The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

In Praise of Italy’s Vegetable Men

Posted on | November 14, 2011 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

In Italy, I always fall a little in love with my vegetable men. These are not, I should explain, the guys who run the groceries, the stores with the produce out front and inside, tarocco arranged fetchingly to glow in the afternoon sun. These men, the ones of the brick-and-mortar stores, I’ve found to be a bit chilly. They’re not so keen on some brash American fondling their finocchio, however alluring it might be.

These men are also not the produce grocers at the supermercato, who are much nicer than their small store counterparts. (Likewise, the staff of supermercato in Montalcino is far more pleasant than the people working in Camogli and surrounding regions. For what that observation is worth, and I suspect it isn’t much.) And while the salumeria men might be jovial and virile, if somewhat intimidating, and while the panificio ladies are generally quite amiable, it’s the vegetable men, the ones who work behind the tables with their modest plastic bins of produce, who have captured my heart.

Part of it is their sheer tolerance for me and my horrid Italian. I point at an eggplant and ask the aproned guy behind the table, “Come si dice ‘eggplant’?”

“Melanzana,” the vegetable man answers back. And the process is repeated for kale (cavolo), chestnuts (castagne), and celery (sedano). When I mistakenly ask for honey (miele) or, occasionally, pork (maiale), when I mean apples (mele), the vegetable man doesn’t condescend. He’s not like the grocer who audibly rolls his eyes at my calling raspberries (lamponi) streetlights (lampione). He’s the soul of patience.

The vegetable sellers, whether the ones standing behind their small folding metal tables on market day with a few baskets of carefully presented seasonal offerings, or the ones whose grand stands overflowing with fruits and vegetables in every hue of the rainbow, are selling more than merely produce. They’re selling this evocative myth of Italy. The fecund lands, the hardscrabble farmers, the pride in the land, and the sheer improbability of this kind of abundance. It’s hard for me to visit a produce market here in Italy and not feel like one of those Romantic British travelers.

I may be American, but the produce markets hold the Technicolor wonder of Oz. These are Panavision vegetables. I can’t gaze upon those jewel-like eggplants, those nearly transparent green grapes, nor their inky black brothers, the verdant greens, those aggressively red tomatoes or the improbably golden potatoes without thinking of Goblin Market, a poem by Christina Rossetti, a British poet:

Come buy, come buy:

Our grapes fresh from the vine,

Pomegranates full and fine,

Dates and sharp bullaces,

Rare pears and greengages,

Damsons and bilberries,

Taste them and try:

Currants and gooseberries,

Bright-fire-like barberries,

Figs to fill your mouth,

Citrons from the South,

Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;

Come buy, come buy.

It’s enough for me to cut a golden curl. Fortunately, I need only pay in Euro. Which I do gladly. I can’t help but love those vegetable men.

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