Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Tastes of Italia

Food tastes better here. The same fruits I bought at home – cantaloupe, watermelon, peaches – that were faintly scented and fairly tasteless, here are bursting with juicy fragrance and sweet freshness. Tomatoes, something neither of us ate raw at home, have a different flavor, and we have enjoyed them chopped on bruschetta drizzled with golden-green olive oil, as well as sliced onto salads. Fresh tomatoes…us! It’s unheard of. We have been enjoying fresh, home-grown figs, apricots, and plums. For a month Francesca brought nespole, a Mediterranean fruit we’d never seen before, a funky sweet-tart thing with five large seeds in the middle. Bryan, forever a picky eater, has been much more willing to taste things here (and is actually liking many of them).

The foods available are just plain fresher. The growers are closer at hand, and they are picked at the peak. No picking when they are still hard and green, traveling for hundreds (if not thousands) of miles to sit around in a warehouse, and then in the grocery case. Not in Italy (at least not in our area). The vendors at the weekly market I frequent have signs that pinpoint where the produce was grown, in some cases not only the region of Italy, but also the province.

When we buy fresh produce, it must be consumed within a day or two or it begins to rot. We learned the hard way that we have to buy more frequently in smaller quantities; no American-style once-a-week big grocery shopping here. The first several trips to the weekly market I went ape, letting my eyes feast on the goods at hand, with my hands readily forking over the money for a great quantity that I thought I would use all week, only to find the beautiful veggies going bad in the frigo within a few days.
It is a much more pleasurable experience to pay a visit to the little frutta-verdura lady to supplement what we buy at the mercato, than to troll a garish, florescent-lit, gigantic store chock full of unhealthy, artificially-flavored boxed goods. Our few forays into the gaudy ipermercato ended in blurry eyes, frustration, and a feeling of overload…it was too much like a Super Wal-Mart for my taste and sensibilities. Especially when one has a nice purveyor of produce right in the neighborhood.

The fruit lady lets me select what I’d like in any quantity – if I only want 3 stalks of celery, so be it; a handful of parsley instead of a whole bundle is no problem. She frequently tucks sprigs of basil and oregano into my bags if I am buying tomatoes, figuring I’m going to need the flavorings for a sauce. She also sells various breads, and that, too, can be had in any quantity…a knife is provided for us to cut off the size chunk we want. Even if I fill a bag full of things, I’ve rarely spent more than 3 Euro at a time in her store, her prices are just that darn low, and I don’t know how she can make a profit. Despite the sign that clearly states “non si fa credito”, she tells me to pay domani when I think I’ll need to put something back for lack of sufficient money, or if I try to give her a bill instead of the smaller-denomination euro coins. She also rounds the bill down to the nearest increment every time I go in, so my bill for 2.24 euro today was stated as “2 euro, per favore”. One afternoon I’d arrived after all the zucchini had been sold; the next day when she saw me, she smiled and produced a little bag of the small, freshest zucchini at hand, blossoms still beautiful, and handed over the bag. She had set them aside just for me.

The butcher is kindly and has beautiful meats. He, too, cuts off what you desire when you are buying it. He also fillets the chicken breasts if I ask - at no extra cost- to use for cutlets. When I wanted a small amount of ground beef for stuffed eggplant but didn’t see any in the case, I asked about carne maccinato, and he said, “of course, how much would you like?” I stated the amount I thought I’d need (grams and pounds conversions still pose a mathematical challenge for me on top of the linguistic conversions floating about in my head), then he cut a chunk of meat off of a nice, lean roast and ground it for me on the spot. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.

In our resort area, seafood is everywhere and the fishmongers have the freshest of fishies, as do the restaurants. Giorgio has prepared some fish very simply grilled, but so fresh I could still taste the salt-water in them.

Gelato is so unlike ice-cream it is a shame they translate the word as such. Gelato is creamy and light, bursting with the flavors of what is used to make it…be it strawberries, chocolate or hazelnuts, the source taste shines through. It is not heavy and dense, like American ice cream which is made from great quantities of heavy cream; it is softer, more silky in the mouth; it does not coat the tongue and weigh down the taste, and has less sugar, too. Delightful.

Food is the ever-popular topic of discussion. On trains, on the beach, in the stores…where I hear people interacting, inevitably the conversation turns around to food. Always. On a train, two men in suits were arguing and gesturing, and I thought they were discussing politics. When I strained to hear better - to practice listening in Italian, of course, not to eavesdrop, mind you - the heated discussion was about how best to prepare veal cutlets, Milanese style or in a simple wine sauce.

Truly, Italians are passionate about food and it shows. Truly…food just tastes better here.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider


Geek girl said...

You are eating tomatoes-- Freshness makes all the difference.

Favorite Son said...

Nothing beats fresh produce - in Italy or elsewhere. A NE Ohio sun warmed tomato straight out of the garden is a taste of heaven on earth. And nowhere is sweet corn as good as what comes from the farmer's market on Old Forge Rd in Brimfield. So, yes, fresh is better no matter what continent you are on.

Diane said...

I tried Gelato at an Italian restaurant and it was great. So much creamier than regular ice cream.

Mama Jo said...

Wow! Eating Tomatoes!!! Love it!
We are well and truly impressed.

Have you done tomatoes Grandma Rose's way? With fresh onion, garlic, basil (or a little oregano) and a splash of olive oil. Marinate for 15-30 minutes. The juice is good sopped up with bread, or save to dress a green salad later.

Valerie said...

Not only that, but Bryan has been eating figs and fresh peaches! Bryan!! I'm so proud of him.