Sunday, November 15, 2009

Food Shopping Italian Style

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While driving through the beautiful country sides of Italy, I was impressed by the diversity of crops and the tenacity of the farmers to plant in every nook and cranny. It reminds me of Iowa, where you drive for hours and virtually every square of land is cultivated. The grape vines and olive trees roll with the hills in Italy! As we drove from one end of the country to the other, we would read about the various cities, history and agriculture. But the beautiful thing is Italy is relatively small, (slightly larger than the state of Arizona), so its bounty is available everywhere.
It has always been my habit to peruse supermarkets when I travel, whether I am in Spain or Boulder. There are so many specialties, and I want a chance to at least see them all! My most impressive supermarket experience came in Cernobbio, sitting on the gorgeous Lake Como. From our room at the Regina Olga, we could see the lake and the boardwalk that takes you to the water taxi. As we were getting ready one morning there was an enormous amount of people walking the boardwalk with shopping bags, many of them older women. We couldn't tell where they were going or coming from. When we walked to the water taxi, we were greeted by an entire supermarket outside. Every vendor had a specialty, and they had specialty trucks that opened on the sides and set up shop. I learned that this traveling grocery spends 6 days a week traveling to different lake towns to sell their wares.
The first truck I encountered was the meat truck. The glass window ran the length of the truck, and was filled with everything from steak, ground meat, chickens, pork chops, veal, lamb and every other cut of fresh meat you can imagine. Clean and on ice, when they sold out, it was gone. Behind the counter were enormous rotisseries with a hundred or so chickens cooking. We all know how intoxicating that smell is! The butchers were all in white aprons and haggling with the customers.
Maybe you were in the mood for fresh fish? The next truck was stocked with fresh seafood. Dozens of different whole fish, shrimp, squid, octopus, urchins even fresh water fish from Lake Como. There was even a section of seafood already cooked. It appeared to be breaded and perhaps fried or baked, but convenience food has a place in all cultures. But I press on, because I am amazed every time I approach the next truck.

No table would be complete without fresh flowers, even on a brisk fall morning. The selection was staggering, and they had pansies, ornamental cabbages, mums and more varieties for planting. There were numerous bins with fresh stems for making your own arrangements and the selection would rival any florist.

And we move on, to the cheese and salami truck. How the Italians love their cheese. Wheels and bricks, blue and white and yellow, hard and crumbly and soft and creamy. I wanted to taste them all. I love the pungent aroma of cheese. Did I mention the Buffalo Mozzarella? Contrary to the name it isn't made with buffalo milk as we know buffalo. But milk from domestic water buffalo. The cheese was in balls in vats of water and cured in jars with olive oil and red pepper. I love the melt from a fresh mozzarella. And the salami. I remember the long salamis we would have in our house when I was a kid, and I laugh when I see the skinny 5" rolls at the market now. But there they were, 24" long hanging in bunches. I can see my brother with his pocket knife right now slicing us pieces as kids, peeling the skin and tossing it to the dog. It was real salami skin, not plastic or wax that you see on that disgusting American invention, summer sausage. Yuk. And of course the prosciutto. Not one kind like you see here, but many different cuts, a variety of prices. When we get to Parma I learn about the cuts and discover that Culatello is my favorite. And here is the produce. Zucchini flowers, fava beans, strawberries, baby artichokes, clementines, chestnuts, apples, bananas, figs it never ended. The most gorgeous I have seen. But only a basket of this and a basket of that. No huge overhead, no wilting lettuces. Pardon my photographic indulgence here, but I wanted to remember it all.

And then the cured and pickled truck. Olives, huge bowls of olives. Jars filled with peppers, olives, tomatoes they were colorful and edible. There was a craze here for awhile of decorative bottles filled with these sorts of things that people bought for display! Why? These are meant to be eaten! Baskets of sun dried tomatoes, jars of marinara, whole nuts for eating. It was amazing. And yet there was more. There was a truck with nothing but dry foods. Cookies, crackers, boxes of mixes and candies. Another truck of bread. Homemade bread of every variety. Focaccia, ciabatta, baguettes, rolls, pizzettes, breadsticks. Every shape. And then a truck that sold, well, socks. Seriously, there were a few pair of shoes and slippers, but it was mainly socks. A truck of linens. Kitchen linens, bath towels, sheets and pillows. What a fun way to shop! I imagine it is a traveling grocery that makes it easy for the villagers to get what they need. Most people don't drive like we do, they walk for everything. It would be difficult to shop in a supermarket when you have this outdoor market every week. When we got to Parma, I could see the small shops that mimic all these trucks lining the blocks. You have your favorite market for everything and I am sure you become a regular customer quickly shopping like this. I like it. I think every foodie would like it. The Fresh Market and Dean and Deluca are the closest versions we have. But I doubt I will ever shop such selection surrounded by such beauty until I go back to Lake Como.


  1. Lake Como is gorgeous, but if you get the chance, come and see Genova. I've been studying there for two months and am completely in love with the place.


  2. I can hardly wait to return....I will take your advice!

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