The market is a pivotal place in any Italian town. Once a week, you can feel the buzz as locals make their way through town to shop at the mercato settimanale, the weekly market.
The outdoor market sprawls across the streets and piazzas, which fill up with stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables and anything from cheese to fresh fish to roast porchetta, and even clothes, shoes, pots and pans.
One glance at the colorful produce and you can tell immediately what season it is. And usually, after a little wandering, you can begin to tell how the locals like to eat. In Livorno, you'll notice the whole, dried stockfish hanging from the stall ceilings. In Venice, you'll see prepared artichokes bottoms—floating discs in a large tub of lemon-tinged water, ready to be taken home and cooked for an evening aperitivo. One summer in Martina Franca in Puglia, I saw crates of vegetables that I had never seen anywhere else in Italy.
Fellow market-goers are often curious to know what you’re cooking with your new acquisitions, and they’ll offer their unsolicited (but usually excellent) advice on the vegetable you’re both standing over. It’s a wonderful little exchange of information that may give you a recipe, and it's an experience I've never quite had in a supermarket. There's something about the traditions of an outdoor market that set up the right atmosphere for strangers to begin a conversation about food and exchange recipes.
When I see something new and beautiful at the market, I can never resist an impulse-buy. One late summer morning, I noticed freshly-foraged, bright orange-capped Caesar’s mushrooms. I had never cooked with them before and might have ruined them completely were it not for the wisdom of the market. Insalata, I was advised, was the best way to enjoy them—raw, and thinly sliced, dressed simply with the freshest, most peppery extra-virgin olive oil you have and a squeeze of lemon juice. A divine, utterly magical starter.
Another time, on a bright winter's day, I found an irresistible pile of fennel, spread over a wooden table. Just as I was picking out the prettiest fennel, a woman interrupted me. “No, not that one.” She picked up a squat, round bulb of fennel and handed it to me: “This one.” She then explained that the elongated bulb that I was holding was a female fennel, which is stringy and less flavorful compared to the sweet, rounded male fennel. Thanks to this market nonna, raw fennel salad has since been a constant on our winter table.
I have learned a great deal about the essence of Italian cooking from regular visits to the markets: the strict adherence to the seasons; the belief that everything has its time and place—even if it means waiting all year for it (like fresh broad beans popped right out of their long furry pods to eat with chunks of pecorino or to throw into a Roman spring stew); the wonderful simplicity of recipes prepared with good ingredients; and the practice of passing little nuggets of wisdom to strangers in the same way that grandmothers pass on kitchen lessons to their grandchildren.
What have you learned from shopping at the local markets? Share with us in the comments?