HARVEST MOON. The rise, fall, and rise of Rīga's food markets.

A Latvian still believes the real deal only grows locally. At parents' or grandparent's garden when sent over the weekend, like it was done during the study years. Latvians also gather everything that's edible at forests, just give them a chance. Many chose to grow things their own way at allotment gardens around Riga or elsewhere. That's why, with few exceptions, most of us (especially in the capital) value markets the most, and their popularity is facing another renaissance. Here is an introduction to three, once lost, but now resurrected trading spots in Riga with their own special character.

Capital R, Capital Riga, Markets in Riga, food market riga, 2009

RĪGAS CENTRĀLTIRGUS
Being one of the largest covered food markets in Europe  still, these 5 legendary pavilions of Riga Central Market wouldn't top as a must-see destination a dozen years ago. Built from a scratch and finished up in 1930 (with Zeppelin hangar roofs relocated from Vaiņode almost 200 km afar), Riga Central Market became the largest and most modern in Europe before WWII. Sadly, it only degraded during the Soviet reign and being recommended for three things after Latvia regaining independence since the 90's - trouble with pick-pockets, cheating, and for cheap, yet shady food. Despite being a heavyweight of history, urban culture and locality, every tour guide would exclude the pavilions from their routes for three reasons even 10 years ago - 1) that reality "seemed" too ugly or inconvenient to be uncovered before tourists' eyes, 2) almost every guide in Riga operated within Old Town mainly because they thought there is nothing else worth seeing outside or because of the lack of knowledge of anything out of Old Riga, and 3) most tour guides and the tourism board thought this is what tourists only look for - the fake medieval Old Town and one street with a handful of Art Nouveau buildings by one guy. A finger tip in a city that's territorially 3 times larger than Paris.


Only around 12 years ago the first generation of alternative tour guides finally decided to really take people out of Old Town on daily basis and show the true, honest, unmerciful and, yet, appealing nature of suburbs. It also very much included the Central Market. Since then, it has become one of the most visited places in Riga for both tourists and locals, getting especially busy before or during national holidays. Open every day from 7:00 up to 18:00, these five pavilions (starting with meat, then milk, bread and gastronomy, fruit and veg, and then fish) are visited by 40 up to 160 000 people per day! The market is safe, relatively tidy, and tasty for a long time now, and surely is a highlight for architecture, suburb, and authenticity lovers (and those looking for some cheap, stuff imported from countries east of Latvia). And then there are two special parts that either emphasize the locality and the spirit of the market, or kill the genius loci immediately. It's the Night Market and the Gastro tirgus food court. Guess - which is which.

Nakts tirgus
Open all night long for most of the time, the Night (Farmers') market section of the Riga Central Market is one of the pinnacles one can experience in Riga. Once located at the Spīķeri quarters as a quite trashy ensemble of stalls, selling vodka for 50 ¢, it didn't survive another unsuccessful gentrification and was fully moved to Gaiziņa street. To be honest, it was the best thing that could've happened. Now, available for your daily purchases after the pavilions close (17:00 - 22:00) and for wholesale until 7:30, this isle of randomly, but neatly parked vans, stands and individual sellers is providing high quality goods directly from farmers' hands. Apart from imported, but good quality watermelons or cherries displayed there, you can meet and greet with farm owners, their family members or individually hired sellers, selling anything Latvian horticulture represents - from berries to veggies, from fruits to roots, from orchards to forests.

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The vibe here is terrific and extremely Latvian. No one talks extra (at least  in the beginning), the whole market space is mercurial, yet touchy, everybody minds their own business and one can never hear any cheap background music or any unnecessary noise at all. The whole market space, rain or snow, warm or cold, is a gourmet's meditation of some sort filled with natural tones and constant, yet pragmatic chattering. If you ever have an urge to see what genuine locals finally look like by face, the night/farmers' market can bring you the best of this ever displayed (apart from Old Riga, where everybody is a tourist, or the centre with too many Erasmus students sometimes).

Gastro tirgus
Launched this February as a long-awaited answer to many wonderful food courts across the globe, bringing markets together with local food-makers and offering meals made on the spot, the Gastro tirgus of Riga Central Market was planned to be a real success. Also because such service was essentially lacking in Riga. Despite several interesting and locally-owned eateries already scattered across the market, the space really didn't have any focused strategy on how to bring visitors (especially tourists) together with food makers at the market. With "Siļķītes un Dillītes (fish and sea food), the former "+371" (serving continental menu from ingredients bought directly from the market), or "Labietis" craft beer stand, Riga was more than late in the club. Gastro tirgus was the only answer on how to reintroduce this food court culture back in Riga Central Market - the place once being the most modern in Europe and gathering really picky clients with spoiled taste buds in the 1930's.


But so many things went wrong. At first, the Gastro tirgus opening was a failure, gathering some wannabe influencers for mostly Russian-speaking audiences, while the locals had to wait behind a rope. The whole opening was also accompanied by terrible dance pop in Russian, played so loud thus degrading the work of regular stalls. At second, turned out most of vendors were and still are owned by a single restaurant chain, basically creating fake competition with average names and distorting the picture of what local chefs can offer. At third, the prices seemed overboosted for the quality the food court provided, many vendors seemed fancy rather than democratic by their philosophy, as well as the offer was hardly local.
The only stall, offering Latvian influenced or inspired cuisine, was left in the farmost corner, while most meals were from all across Asia with Tuna fish shows and barely any real vegan-friendly offers. Who you call contemporary here?
At forth, despite the European parliament voting to ban single-use plastic cutlery by 2021 in all EU member states, the Gastro tirgus, a frequent user of single-use cutlery and dishes, didn't even bother answering critics and change anything in their habits. Their main argument was - it's because many are not ready to spend more money on biodegradables (despite "many" meaning a single owner basically). While Gastro tirgus does not really bother, Tallinn are already implementing this regulation as we speak. Finally, at fifth, many people still criticize the quality of the interiour, debatable wall murals, distribution of space and quality of materials used when renovating the whole pavilion and the food court.To be honest, one can hardly hear their friends even talking about Gastro Tirgus any more.

Therefore, choose for yourself weather to visit this everyday from 12:00 - 21:00 (23:00 on Sat) and for what reason. If you are looking for local foods using local ingredients, there are so many options to choose from across the city, and you don't even need to go to Gastro tirgus. We can give you a much better ramen, much better bakery, much better sea food as well as much better Latvian cuisine. Most will agree the concept behind this is precious and great, but many will also agree this is not the way to develop, when the only thing one does is to gentrificate.

 
KALNCIEMA IELAS KVARTĀLS
Along the hype of hipster culture, handicrafts and organic foods revival, Kalnciema Quarter rose from a real estate business. Launched in 2008 by the Dambergs brothers working as architects, real estate managers and renovators, the whole courtyard of several late-XIII and XIX century wooden villas was turned into stylish, fancy, organic, crafty and local market - culture space, still working every Saturday from 10:00 - 16:00. Many people criticized it in the beginning though. Not because of the management, but because of the prices of crafts and foods being rather high, when Latvia was hit by the crisis. The hype seemed too inflated, and the self-confidence of sellers and vendors - overrated. But now, looking back at their 11 years of work, only few will disagree the Kalnciema Quarter were the pioneers of court markets selling excellent quality production and items directly from local producers, farmers, makers, brewers, growers, pickers, and mixing it with a vibrant atmosphere, bringing contemporary music in for contemporary people.

Kalciems market, Kalnciems street market, Kalnciema street market, markets in Riga, hipster market, Riga Street food, 2019, Capital R, Capital Riga
Kalnciema Quarter during their Street food evening (2019, ©Edgars Blumbergs).

The place manages to attract more inhabitants, investors and visitors than any other suburban space, thus developing, renovating and popularizing the area even further. Apart from every Saturday, the market also works every Thursday evening from May to September, usually bringing selected local bands on their mini stage to perform free concerts, or is open on Sundays, too, during some seasonal activities, say, on December. The courtyard is a place for compact art exhibitions and thematic events as well - once the popular Riga Tweed Run ended up their retro bike parade here, Riga Street food events are held at the location regularly too. Opposite the quarter there was a pop up exhibition hall opened for two summers, showcasing collaborations between new age and renowned artists.

Maybe the hype of the market is gone today. Maybe the offer is characterized as "global" now, and there are more and more other places to hang out in Riga for local foods and crafts. Still the Kalnciema Quarter has made its history in the best way possible that few other courtyard markets before them never achieved.



ĀGENSKALNA TIRGUS
Being a large market space for several decades, set up on a vital crossroad and made of little sheds, vendors and stalls, the new Āgenskalns market gained it's current looks right after WWI. The significant red-bricked pavilion was finished after being suspended before the war, and opened the doors in its entirety in 1925. The market soon removed itself completely from its former location down the Nometņu street, and the red pavilion designed by the legendary Reinhold Schmaeling (then the city's head architect), became one of the most significant landmarks in Āgenskalns suburb.

Āgenskalns market, Āgenskalns suburb, hipster market, suburb market, markets in Riga, Didzis Grodzs, Capital R, Capital Riga, 2019
Āgenskalns market as in 2016 (Photo: ©Didzis Grodzs).
The fame and status, though, was not well maintained. The city council and the managers of the market house brought it to an emergency condition. The pavilion was not renovated for ages, the complex, along its production, was utterly unappealing to the new generation of inhabitants of the neighbourhood. The management were running shady agreements with sellers, many of them also going down illegal paths and holding no contracts. If there was any wall or door to be fixed, it was done poorly and without a certain plan or strategy. In the end of 2017, the city announced that Āgenskalns market is finally heading toward reconstruction and will be shut down, starting from 2018. Many sellers, customers and locals were not happy with this decision. Firstly, because the sellers would lose their job, and the management was not able to promise to give a stand-in place for them. Secondly, many were also fearing the market would open its doors as something else and unsanctioned after the job is done.

Āgenskalns market, Āgenskalns suburb, hipster market, suburb market, markets in Riga, Didzis Grodzs, Capital R, Capital Riga, 2019
The interiour of Āgenskalns market (2016, © Ieva Laube).
The crisis ended up with activists gathering signatures to boycott the closing that lead the city council cutting ties with the market's former landlord (the same that did Gastro Tirgus) and announcing a public tender in search for a new management. In May, 2018, it was finally known that the only to participate and the only to win were - the same guys, who run Kalnciema Quarter. A few were suspicious of the market becoming another hipsters den with inflated prices and eco-insane production, while most were lauding their courage to lift the market from the ashes for the next 30 years.

Āgenskalns market (2019, © Kaspars Grosbergs).

In this one-and-a-half-years time, the space, although with the hall still in conservation process, regained life, cheerfulness as well as new, simple, yet contemporary looking toilets and sinks. The compact outdoor food market is alive and kicking every day but Monday, and its backyard is open from 08:00 - 17:00 along with weekend events (until 19:00) that provide visitors with many street food vendors, concerts and thematic events, related to street culture. For now, everybody is waiting for the red-brick pavilion to be open again, so the market can flourish fully and prove Riga owns market halls as similar as those been found everywhere in Europe from Turku to Lisabon.


THE "LOST" MARKETS
Sadly, there are plenty of spaces we would like to talk about, yet they are partially or fully gone. Either purged into oblivion, or degraded to a degree not being worth mentioning. One of the most legendary flee markets called "Latgalīte" was the best location to find trash and treasure back in the day. Despite being limited and almost shut down by the police uncountable times, some five+ years ago "Latgalīte" would still be a place one can find anything from antique books to Nazi souvenirs, from radio parts to shellac records, from stolen bikes to retro video game consoles. Now most of guys have moved out to a specially designated zone behind Riga Central Market, and the original location of "Latgalīte" keeps on running on sentimental and nostalgic ties only.

Another market called "Vidzemes/Matīsa tirgus" is still hanging by its last thread. Again, some ten years ago, being a real suburban experience in the heart of the city centre, Vidzemes market also represented some gone, yet still present era with stunning architecture by the same Reinhold Schmaeling, who built the red market in Āgenskalns. Open in 1902 as the first covered market in Riga, Vidzemes tirgus, for yet unknown reasons, is almost gone now, and, despite the building being used for art exhibitions, performances and a few site-specific theatre plays, the market is drawing its last breath. Finally, Čiekurkalns tirgus faces the same destiny. As a market, operating since the fifties, and once serving as a good quality shopping space, it has also turned into a ghost market that sells both trash and treasure, and looks like it. What's best (or worst), it serves as a living time machine, bringing people 20 or even 30 years back in time.

Apart from the former three, these latter trinity are now gone, and are only appealing to visitors, looking for Post-Soviet nostalgia, sentiment or thrill. Yet the market culture lives, performing its best in years, and the locals are not the only ones looking forward to visiting them. It's just a matter of a couple years before Riga regains, we repeat, regains its status as a contemporary market and food court capital, fighting such cities like Berlin, Barcelona, Budapest, Turku, Copenhagen or Lisabon. Then you will trully see why the love for everything grown or made locally by locals is what defines Riga and Latvians the best.

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