Italians have a great market culture. In Seattle, I grew up going to the Pike Place Market but going there was an event. I went frequently enough but only because my dad loved it and took us there on weekends with him. The farmers markets that seem to have sprung up everywhere in the states, at least on the West Coast, are the norm in Italy and has been for thousands of years. Markets here are not just for food and crafts. We have markets like that too but traditionally they are for everything: clothes, shoes, underwear, flowers, plants, seeds, tools, pots, pans,, plates, glasses…You can have knives sharpened and keys made. This is the tradition in a country with thousands of towns that didn’t necessarily have enough people to support a merchant and his shop. These travelling markets with individual stalls still make their weekly rounds in our towns and piazzas. Some still have hundreds of vendors and you can find anything and everything. The Tuesday market in the town of Cuneo (pop. 60,000) is enormous but smaller towns in the area may have a few dozen or even just a handful of stalls.
In a perfect world we would all be mobile and able to do the shopping on our own but what happens when you live in a town so small, there are no basic services? What happens when you can no longer drive or even walk to the store or a market? In the states it is fairly easy to find online supermarket delivery services in most “greater urban areas.” Imagine 60 million people packed into an area about 25% smaller than the state of California….I view a lot of Italy as a “greater urban area.” My neighbor, Valentina, has a clever little business that helps people who can no longer get to a store and that fits in perfectly with the market traditions but goes one step beyond…a travelling store or mini mercato viaggiante!
I love the concept of Valentina’s Mini Market, because for me, mini markets have always been synonymous with junk food…not this one! Most mornings as I am getting Emanuele off to school, I can hear Valentina preparing for her day. Her little girl, Anna, is tucked away with our next door neighbor…or with her grandparents…whatever the sistemazione is for the day. She has a noisy, motorized cart that she uses to move products from her garage; where she has a refrigerator cell and lots of storage space, to her truck. She is never out too early so the clamor doesn’t really bother us. Sometimes Valentina’s husband, Federico, helps, especially with the heavy lifting but she is often on her own since Fede has to run off to work.
Most of Valentina’s clients are quite old and live off the beaten path in tiny villages. They still live independently but either don’t have easy access to a grocery store or are physically unable to shop. Vale sets appointments and takes her shop to them. They can either climb on board and browse or order from the ground. If they want something special, she can order it for the next week. She really has a little bit of everything, including laundry soap, toilet paper and cleaning supplies! Another bonus for her clients is Valentina’s smiling face and actual contact with a person. Italians are generally very social people and being house bound is hard for anyone. Even if her clients could order from an online market it’s impersonal, not to mention the fact that she is not working with a very tech savvy generation.
The best thing about Valentina’s little shop is the quality of food. This is what Italians expect and I am still amazed at even after 20 years here. It’s like the little gourmet boutique you might seek out in the states but here it’s just normal. Dried Porcini mushrooms, pine nuts and arborio rice. She has a meat slicer on board for prosciutto, Mortadella and salami, Parmigiano Reggiano, creamy Gorgonzola and a bunch of other local cheeses, a selection of fresh fruits and veggies that changes with the seasons and at Christmas she had mini panettone for her clients since a normal sized one would be too much for most of them.
Last but not least is the convenience of having a mini market next door. Most afternoons after returning from her day, the store is open for neighbors to come and do their shopping. Am I out of pasta, milk, sugar? No problem! I must admit I am not in the habit of shopping at Valentina’s very often because I still physically like going shopping, whether it is the weekly market, one of the mom and pop markets in my town, or even on occasion, a giant supermarket. I need to get out of the house but am comforted by the thought that someday, if I can’t, Valentina, (she’s a lot younger than me) or someone like her will be there. Life is too short to eat bad food!
There are a few things I get at a big grocery store, speciatly items that I can’t find anywhere else. The big weekly markets are fun but I don;t ike having to deal with the crowds and parking when my time is limited. My favorite place to shop is my local mom and pop shop. I can walk or bike there faster that I can pull out my car, they have everything I need and I really want them to be able to stay in business in this age in which we all seem to want more for less.
Now that you have shopped with your eyes, please tell me where you do most of your shopping.