or Italians, shopping at a farmer’s market is routine. Though supermarkets have grown in quantity and size in recent decades, most Italian cities still boast dozens of open-air markets where part of the joy is foraging stall to stall. That kind of “insider” shopping remains a key part of the Italian cultural experience.
In my first visits to the local market, I remember holding my mother’s hand and later pulling the carrellino (wheelie cart). The early trips taught me that menu depended on season and the freshness of available goods, not a shopping list. Watching my mother negotiate, I also learned that chitchat and polite conversation were part of a ritual bargaining process based on built-up generosity. When mom shopped, “il Moretto,” our greengrocer, invariably threw in a complimentary onion, carrot and celery rib for mirepoix. Nearly half-a-century later, Il Moretto’s daughter Giuliana still does the same for my little boy and I. It’s a given.
On average, I usually shop at my local farmer’s market three times a week. I’ve also been to almost every mercato rionale (Rome’s neighborhoods are known as rioni) and often take gourmand visitors on market tours in which I explain seasonal variations and encourage them to taste local goods. Over time, I’ve become something of a market connoisseur.
Market shopping has little in common with impersonal supermarket hustle. It’s a world unto itself with subtle protocols. For those interested in market shopping, here’s a brief collection of insider tips.
Head for the fishmonger first Seafood is freshest in the early morning, before the intrusions of heat, sunlight and hovering customers. By late morning the filmy gel that protects fresh catch can be lost through handling and contact with insects. Fish eyes — another telltale sign of freshness — cloud over. Octopus and other cephalopods should be shiny and colorful. Stay away from any tentacled creature that looks dull-colored or opaque.
Aside from fish, you have time to browse. You can find some great bargains when the market is about to close and vendors have to move un-purchased goods.
Give produce the once-over Don’t buy the first tapered head of radicchio you see. Impulse buying is antithetical to the marketplace experience. Walk through the entire market and check out what other stalls have to offer. In larger neighborhood markets, the Coldiretti banner certifies a farmer who sells direct farm-to-table goods. Coldiretti is the country’s national agricultural association.
Don’t be afraid to ask Vendors are usually talkers. Don’t hesitate to ask farmers about their farms and produce. Showing interest in their work builds trust. When purchasing foodstuffs, you can also ask for their favorite recipes or cooking tips.
Bring canvas bags or a wheelie cart I always have a cloth bag in my handbag for unplanned market visits. Canvas bags are reusable and more environmentally friendly than plastic. A fancier method is to use freezer bags with zippers so you can separate fruits and vegetables, especially the pre-cut minestrone or pre-washed mesclun salad that Giuliana prepares every morning. There’s no need to unpack your groceries when you get home. The bags can go straight into the fridge or the freezer.
If I’m doing a major shopping run, I bring the carrellino, a hefty and capacious wheeled shopping cart with a good handle that makes pulling effortless (they’re available at local shops that sell domestic goods).
Carry cash Most greengrocers don’t live in a credit card universe. Some still weigh food on a manual scale. Bring euro bills and coins. There’s no need to tip, but if you’ll get no complaints if you round up to the nearest ten cents.
Ask before sampling Vendors once suggested you taste their goods first, particularly fruit, but that trend has diminished. But if you do come upon cherries that look good enough to taste, ask before grabbing a handful, especially if you’re new to the market and have yet to form a personal relationship with the vendor.
Buy more than you need, but don’t go overboard I buy in bulk, and then freeze in-season produce. I pickle and make jams, compotes or preserves to enjoy year-round. But be realistic about time management. If you’re very busy or just not into canning and pickling, buy only what you need for the next few days. Organic produce is untouched: there are no preservatives, no waxing, GMO-pumping, or pesticide-spraying. That means it won’t keep as long as most preservative-laced supermarket goods. Untouched fruits and vegetables will rot quickly and attract fruit flies.
Make friends Building trust and loyalty with farmers can make an unimaginable difference once it’s established. Now that the farmers know me, I always get the best produce — even if I arrive late or I’m in a rush. Vendors now know my dietary needs, my eating habits, my son’s tastes and preferences. We talk — and not only about food. Each time I’m at the market I exchange kisses on both cheeks with my stalwart vendors. Which is as it should be.