On this first truly Spring-like Friday of the year a misty haze softens the surrounding hills. The haze doesn’t deflect the heat of the sun, which blazes down from a milky blue sky. It’s early, but the cobbled street already feels warm underfoot as the sun lights up the peeling stucco and ancient stone of the buildings.
Most of the town’s main streets are blocked to accommodate hundreds of market stalls. That doesn’t bother many, most of the town’s population are at the markets – from the busy housewife acquiring household essentials to the dedicated fashion follower looking for a bargain to the elegant businessman, complete with suit and briefcase, taking time to browse and chat on his way to the office.
Kitchen sinks are probably available, if you knew who to ask. Everything else is, from silk underwear to leather shoes, from seeds and plants to grand stands of cut flowers, from silver teaspoons to cooking pots capacious enough to cater for a crowd.
After a short pondering over the possible purchase of a leather coat, I stroll around the corner and suddenly it’s there: the food. Accustomed to the vast wet markets of South East Asia, I’m nevertheless overwhelmed by the colour, size and variety of the food. Strawberries as big as my fist or small as my fingernail, white asparagus thick as my wrist, orangey-pink cantaloupe cut to show off the juicy flesh. Nectarines, cherries and apricots on the twig with fresh green leaves attached. Tomatoes are everywhere; smoothly round, clustered on the vine and red from the sun or giants with ribbed sides piled in rough multicoloured heaps, some split and filling the air with their rich tomatoey smell. Mounds of jewel-bright peppers, crimson-tipped artichokes, stripy garlic and shiny purple eggplant are far too beautiful to eat.
Everything smells deliciously fresh and real. The flowers, within olfactory range, compete with the fresh produce, which competes with cheese, cured meats and salami. This is cheese to be taken seriously; wheels of straw-coloured Parmigiano reggiano and bright yellow Montasio Friulano are stacked beside barrels of buffalo mozzarella bobbing in brine, baskets of ricotta oozing whey and tubs of creamy mascarpone. Salamis, mottled red or velvety white, hang in chains above bowls of olives and marinated vegetables. Nearby are great, flattened legs of ham, heavily herb-encrusted or sealed with wax. Smaller chunks are sliced, revealing pink flesh streaked with the firm white fat of proscuitto, parma or pancetta. Burnished logs of dark red bresaola nestle against the fat rounds of garlicky pink and white mortadella.
Another assault on the senses – gleaming seafood smelling deliciously of the sea. Octopus is curled in mounds alongside squid, crabs, scampi and scallops gorgeously still on the shell. Small neat sardines and massive mackerel stare sightlessly into space. Tiny grey snails crawl energetically over the basket sides; their larger brown cousins stay calm.
Freshly cooked seafood is also on sale. Breakfast is just over, but the crisply battered and fried calamari, scallops and fish are irresistible. Soon I’m delving greedily into a greasy paper packet, demolishing an early lunch.
I stand in the middle of the food market and gaze at this embodiment of my wildest fantasies. I’m in the way, annoying the serious shoppers who nudge and mutter..
The customers pinch and prod, caress and weigh, every purchase is crucial. Stallholders lovingly rearrange the depleted displays, tsking over a bruised apricot or carelessly handled cabbage. The rich Italian language floats above it all, alternately assaulting and caressing the ear. I pick up the change of pitch when friend greets friend with a lilting ‘tiao’, the almost aggressive tones of vendor to possible buyer as he wishes them ‘buongiorno’. I rejoice when I recognise a few words, enough to eavesdrop on a conversation. I realise I am repeating the words out loud and look to see if anyone is watching.
No one is, there’s business to be done and nobody watches the diffident stranger as she moves on up the road, hugging this lush, almost painfully rich experience to herself. This is her Italy, the one she’d come to see.