Sunday, July 8, 2007

Foraging in an Italian Country Market

We arrived in Rome early on a Saturday morning. We had rented a car and knew our mission: find the house and fill it with enough food to feed eight people for the next two days, before nightfall. If you travel to Italy, you hear the stories: "Italy shuts down on Sundays!" "You can't buy a thing on Sundays, the stores are all closed!"

So my husband whisked us North through rolling hills of farmland, through tiny crossroads and roadside mini marts and service stations. We knew roughly where we were going, following a major road for most of the way. One of the boys needed the restroom just as we neared the exit for Amelia, an ancient town on a hill nearby. I came to Italy with visions of Amelia due to a poster in my eye doctor's office. It shows a castle like structure on a hill and in the foreground is a huge field of sunflowers all facing the sun, like a golden ocean below bright blue skies.

We pulled off the highway and stopped at a market/bar/gas station (in true Italian fashion) at a crossroads called S. Pellegrino. And although this tiny area had the correct name for the bottled artesian water, I don't think it was the same San Pellegrino. This tiny foray into Italian culture, just a restroom stop, gave us the confidence to drive on, up the hill to Amelia. And what a hill it was! Ancient narrow stone roads twisting between three story buildings, turning around and around until you can't really imagine fitting into any of the available streets. We found a small parking lot and a local was nice enough to point us to an empty spot.

It was our first walk around an Italian town and it really did give us a taste of what the rest of the trip in the country held for us. Thick city walls surrounding an ancient stone village of three story buildings. Businesses were tucked here and there on the bottom floors of buildings, often with not much signage, but sometimes you'd see an official government sign for a hotel or restaurant. I thought these businesses would be the ones to frequent, they've been around so long that the government helps you find them!

We had an espresso in a tiny bar and wandered up and down the tiny streets until our jet lagged heads needed a break. When we were ready to leave Amelia we had to first wait out a long line of motorcycles streaming through the city. There must have been at least 50 of them, all shapes and sizes and ages. The locals came out in full force to witness the parade. We had a heck of time getting through the ancient city gates, these towns were not designed for traffic!

Armed with the ability to find a restroom, order a coffee and find parking in an ancient town, we proceeded towards Todi, the largest town near our rental. Like professionals, we found parking and walked up the hill to a small piazza, in search of our first Italian pizza! It was somewhat of a touristy place, but we didn't care, we had just walked 3/4 of a mile, uphill with tired and cranky boys and we needed refueling. So, pizza and wine! It was fine. I'm not going to critique this place, but I will say that it reminded me, once again, how difficult it is to make great Italian food. There are so few ingredients and if any one of them falters, so will the dish. So my arugula salad, faltered on the Peccorino they used which was not only poor quality but cut into large chunks that were difficult to deal with. The pizza was fine. Bruce had the best one, with some spicy meat on it that just made it sing. The crusts were light and crisp and true to what I had heard, they were not sliced. Each person gets the pleasure of cutting the chewy cracker dough into as large or as small of slices as you desire.

We had spotted a few markets on our way into town and were thinking, hey we've got this made, just stop on our way back to the car and get some produce, pasta, meat and cheeses at the quaint "Alimentary Tipical" (Groceries typical of the region) store. But while we were eating our pizzas, Todi was doing the siesta thing and shutting down fast. Everything was closed, signs posted said that they would re-open around 4:30pm. Okay, that puts a twist into our stocking the house task.

After a winding country road drive and a few little problems with the written instructions to our rental, we eventually found it. It was all we had hoped for and more. We toured the property with the owner and then promptly, each in our own space, fell asleep.

Around five pm I realized that if we were going to get groceries, it was now or never. So I woke everyone up, (pretty much, our oldest son staggered as he sleep walked to the car and did not stir from the back seat for the whole adventure).

Rather than venture back into Todi, we attempted to follow verbal and written directions from the proerty owner to the closest grocery store. But we turned the wrong way and ended up at a tiny crossroads called Madonna di Piano. Just as we were going to turn around I spotted a meat market and mini-mart. Ah! We parked across the street and I ventured in alone as Bruce kept an eye on the sleeping children.

At the time I thought the place was small, a 20 foot square room with an openning in the back. There was also a door way which led to another room with dry goods and such. Two large refrigerated display cases lined the left wall. One was for cured meats and the other for fresh. I recognized some of what I saw, prosciutto, various salamies, and braesola on the cured side. The raw side perplexed me a bit more and the two ladies behind the counter tried to help me in Italian. I explained that I don't speak Italian, but I do like to eat Italian. I pointed at a few meats and asked her to please slice some for me. She would bring a handful of each on wax paper to show me and ask if I wanted more. I just kept nodding and hoping it would taste as good as it looked.

In the drygoods room I found a few bins of vegetables and fruit. I picked out what looked good and what I thought the children would eat. There were a few wines on a high dusty shelf, I picked two reds and proceeded back to the meat side. I watched as she took the dusty and well carved half of a prosciutto and put it shank end down into a wrought iron square clamp which held the thing in place. Then she proceeded to take out a long sharp knife and held it horizontally and shaved off transparent slices of the sweet and salty meat. The room filled with the mineraly scent of aged meat.

I paid for my goods thinking how well I did in such a meager little town at such a tiny shop.

Now, after the fact, I know that the little meat market in Madonna di Piano was more than just functional. We shopped at tiny markets in Todi, Orvieto, Castillano di Vibio, Deruta, Marsciano and Ponterio, some no larger than a walk in closet. Compared to the others, this was a great find. We were lucky to have such great selection of fresh and cured meats just a mile awy from our rental in the Umbrian countryside.

But on that Sunday afternoon, we were just happy to have enough food to feed eight people through the Sunday shut down.

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