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The Agro: Tesco can wait

The Agro: Tesco can wait

Going to the farmers’ market (“Mercado Agropecuario” or just plain “Agro”) may represent a headache to many Cubans when doing their weekly shopping. A visit to the Agro may easily empty many pockets showing no mercy and not few run off in fright.

Be that as it may, going to the Agro is a treat in itself. What better sight than stands filled with tubers, vegetables and fruits? Potatoes, yucca, taro, sweet potatoes and plantains compete with tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, watercress, Swiss chard, onions, peppers, cucumbers, green beans, beets and eggplants. And the fruits—guavas, pineapples, papayas, grapefruits, bananas, oranges, mangoes, watermelon and lemons—reign supreme.

Meats are also sold at these markets, mostly fresh pork, mutton and ham, because the vast majority of Cubans cannot conceive a meal without a nice juicy pork chop or some kind of animal protein. Having said that, while finding a true-blue Cuban veggie may be as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack, it’s also hard to find a Cuban table without an assortment of vegetables in the form of salads.

Farmers’ markets are scattered throughout the island and there’s a wide variety, including state-run and private, large, medium and small. As you would expect, the state-run Agros are cheaper, but private markets carry the best quality produce. The market on 19th St, between A and B in El Vedado, for instance, offers products that no other Agro has, like cauliflower and broccoli. This market is always packed with customers no matter what day it is…and despite the prices, which may give you quite a jolt.

The stallholders are picturesque characters who hawk their merchandise in very loud voices in a state of frenzied rivalry with their neighbor, although, to be honest, blood has never been spilled. These individuals, who are mostly men—women sellers are very few—are very spontaneous and easygoing. They chat with everyone, discuss last night’s baseball game with the men and may even make a flirtatious comment to a pretty girl who’s checking out every stall to see who has the best products.

At times, an Agro can look and feel like a scene from a farcical comic play with its many characters and convoluted plot and colorful background. The vendors pushing to sell their merchandise with loud cries, the customers approaching the stands, somewhat intimidated by the clamor, the old-fashioned scales trying to find the correct weight, the exchange of money in moneda nacional or convertible pesos… It’s a show worth seeing. May 2012

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