It is six in the morning as the sounds of fruit crates fill the air, stallholders display their colourful wonders – fruit of the earth, the seas and man-made – and the daily spectacle begins.
Rome is more than just its monuments. Rome is neighbourhood life. La vita di quartiere in neighbourhoods resembling autonomous cities, with markets as their social reference points since antiquity. Rome awakens with these heroes before dawn, laying out their stalls with seasonal fruits and vegetables, with the resonance of popular poems carried by voices that speak the language of everyday life.
Rome’s markets are social theatres of an ancient vintage. Places morphing over time, but invariable in substance. Intersecting and touching a variety of human lives like folding bellows. In a high speed world, the produce market is a symbol of a slow life. Of those who still think that taste counts as much as the gestures of choosing products. A wonderful example of faith and adaptation, where people rely on the wisdom of the vendor.
“You want those artichokes, ma’am? They’re the last of the season,” the greengrocer says as he fills a paper bag with the first tomatoes.
“Put a couple in there, come on.”
The packed stalls are however not just a clichéd expression of folklore like a film starring Sophia Loren. The markets’ importance to the city of Rome is also what distinguishes it from other capitals. A wealth of regional products originating just outside the city.
Rome is tied as closely to the surrounding countryside, as its cuisine, the popular one found in the trattorie, is to the seasonality of its ingredients. Eating a fried artichoke alla Giudia or broad beans with pecorino cheese does not only mean enjoying good products and good recipes: it means savouring the moment the produce is at its best. Thanking the season, with a smug bite, for finally being upon us. “Carpe Diem”, our ancestors would have said.
That’s why Rome’s markets are as topical as ever. They are a bulwark against conformed consumerism. As I write this article the last asparagus and the last peaches are being sold as pomegranate make a first appearance (though the signore lament their precocious inferiority).
Rome’s surroundings are hospitable to almost every vegetable and fruit: from kiwis to limes and avocados. The perfect place for a regionally sourced, sustainable life.
This vision is addressed in a modern way by Recup. Recup is an association of young people, out to reduce food waste. Saving unsold fruit and vegetables, destined to be thrown away, from the stalls of some markets. Federico, Sara, Giorgia and other young people collect crates over crates of fruit and vegetables and give them away for free after markets close.
The system of Roman markets, today as in the days of Ancient Rome, is composed such that almost every neighborhood – Rioni as they are referred to here – has at least one. Some are in squares, others indoors. There is Trastevere’s market, in Piazza San Cosimato, where you can find the few remaining locals shopping for vegetables, fruits, but also fish, meat and traditional products such as homemade bread. There is the recently renovated indoor market of Testaccio, built on the remains of a river port where the ancient Romans unloaded their goods. Here, between a sandwich and some grocery shopping, you can lean out and marvel at ancient amphorae.
Most famous of all, as it mixes Roman characters with dazzled tourists, Campo de’ Fiori market is the quintessential expression of Rome and all things Roman. Set in a downtown square, houses towering around, the statue of the hooded philosopher Giordano Bruno cautions life with the commemoration of his death. And oh, does life revolve around the statue. Fruits, vegetables, freshly squeezed juices and romantic flower stalls evoke images that narrate the history of Rome. Antiquity, the Middle Ages, yesterday and the present are embodied by figures like Enza, who has been selling her fruits here since 1963 wearing her AS Roma Football earrings. Much of the charm lies in the dialogues: sometimes you chat about what just came in, other times the greengrocers volunteer their entire biography. And it’s these little things, along with the charmingly mechanical gestures, that constitute the eternal city made of ephemeral human beings and fleeting stories.
Markets in Rome are the beauty of a slow life. A way of life conserved here, juxtaposed with progress manifested in everyday life and shifting urban landscapes. Mornings are not a frantic time defined by work: going to the market means giving oneself the most precious thing: time.
Hands grasp fruits, leaves or vegetables, mouths speak enquiries or advice and in the meantime the etiquette of the Roman market dictates that the right product can only be chosen, if tried or tasted.
The hand feels the persimmons that have just arrived.
The eye appraises its orange color.
The hand reaches up, the mouth opens and bites into a slice of persimmon.
“Good ones,” the lady says. “Give me two pounds of them.”
“Let’s make it three pounds, ma’am, this is the best time for persimmons.”
It’s not about numbers and precision.
It’s a game of life, trust and all time that only the eternal city can give you.