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Emily in Italy: Market Education

Sunday, March 7, 2010
We have now almost been here for a week. It is a Sunday, which seems like an especially relaxing day of the week here in Italy – almost nothing is open and very few people are out. None of the markets are open, so it is important to shop on Saturday to have food to cook for Sunday.

Yesterday morning we went out and joined the rest of Parma in shopping. There was a huge outdoor market of clothes and house wares that went on for blocks in the centro storico (historic center) and a few stands selling fruits and vegetables and cheese. We are still figuring out if there is a bigger weekly outdoor market for food. I asked a few older women about this in the morning while we were having our cappuccinos at a local bar and they said that there wasn’t much out yesterday, likely because it was cold and drizzling outside. Here is a picture of one of the few produce stands we found, where we bought some beautiful eggplants.
We already have a few favorite spots for buying food. One is a salumeria where they also sell wonderful homemade pasta. Last Wednesday we shopped there for the first dinner we made at our new place and we tried some of the tortellini di zucca (pumpkin) e di erbetta (swiss chard). Both were excellent and I would like to learn how to make them myself from scratch. We also found some beautiful artichokes at a nearby produce market which we cooked according to the directions of the woman selling them and they were delicious. The lettuce and radicchio are fabulous and abundant as well and there are types that I have never seen before. Wanting to learn new recipes, I have been asking everyone about how they prepare things and also I found a few cookbooks at the library about the foods of Emilia-Romagna. We made a recipe for lentils with pancetta (Italian bacon) that turned out great, and gives a nice little twist to how I would normally make lentils. Now we are eating almost exclusively at home (except for some snacks) and trying to prepare as much as we can using ingredients and preparation techniques from the region. I can’t wait to cook with some new Italian friends though, as there is so much I want to learn firsthand.

One thing that is hard to stay at home for is breakfast, considering that the coffee is so excellent. Although we have everything we need here in our little furnished apartment to make cappuccinos, we have been eating out most mornings. No matter where we go, 2 cappuccinos and 2 pastries seems to cost 4.80 euro, which seems like a great price considering how good they are. I rarely eat pastries in the States, and whenever I do, I always am left wishing that I hadn’t eaten one. Here, the pastries are very light and small, and leave you wanting more rather than feeling weighed down. My favorite so far was a whole wheat cornetto (horn shaped pastry similar to a croissant) with apricot marmalade. We already have a favorite café right by our house. If we walk by the window they wave to us, so one morning when we were considering trying a different place, once we got the friendly wave we realized that we prefer going where they know us and where we already feel welcome. Also we see the other local shop owners come in and out, and we recognize and great them as well. No one takes coffee to go, so the cafe is truly a place where people congregate and socialize. It is nice to not see people walking around with disposable cups on the street like you do in the States. I certainly don’t miss seeing those Starbucks Venti cups everywhere.

Since we go everywhere on foot, we only buy a couple of things at a time, which allows us to decide that same day what we feel like eating. I knew that this type of shopping was the European tradition, but what I didn’t quite realize is that if you are shopping on foot, this is naturally the way you shop anyway, as there is only so much you can carry. It seems like there are many people who are still shopping daily at the small specialty stores here in Italy, especially in the centro storico.

Last week we had to venture outside of the center to visit a government office to complete some paperwork. Near the office is a huge supermarket called Esselunga. We stopped in to check it out and found that it is similar to a mega-market like the grocery section of a Walmart. All of the produce was prepackaged much like you would see at Trader Joes so you can’t touch or smell anything to see if it is really fresh or not. You can even take an electronic scanner with you as you shop and charge your credit card as you go so you don’t have to wait in a check out line at the end. The quality of the food did look better than what you see in the States at a market of this type, but this type of market represents exactly what I don’t like about the food system in the States and why I wanted to come to Italy in the first place. However it seems like perhaps this type of shopping is becoming more popular here in Italy. There were many people with very full baskets who looked as if they were shopping for the entire week or even longer. Considering we are on a tight budget living on my scholarship funds, even though it goes against my Slow Food values, I will admit that it was tempting to buy a few dried goods, but we resisted and decided to patronize only the small markets. Here is a picture of part of the pasta aisle at Esselunga, which you can see is enormous:
I wonder if Esselunga is open on Sunday? I bet it is. But I like the Italian tradition of relaxing and taking a break from commercialism.