I love Italian markets, perhaps not the tat clothes part of it which I zoom past on my way to the food stalls, but their integrated way of selling to families that the UK could replicate.
Jamie Oliver’s much-maligned shout that we should all get to the market and copy Italy or rather a Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta, was perhaps a little rash. The Italians I know who live on a shoe-string (which currently includes some restaurant owners and subsistence farmers) don’t buy packets of pasta, that is too expensive; they make it themselves, the latter from the wheat they grow and grind from plugging in their small electric hand-mill in the autumn and using the freshly laid eggs from their own chickens. Could this be another reason why sales of dry pasta are recorded as falling in Italy? Economic necessity means more people are making their own…?
Instead of trying to convert British shoppers with fantastic sums that don’t seem to add up in their context, or comparing apples with pears (i.e. Italy doesn’t have a minimum wage which means if those tomatoes were picked by a migrant worker they’ve been paid next to nothing so they can be generally sold for less), shouldn’t there be alternative ways of getting families to market in the UK, both selling and buying, copying the Italian food market model?
Grow Your Own & Sell the Surplus
Italians, especially central and southern, are famous for their ability to convert the smallest piece of garden into a vegetable bounty throughout the year; an award every neighbour will bestow upon their Italian next-door neighbour no matter what continent you are in. A history of poverty and starvation has created an equation of garden space to meals, illustrated beautifully by the on-trend cucina povera that is utilised in so many ‘authentic Italian’ dishes today. Would it not be preferable to encourage more people to harness their gardens the same as the Italians? It’s amazing what one can grow in a tub, for those that don’t want to dig up their lawn, and for those that do there could be an informal method to sell the glut at market .
At our local market in Italy (I’m stressing ‘local’ here because of how different things can be from one Italian town to another) the grandmothers join the regular stallholders to sell the excess from their summer and autumn vegetable garden (orto), what they have foraged or created i.e. passata, pickles and jams. They are given old-fashioned weighing scales by the organisers to make honourable sales. More people in the UK should be encouraged or have the opportunity to do something similar, earn a small amount of money, without paying high stall fees that would swallow up their profit. Similarly to Italian stallholders they could advise on recipe ideas being that they’ve no doubt just cooked using the ingredient themselves, a great way to get lazy cooks into the kitchen.
As much as I am a huge fan of the UK’s Women’s Institute markets, which is the most similar thing to the Nonnas (Grandmothers) attending ‘local’ market, it’s so sad that they have to be something separate, held in the local village hall on a week-day morning that only pensioners, full-time mums and those who work from home can take advantage of… The world expresses admiration for Italy’s seemingly age-no-barrier integrated society, wouldn’t this be something to follow? Getting the golden ladies to market rather than keeping them away from the population at large, or only reserved to selling cakes and sausage rolls as they do at my old and overall favourite UK market the award winning Stroud Farmers Market. There isn’t a whiff at this market of the glorious vegetables that some cultivate in their gardens and allotments, which seems a little sad!
Preferable to forcing what is often a time-strapped Mum into countless trips into buying their wares, a sustainable option could be for traditional and farmers markets to work together to encourage a diverse and varied offering that cut down on petrol costs and parking as they do locally here, or in France, a great example being the market at Metz. Bananas are a family staple yet I cannot buy them if I visit a 0 food mile market such as Islington Sunday Market. Buying from an integrated market where organic providers sell alongside the non-organic provides not just healthy competition but diversity for the consumer and real-time shopping.
This is what I managed to buy at an October Autumn market recently for £13 (€15) here in Abruzzo Italy. 2 of the carrots, the celery sticks and parsley were given freely as a contribution to my odori (herb selection) to flavour meats, sauces and legumes that I am cooking in the week. Perhaps that could be a Jamie Oliver campaign, encouraging stall-holders in the UK to pop something similar into a brown bag which in turn would encourage people to get online and look up a recipe or experiment with their own concoctions?
1 Savoy Cabbage
1 Frisee Lettuce
1/2 K White Onions
1 K Plum Tomatoes
6 Red Peppers
1 Large Aubergine
4 Celery Sticks
1 k Borlotti Beans
150 g Oyster Mushrooms (known locally as pleurotus)
1 k Plums
500 g Brown Lentils
200 g Dried Peas
200 g Hazelnuts
I asked fellow bloggers what the cost would have been elsewhere; HangontotheVine’s Helen Free in Washington toured local wholefood and Amish markets and despite not managing to find frisee lettuce, hazelnuts, borlotti beans, dried peas, the total still came to £29.00 (US $45.70) and MLTucker’s MaryLouise in Adelaide came back with prices from her local farmers market that amounted to £20 (AUS $35). My previous local markets in Stroud & Broadway Market, I’d reckon on a minimum of £30 for some 9/10 of those products, the mushrooms, nuts and beans not being available at Stroud. Like the UK, Australia and the US have a minimum wage and pay council taxes which are most probably like the UK, some 12 times the amount that we pay down in a rural farm village in Abruzzo, Italy. Buying at market isn’t necessarily the cheap option outside of Italy, especially at ‘farmers market’ when the bulk buying power of the supermarkets in the UK means that they can undercut traditional markets. To get families to shop there rich or poor, there has to be some added value that is free and works out cheaper than jars of herbs or herb plants that the supermarkets encourage?
In Stroud where I was living till April the parking fee to allow a morning’s ramble around the market rather than a hectic race around would cost £1 for an hour and a half, my nearest towns in Italy all provide free parking. If you’re a struggling family who are on benefit and receiving £50.95 a week, most would conclude that £1 is indeed better spent on a packet of pasta at the supermarket, enjoying free parking and it being just 1 trip in petrol? There is such an outcry in the UK about the death of the ‘High Street’, couldn’t a campaign be created for an end to car park fees on a Saturday market day to encourage trade in towns rather than out-of-town retail parks? I am sure you’d get high profile willing sponsors for such an activity, those who’d benefit from people cooking rather than heating things up in a microwave, like the electric and gas utility companies – they need a bit of good PR!
An avid market goer I have always tried my hardest to visit for the very reason dear Jamie Oliver listed choice, less plastic packaging and of course waste-not want-not, binning un-needed food; however the current structure of ‘markets’ in the UK and the organisation around them should be examined; how could they better support low and medium income families instead of negative accusations of the poor not knowing how to feed themselves.
Photographs – © Sam Dunham, Lucciola.me, all rights reserved