Strike up a conversation with any Italian and, more often than not, the subject of food will quickly arise. I have always found Italians’ love of food and all that it symbolises intriguing – the heated debates over family recipes passed down from nonni to nipotini, the planning of a seasonal menu, and family and friends coming together for no occasion other than to share good food and wine. But what is remarkable is that Italians’ love of food comes not simply from what they eat, but how they eat. Food is a way of life in Italy; far more than mere sustenance, meals are the most cherished moments of the day, where a simple act of eating together carries enormous importance. Each town across Italy proudly possesses its own regional dish showcasing the very best of local produce: steaming pappardelle coated with rich Tuscan wild boar ragù, the creamy truffle risotto of the Piedmont hills and the sweet and sour caponata made with sun-ripened Sicilian aubergines. The simplest of ingredients are effortlessly thrown together without even glancing at a recipe and what emerges is a celebration of local produce. How Italians shop for ingredients, therefore, is arguably the most important part of the recipe.
Before moving to Italy from the UK, a trip to the supermarket wasn’t exactly a momentous occasion. On the contrary, shopping at the dreary Sainsbury’s around the corner from my London flat was always a fairly soulless experience where the limited assortment of products did not spark joy. Convenience reigns supreme in British supermarkets, with large areas dedicated to unhealthy snacks and pre-prepared fast food – something refreshingly lacking in Italian supermarkets. The very names of British supermarkets almost encourage hasty shopping: ‘Tesco Express’, ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ or ‘Morrisons Instant Shop’ imply what many British shoppers look for; an ability to dash in and out as fast as possible as opposed to leisurely salivating over enticing displays. Which is why, upon arrival in Milan as wide-eyed 20-year-old, I was relieved to discover that grocery shopping in Italy, and indeed the entire approach towards food, is much more agreeable experience.
Quite rightly, Italians believe in eating locally sourced, seasonal produce – they value supporting their country’s own produce, recognise the sustainable benefits and appreciate that food definitely tastes better that way. Unlike British supermarkets, where imported exotic fruit lines the shelves year-round regardless of seasonality, in Italy it is rare to find imported or out of season produce for sale. My observations suggest that Italians always look for the provenance of the products and actively avoid imported goods where possible. As I write it is late June, and my parents’ cherished vegetable garden is brimming with produce including strawberries, blueberries, green beans and cucumbers; proof that despite Britain’s supposed inclement weather, it is certainly possible to grow high quality produce on British soil, and yet most local supermarkets are full of foreign equivalents. A quick glance at the shelves at Tesco reveals strawberries from Egypt, blueberries from Morocco, runner beans from Guatemala and cucumbers from Greece. These items will invariably have been picked while still underripe and flown thousands of miles in temperature-controlled containers at huge expense, wrapped in endless plastic and pumping out vast quantities of pollution. Yet British shoppers wonder why their supermarket fruit isn’t packed with flavour. As the issue of sustainability is finally creeping into company mission statements and beginning to alter our approach to fast fashion, it seems the fresh food industry may be next on the list. While there has been considerable progress in recent years, with many British supermarkets undergoing significant changes to prioritise UK produce, one wonders whether more could be done to put an end to unsustainable supply chains for imported goods. Supermarkets should be encouraged to give greater priority to local produce when in season and reducing the amount of imported produce, with perhaps the wider benefit of weaning customers from their habit of buying out of season produce year-round.
The renowned “Made in Italy” label is relied upon by luxury brands all over the world and epitomises Italy’s approach to food. Importing foreign foodstuffs rather than selling homegrown seasonal produce is widely regarded as unnecessary, unsustainable and out of sync with nature’s seasons. Italian ingredients which are only in season for a couple of months of the year take a starring role during their time in the sun and cannot be found at other times of the year. For example, ‘nespole’ (loquats), globe artichokes and ‘barba di frate’ (a coastal shrub similar to samphire and charmingly named ‘friar’s beard’) are all only available in shops for a few weeks. Before living to Italy I had no idea that oranges are only naturally in season over the winter months. Sicilian Tarocco oranges, famed for their red-flecked flesh and glorious sweetness, are only in season from late November to late January, as with most citrus fruits. Accordingly, Christmas in Italy is a refreshingly citrus-scented time, with menus showcasing lemon risotti, orange and radicchio salads and creamy bergamot puddings, not forgetting the highly prized ‘canditi’ – candied lemon, lime, orange and cedro (giant citron) peel dotted throughout panettone. During the tarocco season, my boyfriend’s mother serves a particularly delicious dish of thinly sliced oranges scattered with pomegranate seeds and crumbled pistachios and drizzled with a thimbleful of vinegar – a dish that we all know to expect only around Christmas time.
In Milan there is a bewildering selection of excellent supermarkets. Esselunga is so much more than just a run of the mill supermarket, despite being in almost every town in Italy. Esselunga rightly prides itself on top quality produce and is somewhere I spend much of my time admiring the ever-changing displays. Coop is a similar chain with an excellent selection of items, while Il Viaggiator Goloso is a smaller, more upmarket delicatessen-style supermarket near Milan’s City Life district which has a particularly good cheese counter. Cortilia is an online-only green grocers, founded as a Milanese start up in 2012, which delivers fresh seasonal produce to your door and is the main reason my boyfriend and I didn’t starve during three months of Covid-19 lockdown in Milan. The intrepid Cortilia delivery chap who left our weekly box of supplies on the doorstep was almost the only other human we saw for several months, and so the company will always hold a special place in my heart. And it seems we weren’t the only ones – Cortilia’s annual turnover increased by 150% during lockdown compared with last year.
But there is one food shop so decadent, so very Italian and so dangerously close to our flat that I have to ration my trips – that place is Eataly. A sort of cosmopolitan foodie Mecca, Eataly is an Italian institution founded by Oscar Farinetti to create an immersive Italian culinary experience inspired by the Slow Food movement where customers can learn about Italian cuisine, enjoy a meal and shop for the finest quality Italian groceries. Eataly’s business model is driven by sustainability and ethical sourcing and is rigid in its insistence on short supply chains and working exclusively with local, small-scale Italian suppliers. The Milanese outpost is housed in a former theatre with a highly Instagrammable market-style grocery section on the ground floor and various mini restaurants dotted over three floors. Eataly’s market-style grocery shop symbolises the Italian tradition of shopping for fresh produce in local street markets – an equally common practice in France and Spain, but less frequent in the UK, where shoppers tend to treat supermarkets as a one-stop-shop. Eataly also features entire aisles filled entirely with different types of pesto, a fully kitted out butchers and fishmongers, a wine section that could rival any enoteca and an enormous Venchi chocolate fountain. Incidentally, I’d like to be buried at Eataly, preferably somewhere between the fresh pasta counter and the bottles of €600 Sassicaia.
When I asked my Italian friends about how they shop for food, several of them swear by going to different supermarkets for different items – one for meat and another for fruit, for example – demonstrating the importance of seeking out the best ingredients which is prioritised over time-saving efficiency. There is a far higher proportion of small independent retailers in Italy, in contrast to the stranglehold of multiples on most British high streets. In consequence, there are items which, despite high quality versions available in supermarkets, tend to be bought from specific establishments, often at a much more affordable price. The finest quality olive oil can be ordered in bulk from Pugliese or Tuscan olive famers, who send aluminium vats of fragrant grassy green oil adorned with hand-written labels. Wine is usually purchased from specialist enotecas or picked up from a countryside cantina en route back to the city after a weekend in the Piedmontese hills. The best focaccia can be bought for a Euro or two from the nonna whose panetteria (bakery) has been in the family for fifty years, whereas pastries are traditionally selected from glass cases inside the pasticerria (pastry shop, and crucially not the same as a panetteria), displaying rows of crostate, cornetti and Sicilian cannoli. Over the festive period, these pasticcerie are filled to the rafters with panettoni, the traditional Christmas cake – my favourite comes from Pasticceria Marchesi in Milan, which are well worth the queue (and the expense).
Each time I cycle to the nearest Esselunga, I love rubbing shoulders with the impeccably dressed ‘sciure’ (Milanese dialect for glamorous older women) who can be found sniffing out the best cantaloupe melons. They chat with the staff serving at the food counters whom they often know by name, and upon whose culinary expertise Italian shoppers regularly rely. Standing in line at these counters which are dotted around supermarkets like miniature butchers or cheesemongers is one of the most inherently Italian aspects of the food shopping experience. At the ‘salumiere’ meat counter, shelves groan under the weight of thirty different types of cured meat: hunks of San Daniele, mortadella, bresaola and peppercorn-studded salami are sliced in those shiny red Berkel meat slicers in any quantity requested. Over at the cheese counter there are gleaming glass cabinets containing every kind of cheese under the (Italian) sun alongside ceramic bowls of handmade pesto or the famed tuna sauce used in the Piedmontese dish of ‘vitello tonnato’. One thing I initially found unusual but particularly valuable in Italy is that it is perfectly normal to ask the fishmonger how to prepare and cook the chosen fish. Rather like Italian pharmacists, those who serve behind supermarket food counters are valued as reliable sources of culinary knowledge.
The dried pasta aisle in an Italian supermarket is always a joyous experience, where there are more shapes of dried pasta than I ever knew existed – I could spend hours scrutinising the farfalle, paccheri, casarecce, garganelli, pici and trofie, to name just a few. It made the national news when shoppers were eagerly stockpiling pasta at the beginning of lockdown but still spurned penne pasta, as it is seen by many as too smooth and slippery to be an adequate vehicle for any sauce it would accompany. Even in emergencies, discerning Italians care about maintaining culinary standards.
However, despite the exceptional quality of the products for sale, Italian supermarkets provide their own sources of frustration. While British supermarkets are fairly logically laid out with similar items grouped together, Italians seem to have glossed over this phase of the planning when deciding where everything should be positioned. When enquiring where I might find capers, the answer that came back was puzzling: “over on aisle 5, next to the coat hangers”. Of course, why didn’t I think to check there? Likewise, stationary items hang above the canned goods while multipacks of socks can naturally be found in the biscuit aisle. There are usually a few foreign foodstuffs surreptitiously lurking on the lower shelves including Heinz tomato ketchup or Walker’s English shortbread biscuits (yours for a staggering €8), but exotic pantry goods such as tahini or coconut milk provoke bewildered looks from the staff; such items are almost impossible to find given the emphasis on Italian produce whereas these are readily available in most British supermarkets. If you’re after seventeen different kinds of olive oil, however, you’re in the right place. So focussed are the Italian supermarkets on food that it requires great acumen to locate household essentials such as lavatory paper, which are often found piled on top of the freezer fridges in unreachable and unlikely positions.
After the leisurely stroll around the store comes the navigation through the self-service check out against the background of impatient shoppers uttering ‘dai!’ (“come on!”). For the uninitiated, having to scan one’s receipt under a minute scanner to open the exit barrier whilst heavily laden down with shopping provides much confusion. While an effective deterrent against would-be thieves, it took me several visits before I cottoned on, and would find myself penned into the check-out area, clutching armfuls of burrata and squealing for help in broken Italian, indignant at being held hostage. Eventually a friendly security guard pointed out the error of my ways and I now reciprocate by helping whenever I see frantic shoppers trying to escape.
What I have learnt from living in Italy is that an excellent dish all comes down to the quality and provenance of the ingredients and that shopping seasonally with respect for local produce is the best way to eat well. And so, after many months of wandering around Italian supermarkets, I have learned to always look for an item’s provenance, to always ask the fishmonger how best to prepare octopus and to relish not just eating the final dish but all the effort that goes into its creation. To adapt the English expression ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, from my experience in Italy I could say the ‘proof of the (Italian) pudding is the quality of its ingredients.’ After all it is food that brings us together, so it had better taste good.
Ella lives in Milan and is currently studying for her Masters at the SDA Bocconi Business School.