To Market, Italian Style

February 23, 2009

Live and eat like the Italians.  That is my advice to anyone contemplating a trip to Italy.

Whenever I am in Italy, I enjoy doing the daily things that Italians do, like shopping for local ingredients, and cooking a meal.  I try to find out what is going on in the area so that I can have as meaningful an experience as possible.

I stopped staying in hotels long ago and decided that renting a place was not only cheaper, it  immediately made me feel right at home, and gave me the freedom to really experience Italy away from the often staid environment of a hotel.

One of my fondest memories was shopping on market day in the town of Camucia near Cortona in eastern Tuscany.  Camucia’s outdoor market is similar to many found throughout Italy, and in fact  many of the vendors travel with their goods from town to town.

Every town has a designated market day, and Thursday was the big shopping day in Camucia.  I had heard the local people talking in a bar about getting to the market early so they could be first in line to buy panini (sandwiches) stacked with thin slices of spit-roasted whole pigs known as porchetta.  As I came to find out, porchetta is the most popular item at the market.

I decided to be there early too.  The vendors have a unique system for setting  up shop with their portable stores on wheels that seem to just unfold with no effort.  Husband and wife teams, and whole families steer you towards their goods as their sing-song voices resonate over the crowd.  A large line forms near the porchetta truck, and the air around it is thick with the smell of rosemary, and other spices.

Resting on the counter like a golden calf is a whole pig with sprigs of rosemary stuck in its ears and a whole lemon in its mouth.  Its skin is crackling, and uniformly bronzed.  The meat is lean and it is cut into thin slices, and layered on good, saltless Tuscan bread.  Customers wave their hands like rock concert music fans waiting to get their hands on precious tickets so they can be next to shout out their orders.  As soon as sandwiches are made they are snatched up, and eaten on the spot.  I buy one too; it is succulent, and flavorful, and worth standing in line for.  This same scene will be played out again on every subsequent Thursday as long as there is a  market day in Camucia.

I look down at the bags that I am carrying and take inventory.  So far I have made purchases of huge, sugar-sweet, pale-yellow Moscato grapes, a sturdy wedge of Pecorino cheese, and some marinated artichokes which will make a nice al fresco lunch.  The spit roasted chickens look good too, so I buy one along with fennel and some fresh porcini mushrooms, which I plan to grill.

Now  happily weighted down with a good representation of Tuscan food in each hand, I walk back to the house, blending in perfectly with the rest of the local shoppers who are also juggling bulging bags of produce, clothing, and kitchen gadgets as they make their way out of the market.

Sitting in the mid-day sun, my feet propped over a chair, I enjoy the foods that I selected at the market and as I savor the Moscato grapes, the thought of having to ever shop again for groceries in my local supermarket back home has no appeal whatsoever.

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