Italian Markets in the Summertime

Summer fruit at an Italian Market

Summer fruit at an Italian Market

by Shannon Berg

Every season in Italy excites my imagination, but the summer is especially enticing with so much produce in season. Here, like no where else, there is such an enormous selection of fruits and vegetables to choose from, if you really want to appreciate the bounty this season offers, you must visit a local Italian market. They are everywhere in the country and sell everything from fresh fruit to local cheeses and fish to shoes and clothes. Italian markets are one of the most exciting places for me as I explore with all the colors, flavors and smells of the whichever season I happen to visit. In the summer time, as I walk past the busy stalls in the market my eyes are always dazzled by the many colors while the sweet smells of ripe fruit tickle my nostrils. I love to choose items marked nostrali, meaning “local produce from our neighborhood,” many times including items I can’t find at home such as those great Tuscan zucchini, so much more compact and flavorful than the ones I usually find at home. Italians seem to pride themselves in buying this local produce, with the opinion that nothing brought in from abroad, which in this case may mean from the next province or region, could ever be as good as what grows just up the street.

While visiting the market, be brave and ask your green grocer about the different types of produce he has and which he recommends since the variety of different fruits and vegetables one can find at Italian markets can be overwhelming. Just this Saturday I went to buy plumbs at the market just below my apartment outside of Florence and was offered the choice of at least five different varieties. There were red and yellow plumbs, just red plumbs, and purple, green, and yellow plumbs, each with its own flavor and texture. Many of these were new to me although they were familiar already to the local house wives who stood by, losing patience with me as I questioned the fruit vendor as to the different qualities of each of these varieties. Eggplants have also baffled me in the past. I have counted three or four different types of eggplants on a given day, each of them also with its own subtle flavor and textural element. Some are large and long and a deep purple while others are skinny and snake like. My favorite to cook with, I have discovered, are the round white and purple ones. They seem to have the fewest seeds and are not as bitter as the some of the other varieties that need purging with salt before they can be cooked. These round whitish ones are sweeter with a tender flesh, perfect for grilling, marinating or frying for a parmigiana, which my family loves. Whatever you do, don’t be intimidated, for Italian produce men are notorious for taking advantage of easy prey with less than great merchandise. Ask questions and be courageous, trying something new whenever you can. Be sure to inquire about the best way to cook whatever you bought too, because most produce vendors are usually happy to give cooking tips, as well.

Whatever produce you are looking for, keep in mind that bigger is not better. The larger the fruit grows, the more developed the seeds will be whether you are talking about a zucchini, eggplant or artichokes. If they start off thin at one end and then get fatter, especially in the case of a cucumber or zucchini squash, the plants has probably been over watered to make the fruit heavier. Over watered veggies weigh more, which may be good for the produce guy who is selling them by weight, but not so good for you. Water bloated veggies don’t have as good a texture or flavor. So, look for small, fresh vegetables that are naturally shiny and without bruises or wrinkles. If veggies are fresh they should be crisp, such as in the case of green beans, carrots or celery. The fresher the produce, the better the flavor and the more nutritious, which explains why most Italian house wives hit those crowded and colorful markets daily, buying only what they need and only what is in season. They then cook the vegetables in the simplest ways possible, grilled and drizzled with olive oil or sautéed with garlic and parsley. One last note: Be sure to ask for odori when you buy your veggies. Most produce stands will give you a handful of fresh herbs and aromatic veggies including parsley, sage, rosemary and basil as well as carrots and celery for free if you ask.

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~ di worldsitetravellers su agosto 4, 2008.

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