Italian grocery shopping – Where local is not a trend, it just is…

During our recent visit to Montalcino Italy, we had an opportunity to shop for meats, fish and produce to prepare our big meal. It again reminded me of how differently Americans think about food, and not in a good way. Everywhere we went, all that would be found were local ingredients. And not just local to Italy but local to Tuscany.

Cheese caseA recipe we wanted to prepare used Ricotta Salata, the salted hard version of ricotta. At the local grocery store, the cheesemonger looked at us like we were from another planet when we asked for it. Basically we got, a “yeah, we don’t use that around here” look. And of course they don’t, ricotta salata is southern Italian and we were in Tuscany. We might as well have been asking for cheddar cheese from Wisconsin. I took this not as snobbery but as saying, “we have great cheeses from around here, why do we need to ship in others”?

Farmers marketWith the exception of some carefully wrapped lemons from Sicily, the produce at the Friday market was all local too but even at the grocery store, that was all you would find.

Origin in ItaliaI found it ironic that all the produce was labeled with the country of origin and EVERY single item I looked at listed that county as “ITALIA”. This stands in sharp contrast to tasteless tomatoes found in the US from Mexico and South America in the middle of the US winter.

Even the cured meats seemed skewed to nearby products. An entire refrigerator case of salume was solely from near Siena, a 30 minute drive away. I wanted to buy the whole case and ship it home – a statement by itself in American thinking.

SalumeThe local grocery store we visited was not one monolithic localvor experience. There were plenty of frozen food items including pizzas, frozen fish from elsewhere in Europe and dates from Tunisia. We used the dates and smoked salmon from Poland in our appetizers. But it was the edges of grocery store that really stood out.

In America, we have become accustom to getting any vegetable or ingredient, anytime we want, from any country we want. And whether it tastes good or not. While I’m probably not going to give up asparagus on the grill from Peru in the summer, we could all take a page from Italian grocery shopping.

The next stop on my trip leads me Rome. I will be very interesting to see how a big city’s food compares to a medieval village in southern Tuscany.

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