Shopping at farmers’ markets is the latest trend in the food industry


Weekly markets played a very important role in social life until only a few decades ago. People went to market not only to buy groceries but to hear the latest gossip, purchase seeds and seedlings for their vegetable plot, and even see the family doctor. Eating fresh, seasonal produce was not a fad: it was a way of life, a necessity, a habit. People ate whatever they could grow in their own gardens or buy at the local market.
Where I live, in Colle val d’Elsa, in the province of Siena, the weekly market has always been held on Friday mornings. It has always been the only time we get a chance to buy fresh seafood: hake, anchovies, squid, salt cod.
The weekly market is still a social event in town, as you can see from the groups of older people who get dressed up for the occasion, and often put on a hat, stopping in the shade in summer or in a sunny spot in winter, keeping warm like lizards in the sun and having a chat.
But if you go to some weekly markets, you’ll soon realise they are not easily accessible for all. Markets are often held on weekday mornings, so unless you have flexible working hours and can take some time off in the morning, it’s practically impossible to do your shopping at the market.

But that is beginning to change.

On one hand we have the historic indoor markets, such as the Florence’s Mercato Centrale in the San Lorenzo district and Sant’Ambrogio market, or the covered market in Livorno, places that have been the heart of the city’s life for centuries, with alternating fortunes. Their architecture, their human warmth and their decidedly Italian identity attract tourists and curious visitors, as well as locals who go to ask their favourite butcher or greengrocer for recipes and advice.

Indoor markets often have more flexible opening hours and are open on weekends, so that those of us who work classic office hours can also enjoy the experience of shopping at the market. Their timeless charm is attracting new fans these days, thanks in part to the many initiatives held in the markets, primarily linked with food and wine.
But what is truly revolutionising the way we do our shopping, attracting a lot of younger people who were often excluded from such traditional, slow-paced ways of doing the shopping for practical reasons and due to a shortage of time, is the farmers’ market.

Farmers’ markets first came into fashion in the United States, primarily California. They not only respond to the demands of today’s consumers, who are aware of the cycle of the seasons and pay attention to where their food comes from, but also meet an aesthetic need: we no longer have stacks of identical tomatoes, but traditional varieties with different colours, consistencies and shapes.
It has taken some time, but this “new fashion” has finally come to Italy too, in the form of markets featuring local producers, some of which are run by the farmers’ union; they come in a great variety of shapes and forms, but the basic concept is always the same: local farmers, often organic, come together in piazzas and parking lots which can easily be reached in various towns and cities, all day long, and often on weekends. Customers can buy locally grown produce, stone-ground flour made from local wheat, homemade pasta, sourdough bread, juices and preserves, wine, olive oil, cured meats and cheeses. The emphasis is not only on zero km produce in season, but on long-forgotten foods and techniques, and varieties which had all but disappeared.
These weekend markets put on by local farmers have also laid the foundations for a new way of shopping that is more conscientious, and more human. Producers are often proud of what they display in their stalls, and are happy to talk about it, tell people their stories and talk about their problems.
And so our grandparents’ way of doing the shopping, at the local market, is finally taking on the importance it deserves once again in our daily routine, which only too often involves rushing around, offering us a more sustainable way of being consumers.

Below is a list of some of my favourite markets for buying very special food products in Tuscany. 
Where to buy unusual honey
Honey is a very important product sold in farmers’ markets in Tuscany. The farmers’ market at Foro Boario in Lucca features more than one variety, including the traditional local “beach honey”. This limited production organic honey retains its liquid form until the end of the summer, only to crystallise naturally in autumn. Its fragrance recalling the sea breeze on a summer day makes it perfect for spreading over a slice of buttered bread, accompanying aged cheeses or even dressing salads of particular character.
Where to enjoy a traditional snack
Lucia of l’Alberaccio has had a stall in tbe Fierucola market in Santissima Annunziata, Florence for thirty years. She now sells her “necci” at the Santo Spirito market in the Oltrarno district as well. Necci are crêpes made with chestnut flour, traditionally eaten with a ricotta filling in the Appennines above Pistoia.

Where to buy herbs for special recipes
On the fourth Saturday of every month Greve in Chianti hosts a market of organic food and antiques called Il Pagliaio (“The haystack”). Here you will find Duccio Fontani, a farmer from Tregole nel Chianti with a small medicinal plant and herb garden. He sells saffron, a blend of dried herbs for roasts, salads and cheeses, and numerous other herbs for use in cooking. He speaks several languages and captures everyone’s attention right away with his eccentric but courteous ways.
Where to buy the traditional Christmas sweets of Siena
For the past few years Siena has brought back the atmosphere of the historic Mercato Grande that was held every week in the 13th century in Piazza del Campo.
For a whole weekend early in December the piazza is filled with market stalls let up with soft lights like those used by the sellers of olden days. This is one of the region’s best Christmas markets, with plenty of space for traditional local food products, crafts and manufactures.
The smell of sausages vies for pride of place with the spicy scent of panforte, panpepato, cavallucci and ricciarelli, unrivalled for pride of place on the table at Christmas time in Siena.
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