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Don't Touch the Fruit! (& Other Tips for Navigating an Italian Market)

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Last week I talked about what it's like shopping at the market in Italy and why I love it so: interacting with the other shoppers, learning kitchen secrets, and knowing with one gaze the season and the favorite local produce.

Today, I want to get into the how-to side of things because, like most things to do with food in Italy, there are a couple of "rules" while market shopping.

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One general rule is don't touch the produce yourself. Usually the fruit vendor will serve you, so wait your turn and then tell them what you want. If you see plastic or paper bags available, then it means you're welcome to pick out your own fruit and vegetables (if language is a barrier, this is probably the easiest option).

It's a big challenge to avoid plastic bags in Italy: Everything automatically comes in one (even in cases where you have to pay an extra five cents for it) and I often find myself having to request my items without it (which often gets me a few strange looks).

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In supermarkets, for example, it's the norm to have plastic bags for each item of produce (partly because you have to weigh and label all the fresh fruit and vegetables yourself before going to the cash register) and plastic gloves. These are intended to be put on before you touch of the fresh produce.

I refuse to waste plastic by using these gloves, but I have—many a time—been chided by old ladies who demand I cover my mitts before handling even the oranges! But nothing is stopping you from bringing your own bags to the market (I like to) and giving back all the plastic bags you will inevitably be handed.

Another good thing to know is that tubs or crates of vegetables and fruit are usually well-labeled. Italian shoppers are used to seeing a lot of information on the produce that you find in supermarkets, and this often is true of farmers markets, as well.

You will usually see the following four things displayed clearly:

1. Variety. The first and most important piece of information is the name of the variety of produce. It's often very specific—not simply plums, but greengages, for example. This is where a dictionary probably comes in handy, but keep in mind that there might sometimes be different names due to regional dialects.

2. Provenance. Sometimes this is specific, naming the Italian region (Trentino, for example, which happens to be a good region to buy apples from, or Sicily, which is a good place for tomatoes or blood oranges).

Sometimes it's even more specific, naming a town (red onions from Tuscany's Certaldo, or garlic from Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna), so that you know you're getting a really special product that sometimes even be protected by I.G.P. (Protected Geographical Indication) status.

At times it's less specific (say "South Africa" for out-of-season lemons, or simply “Italy,” which means the fruits or vegetables have probably come from various places and were all mixed together so that the true origin of an individual piece is no longer traceable).

Sometimes, the label says nostrali—''ours”; my favorite term, it means the produce is very local indeed.

3. Quality. This applies more to supermarket produce, but sometimes you'll see or hear talk of the "category" that a fruit or vegetable may be in, and this refers to the aesthetic quality (how many bumps, bruises, or misshapen bits the produce may have).

In certain famers markets, particuarly organic ones that often only appear once a month in certain towns, you may find that the "uglier" the fruit or vegetable, the better! There are three categories: Cat. Extra (the highest quality), Cat. I (good quality but some defects), and Cat. II (acceptable quality, some defects—these are the ones that cost a little less and are a good option for making sauce or jam, for example).

4. Price. It's usually written per kilogram (usually abbreviated to chilo—kilo—in Italian), but occasionally, during a prolific season, you might find something like a crate of peaches or porcini mushrooms offered for a set price.

You might also get extra information that you don't need but that is always helpful, like instructions on what to use the particular fruit or vegetable for—artichokes "for salad" (meaning for eating raw) and Concord grapes (pictured above) for making Tuscany's schiacciata all'uva, a sticky focaccia studded with oozy grapes.

With this information, you should be well-armed for knowing not only how far away your produce comes from, but what you might want to do with it.

Photos by Emiko Davies

Tags: Italy, Regional Italian Food, markets, farmers markets, seasonal cooking, travel