I can remember the first time I got that real market rush, decades ago. It was my first visit to the fantastic central market in Barcelona, and we were there in early summer. I walked in to the hall and saw a whole stall loaded with more strawberries than I had ever seen in one place.
I was used to getting a few in a small containers, all very precious. Here the stallholder made a rough paper cone and scooped up a kilo’s worth, and it cost hardly anything. I ate the lot – they tasted sweet and warm as if they had just been picked in the sunshine – as I was wandering around the streets. The next day I went back and did the same, and then again the day after. It became one of the defining experiences of that visit.
Ever since then, I’ve always made a bee-line for the main market in any city. They’re all different, and each says something about the culture that created them. It said something to me when I realised that most of America didn’t have those classic open-air fruit and vegetable markets until the farmers’ markets started fairly recently, and those are usually limited, expensive and not year-round.
But Italy, when it comes to produce, has been a joy, even in the depths of winter. Artichokes, radicchio and the magnificently vibrant Romanesco broccoli have been the standouts – decorative and delicious – but there is much more to enjoy. Alongside that fresh farm produce is all the rest that goes with it: cheeses, meats, fish, pasta.
Italy does particularly well that kind of value-added food market I’ve seen in a few European cities now. I wish our market in Melbourne would follow suit. (I imagine the biggest complication would be our food laws).
With a value-added market, a number of the meat, fish and veggie stalls are also food shops where people convert that fresh market produce into meals and snacks while you wait. And you can buy a glass of interesting wine or beer to have with it, right there. Not as a special event, but as an everyday thing.
You stand or sit at a small bar at the stall, or at a central table, enjoying the buzz of the place as you eat. The stalls showcase the best they have by displaying the delicious possibilities of their produce, and letting you eat it there as a quick snack or take it home.
In the very best of them you can see them take the produce from the stall and cook it, so you know exactly what you’re getting and how fresh it is. Again, a standout for me was Barcelona, where we sat right next to a fish stall and had a plate of cooked clams with a herb sauce, grilled artichoke hearts and a glass of cava. Madrid, too, has a fantastic market that’s always packed.
This trip we have found it in Frankfurt (where we sampled the most delicious truffled goat’s pecorino) and Bologna, with some great offerings. In Bologna there was a stall selling organic meats (and doing a roaring trade) as well as interesting hamburgers and other meat dishes to order; a fish stall with all kinds of fish burgers and dumplings and salads, as well as simple offerings like fried prawns and calamari; a cheese stall where you could get a selection of their specialties; a pasta stall offering a range to take home or ready to eat at the bar, with a variety of sauces. And of course, interesting beers and wines.
And best of all was the packed hall with lots of happy people grabbing something simple, fresh and delicious – for now and for later, at home – without any fuss and without any of the extra prices restaurants have to add.
And the hero is always that wonderful produce.