Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Food market requires expertise to fully utilize but has something for everyone

Tuesday, February 28

Here are a couple of the 50 or so fruit and vegie vendors in the market.
Previously, we have never lived anywhere in Italy where we could walk just a few blocks to a huge daily market. Last year in San Salvatore, we discovered a small market that came to town just one morning a week. When we last lived in Padova, we were on the edge of town, far from the market, and we used a neighborhood AlĂ­ grocery store for small daily purchases. Once a week, we also took the bus or our bikes to the larger Auchen supermarket to stock up on staples. At that time, we passed by the huge Padova central market only occasionally, and for me it never really sank in that this market is set up and taken down every day, except Sunday, and that people come here each morning to buy the food they plan to prepare for that day.

The selection is vast and diverse. I walk up and down the aisles and count nearly 50 separate fruit and vegetable vendors, each with a tent set up over box upon box of fresh, ripe produce. I usually do not linger as I do today, and by taking some extra time, I notice that the prices are a little lower in the center of the aisles. I have always bought from the first stall I came upon, but now I see that the outside vendors, with their more convenient locations, can get away with charging more because of people like me. I also notice that the center rows are packed with Italian shoppers who already know where to find the better prices.
This is a bean lovers dream.

I go back to the vendor where last week we bought some soup mix. I really don’t know what this stand is called in either Italian or English, but it has a beautiful and mouth-watering array of every type of bean, rice and pea, along with many grains and other dried ingredients. They are in burlap sacks, but the tops of the sacks have been turned down to display the wares. It would take a lifetime to learn the best use for all these foods, so for our soup last week, we settled on zuppa golosa, a pre-mixed variety of orzo, farro, lenticchie, piselli and fava. Today we buy another kilo of zuppa golosa and also some mixed beans. I ask the lady who serves us how many types of beans this combination contains. “Tanti,” she says with a quick smile. “Tutti.” So many. All. I count the individual bean varieties on sale and find about 30, so I guess we will be having 30-bean soup soon. I also count 12 types of risotto, and then another 12 types of risotto mixed with various other individual items, such as dried mushrooms, dried vegetables, spices, beans and even fruit. Other bins have similar varieties of basmati and couscous.

Much of it I have no idea how to prepare. Lucy, of course, does most of our cooking and is an excellent cook, with years of experience and no reluctance to experiment or use a cookbook to try something new. Yet even with all her expertise, she admits to being overwhelmed and somewhat bewildered by some of the new and unfamiliar ingredients. We need a personal trainer to teach us how to shop and use everything the market has to offer.

Next to the outdoor stalls are vendors with more permanent locations, under cover and with electricity needed to keep their meats, poultry and cheeses chilled. There are nearly as many butcher shops inside as there are produce vendors outside. The cheese choices are truly daunting. I ask a vendor how many different types of cheese he has. Only about 140 here, he says, because he doesn’t have enough room for all the others he could stock. How is one to know which to serve with which type of meal?

When they say whole chickens for sale, they're not kidding.
One macceleria has defurred rabbits and whole chickens and turkeys hanging from the ceiling, but most meat is already cut up and labeled. Perhaps some Italians want to see the whole animal to make sure they are getting the real thing. My mom used to use rabbit meat in pasta asciutta, and it was delicious, but we don’t feel at ease buying a whole or even half rabbit.

A couple of markets specialize in horse meat. No thanks on that, too, although apparently I have eaten it before. I once made a comment that I have never tried horse meat, and Patti Gray said, “But didn't you eat lunch at the school? They serve horse meat sometimes.” Yes, when I taught for a year at EISP, I ate lunch in the cafeteria every day, so apparently I’ve had horse meat without knowing it. Still, I am not interested in trying it again.
The easiest and cheapest way to eat great Italian food is to buy fresh pasta and fresh sauce, then put it
together in your own kitchen. Even I can do this!

So though we only scratch the surface of the Italian menu possibilities, the choices we make are more than satisfactory. We can easily buy fresh pasta in nearly infinite varieties, and the sauce choices are also plentiful. Some shops offer freshly cooked pasta dishes which can be taken home and reheated in the microwave. The strawberries and oranges we buy today take no special skills to prepare and eat.

Here's another way to eat cheaply without knowing
how to cook. Buy it ready-made.
True, modern supermarkets are easier and more familiar for us, but shopping in the open market is a priceless experience. Italians have bought their food this way for thousands of years, and we feel in a small way we are now part of that history.

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