Manners and Mores at the Mercato: Or how I learned the value of a body check.

The Sicilan boys Going to the market in Umbertide on Wednesday mornings is critical. Not only do we get our weeks worth of fruit and vegetables, but its a social outing. Girlfriend! I wear lipstick on Wednesday! 

The routine goes something like this:
The first challenge of the morning is to find parking. And let me tell you the parking situation is much worse this year…be warned! Parking is an interesting method of expressing Italian creativity, you will find parked cars in nearly every nook and cranny, practically wrapped around corners and taking up 2 spaces whenever possible.

Once reasonably legal parking is accomplished we head to Bar Mary for our morning cappuccino and a cornetto and a glimpse at what Irena is wearing that day. Irena is a woman of a certain age who has the vivacity and wardrobe of a much younger woman, meaning as the weather heats up, she wears less and less.  We like to take a corner table so that we can watch the parade of shoppers and usually someone or other will join us for a coffee and a chat.

  Valerinas flowers Then it’s down to the business of shopping and I need a full two cappuccinos to steal myself for the challenges ahead while Jeff wanders off to flirt with Valerina and buy her flowers.
 First stop is the Sicilian boys because they usually have the best assortment and price. But the boys like to chat amongst themselves more than work, so it takes a lot of shoving my bag full of Valencia oranges under their noses before they deign to weigh and you get to pay. Meanwhile, a very wizened little old nun is shoving her bag in front of my bag, the little old man next to me is negotiating his free celery and carrots, the pretty lady at the end is tossing peaches all over the place and I just want my 2 euro change so I can back out of the bedlam. 

Everyone is a hustler, the seller and the buyer and the claims of superior deliciousness, a thumb on the scale, miscounted change all evens out as free celery is perceived as a required gift, grabbing a few more tomatoes after you’ve already paid is tolerated by the sellers or extensive negotiating about the necessity for a discount. The hustler extraordinaire however is Monseur. He’s a young Muslim kid, who belongs in a schoolroom not working as a fruttovendolo, but everyone loves him and his high wattage smile. He likes to practice his English with us and his hustle is that if you say you want one bunch, he thinks you mean as least a half a bunch more and he throws that in. You ask for 6 eggs, you get 8…and you pay for 8. I was usually too amused by his good hearted sales tactics to point out that I only wanted 6 eggs, but now I ask for 4, get 6, and we’re both happy. Oh, and Monseur doesn’t post any prices, so there’s another little elaborate game as he adds us the total.  I figure if the amount seems fair, that’s ok with me. Valencia oranges

Next up Jeff is indignantly telling me that some woman has actually body checked him and pushed him aside. I’m astonished. Astonished this is his first full body check in all these years.

I walk over to a stall that has a nice display of melons and a woman is standing there shouting at the melon man. The basic gist of her tirade is that last week the melon man said his melons were ‘bouni’, but they weren’t ‘bouni’ at all, they were tasteless and for 6 euros she got nothing for her money, and its only his words that were bouni. This went on for a good 5 minutes, finally the melon man gets a word in edgewise and says, “Please, Signora, take another melon at half price.”  The woman draws herself up and spits out, “I wouldn’t take one of your melons today. But I will come back next week for a half price melon!” and she storms away. The melon man watches her walk away and the little crowd that had gathered all burst out laughing. I didn’t buy any of his melons, but he did have some nice tomatoes.

Tender melanzani Our last stop on the way out of the market is the fish man, who mercifully instituted a number system last year. There’s a machine that spits out your paper number and everyone gets served in turn. It has eliminated the fisticuff situation while buying fresh sole. However, last time a woman pushed her way to the front and demanded service. Daniele politely told her she needed to take a number, she was dumbfounded that he wouldn’t take her, while other customers helpfully pointed out the number machine but she wasn’t having any of it. After giving me a good shove, she lunged for the little basket where you throw your used number and she was pawing her way though the slips of paper so that she could claim her number had been passed over. I left before the fisticuffs started again.

And so goes a morning at the market.  This week we came home with some tender small local eggplants, a gorgeous pepper, a few early season tomatoes and the first of the stone fruits to show up. But, now when you look at this photo you’ll appreciate what it takes around here to claim some good produce. Eating is serous business and shopping for food is no laughing matter. Well, ok, I do admit to laughing now and then!
Stone fruits and a melon

1 Comment

  1. mitch on May 29, 2009 at 8:57 am

    Wow…and I thought the Union Square farmer’s market was a zoo!

    Did you buy some of the gorgeous fava beans?

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