Different Perspectives: Italian Market Culture.

Since the beginning of the year, Torino, Italy has been my home away from Portland. What began as a term abroad to study architecture has become a series of important life lessons, and learning to shop for food and cook for myself was the most delicious of these lessons.

During our orientation we were told to check out the open air markets for fresh produce that are available in every neighborhood. The following morning, I found myself in the middle of the parking lot, which had been transformed into a lively farmers market. Before even seeing the produce, my first experience of the market was the smell of sweet fruits from meters away! The vendors’ stands were filled with all kinds of fresh, local foods—since it was winter—citrus fruits, artichokes, and strawberries were plentiful. Unlike the crates of “fresh” fruits and vegetables in American supermarkets, the Italian produce were so colorful that they looked juicy. Merchants’ were loudly boasting to each passing customers about their produce and offering special discounts to sell the remaining boxes.

Open air market in Milan, Summer 2016

At first I thought the prices were not very cheap at all, but I did not realize that the prices were listed per kilogram, which made it an incredible bargain. On average, organic vegetables and fruits ranged from 0.50 euro to 1.50 euro per 500 grams (~1 pound). Upon this revelation, I quickly bought some fruits and vegetables and discovered a whole new depth to flavor. As the saying goes, it changed my life.

The first change was adapting to the new marketplace. There are no permanent structure that accompanies the market. Six days a week, vendors come in at 6 in the morning with freshly harvested produce to set up their stands. During weekdays markets run until 1 PM, and until 6 PM on Saturdays. (Sundays are reserved for family and church). Italians go to open air markets 3 to 4 times per week, buying enough produce for a day or 2.
It was a very different experience of getting food. Soon enough it became part of my schedule to get groceries from the market. I am not a morning person, so sometimes I had to put in alarm to make it to market in time. I also figured out, that coming at the very last moment is not a bad idea, as you can get really good deals. 

Looking back at how I used to shop in United States I can see the issues within the system. Normally I would make weekly trips to Costco, getting enormous packages of food that would stay “fresh” for weeks. I now see that the majority of food available is highly processed and traveled from across the globe, not to mention the lack of flavor.

Costco produce (PC Liz Webber, 1)

Italians have it right, they take food very seriously. It is part of their culture and they are proud of their local produce. Markets play very important role in life of Italians, as they are addressing social, economic and sustainable issues. Going to market few times a week creates stronger sense of community, you socially interact with people and getting to know them. By the end of my first month abroad, I had my favorite paneteria where I would get fresh bread, a veggie stand where the guys would always give me free herbs to go with my purchase, and a favorite vendor for dark leafy greens and strawberries. Going to the market is very exciting, as you are always being surprised by the assortment, and your next dinner will depend on the available produce. The limited selection inspired me to think of creative dishes. In terms of economic and sustainability benefits, the community is able to get produce for a very reasonable price, as it doesn’t have to travel far, cutting on carbon footprint. Also, since markets are only open for about 5 hours per day, no refrigeration and electricity is needed. Overall, I see this system being a lot more successful as compared to the farmers markets in the United States, where prices are so high that only few can afford to shop there. 

Food is an integral part of a sustainable lifestyle and system. As I learned, cooking is more than just preparing food, it includes picking and buying the right foods, and understanding how a simple meal can impact the local economy, global environment, and sense of community.