were set up along the main street in town (Kaiser-Joseph-Straße), and the arcades that still run all along the street today are testimony to this. But it was at the cathedral that the standards for the medieval market were set. There are circles and ovals etched into the sandstone of the cathedral, and each circle and oval has a date carved along with it. These were templates of a sort. The circles represented the size of the buns that were to be sold at the market in a given year, the ovals represented the bread. You can determine what years had a good harvest and what years had a bad harvest by looking at the size of the circles and ovals. If the harvest was bad in a certain year, the circle representing the average acceptable bun was a bit smaller; if the harvest was good, the average bun was bigger.
There are other standard units of measurement carved into the Münster as well. But it is buns and loaves on the cathedral that fascinate me most, because there is such a continuity between them and the present-day market that is held around the cathedral. The border between the past and the present seems to thin around the cathedral on a market day. When I shop at the market, I feel as though I’m part of a tradition that is kept alive in a most wonderful way.
There are two different parts to the market. On the north side of the cathedral are all the stands from the local farmers. Only farmers from the region are allowed to set up there stalls here. On the south side of the cathedral are all the stalls with food that has been “imported", usually from France. It is on the south side that you can find things that either don’t grow in the region, like citrus fruits, or fruits and vegetables that aren’t necessarily in season in southern Germany. There are a few stalls here with wooden toys, with pottery, or with brooms and brushes. There are also a few stalls with big tubs of marinated olives, artichokes, peperonis, feta cheese, and garlic, with bottles of olive oil and bowls of pesto and big jars of pickles. Even if I don’t buy anything from these stalls, I love to just walk by them and catch a whiff of the scent of the garlic and basil and oregano that wafts from the marinating delicacies.
It’s heavenly, but it’s not where I really shop. When I really shop at the market, I shop on the north side. The spaces right against the north side of the cathedral are taken up by stands selling sausages in buns, and the smell is enough to drive you mad. No matter what time I walk by and no matter how hungry I am to begin with, the minute I smell those sausages my mouth waters as if I hadn’t eaten for a week. Even at 10 in the morning, when most people are thinking of having some cereal or maybe a piece of toast, the sausage stands do a landslide business. I guess there’s just something fitting about walking around the bustling market with a basket of vegetables in one hand and a mustard-covered sausage balanced precariously in the other.
The rest of the north side of the cathedral square is a maze of fruit, vegetable, meat, bread, egg, cheese, and flower stands. The people working at the stands don’t actually hawk their wares. They simply stand behind their mountains of carrots and peppers or apples and berries and wait for customers to be drawn to the dazzling array of colors like bees to a flower. And those colors are certainly irresistable.
In the warm weather there are brilliant red peppers and huge green zucchini, small golden potatoes, lush heads of lettuce and bunches of herbs, little cartons of shining wine-red cherries and fat indigo blueberries, velvety peaches, violet plums, creamy white cheeses and crusty brown breads. When the cold weather sets in, there are heaps of deep green spinach or orange turnips, baskets of firm yellow apples and onions of all sizes, there are spicy sausages, smoky hams, and rainbow assortments of squashes in a hundred different shapes.
When I go through the market in the summer, I imagine myself making a tangy ratatouille with all the fresh vegetables that are on offer; in the winter, I like to gather up turnips and potatoes and hurry home to make a rich, comforting stew. No matter what the season, everything is absolutely fresh and at the peak of its ripeness, and most of it has been organically grown. The lettuce never seems wilted there, the fruit never seems bruised, the eggs always seem to come from happy chickens , the juices and jams are always homemade.
The people are as integral a part of the market as the fruits and vegetables are. The produce is sold by hardy old women with scarves on their heads, grizzled men with big callused hands, fresh-faced teenagers helping out their parents or grandparents. Transactions are swift and business-like, but never unfriendly. Pleasantries are exchanged in thick dialect, and it’s obvious that most stands have regular customers who, over the years, have gotten to know the farmers from whom they buy their food. I like it that way; even I am a regular customer at some stands, and I can exchange pleasantries with the boisterous egg lady or wish the friendly butcher lady a very nice weekend - albeit not in any sort of southern German dialect.
The market is a paradise for food lovers such as myself. It’s a culinary treasure in perhaps the most beautiful part of Freiburg. Basically, it makes me feel good to shop there. It makes me feel good just to be there, and I hope that 10, 50, or 100 years from now, there will still be colorful fruit and vegetable stalls on the cathedral square, and that there will still be Freiburgers strolling through the enticing market, buying vegetables, chatting with the farmers, and keeping a lovely tradition alive.