‘Local’ has been a term to confuse as much as please – much other clichés like ‘authentic’, ‘fresh’, ‘natural’, ‘home made’ that fall like snake oil from the copywriter’s pen nib. What started out as real enough became hijacked by brand owners looking for a quick fix in the fierce world of grocery marketing.
A UK supermarket director once gave me his definition of ‘local’ as being ‘any food sourced within the British Isles’. The man was playing to the crowd – his audience that day included many of British farming’s political elite. As crass as was the answer, now we know where we stand when supermarkets play folksy as a lure to bring the unsuspecting through their doors.
Another shop hangs an image of muddy boots on its walls to demonstrate its commitment to British farming. The boots are Le Chameau, but that top hole French brand from Normandy’s logo has been air-brushed off the boots.
If I am right, the original definition of ‘local’ for a farmer’s market was set in New York – I think it was 50 miles radius of the actual market – and it brought most times genuine small-holders from upstate New York down into the heart of Manhattan. Friends in food tell me exciting tales of many more flourishing green markets now across the city – and indeed in most US cities – where quality and variety continue to thrill the shopper.
Union Square Farmer’s Market stays with me for where else would I have got to taste a fiddlehead fern? So were strawberry farmers one summer in Sweden who were encouraged to set up stall in a supermarket’s car park in a town near where we were staying with a dairy farmer with pure bred Welsh Mountain ponies as a hobby and whose woods offered us up daily caches of chanterelles – some of the easiest foraging ever, except for the day a full size male elk came too close for comfort.
This side of the water, farmer’s markets like farm gate shops seem all too often to stretch the rules. As for quality, I have never once found my Avalon at a London farmer’s market where the rules insist sellers must grow, rear and make their foods within 100 miles of the M25. Is this local? Birmingham and Bristol fit this arc from London.
Whilst on London farmer’s markets, why must plastic be so prevalent – it is outlawed, by choice, in Italy. Even supermarkets are trying to cut down on plastic and yet most stall holders in our local farmer’s market not only offer plastic bags, but some use plastic for their pre-packs.
None I’ve visited in Europe measures up to Italy’s ‘Zero Kilometres’ – KMØ – the symbol adopted by those who are genuine about local. Remember this is about making a point, not about the literal.
Saturday started in Grottaferrata’s modernist open market – Mercato Coperto di Grottaferrata – some locally love to joke that it’s really a flying saucer that’s landed in the town car park. I saw it as a small but well stocked local market – with meat and fish as well as produce and run by sellers who all knew their customers, most by first names.
I got talking to stall-holders like Irma and Elizabeth. Talk turns to food miles and I’m shown a box of produce which arrived from Rome’s wholesale market that morning – cauliflowers from England. We laugh over local – again.
Prickly Pears grow wild across the Italian south. There they are called Fichi India – Indian figs – worth hunting some down in London’s Turkish and Lebanese grocers. Late summer / early autumn is the time. Do ensure the prickles have been removed or a shock is in the offing. Fresh Ricotta and a little sugar would be my suggestion.
Next stop is a new farmer’s market – called Mercato Contadino – on the Parco dello Sporting Club (firstname.lastname@example.org) to meet Eva Castrucci (also the head of the Slow Food Praesidium of Albano) and Elisa di Gennaro, the powerhouse behind the farmer’s markets through the Castelli region. They just celebrate their third year.
What makes these markets different is that everyone with a stall is selling product they’ve themselves grown or made. No middlemen here, just artisans with soil under their nails. A contadino is more a peasant / small-holder than it is a Range Rover driving gentleman farmer – in Ambridge-speak, Tony & Pat Archer not Brian Aldridge.
On the roadside close by the market, a man is selling the first of the year’s fresh porcini. He also has chanterelles. For me these are my two most favourite wild mushrooms – I rarely take any others when I’m out foraging. Before I even say a word, he apologetically tells me the funghi have been sent over from Bulgaria the day before, as local foragers haven’t yet got lucky in the woods of the Castelli.
He was happy to slice a couple through lengthways to show there were no invading bugs. As with buying truffles, never buy from a trader who is not prepared to do this act of honesty. Belgium’s Truffle King taught me that. I paid my €10 and was allowed to take my pick. When the local porcini arrive they will be twice that price and maybe more depending on supplies and plenty.
‘Buono, Genuino e Naturale‘ says the poster for the Mercato Contadino which now run in Albano, Ariccia, Frascati, Pavona and Rocca di Papa (www.mercatocontadino.org).
We joked about his gelati company being called Gelateria Greed (www.gelateriagreed.com). It got lost in translation – sorry, but greed for me equates with ‘foodie’. Having only weeks before re-read Ann Barr and Paul Levy’s tongue-firmly-in-the-cheek, The Official Food Handbook, I am at a loss to know why anyone is proud to sport the title. As an aside, the Foodie Handbook was first published in 1984 – surely not a coincidence?
Dario began making gelato when he was bought an ice cream machine by his mother when he was 12. Now his gelati are honoured in Gambero Rosso. Flavours like Panzanella Romana tasted of just that – tomato, olive oil, bread – and yet was a dessert flavour. I told him how only two evenings before in Salerno (Naples), we had been served three separate gelati made with three different tomato varieties. They were as distinct as Cox’s Orange apples would be from William pears.
The butter ice cream was made with butter from a local artisan creamery. A beer flavour – Birra Ariccia – was made from a modernist local brew which is only ever made with cereals grown in the Castelli. Such craft beers are fast becoming fashion in parts of Italy – but as Martin Luther famously said ‘Beer is made by man; wine is from God’.
Other flavours to excite were Cacio e Pepe, Almond Pesto (like the Pesto di Mandorle – echoes here of the Sicilian Trapani recipe only made with the fresh, new season nuts), Virgin Olive Oil and Pistacchio – made with the Bronte variety. Every flavour had its story.
As I toured through the market, conscious of my ticking clock as my flight check-in was only hours off, I chose between what I’d like to buy and what I could seriously fit in my bag without incurring penalties.
Lemons, early apples, green figs, tomatoes, aubergine, peppers, the last of the zucchini flowers (all in peak condition having been snipped for market just hours before), Misticanza (wild salad gathered that morning from pesticide-free fields and hedgerows), breads, biscuits, salume e prosciutto and table grapes, sold with fresh leaves for wrapping around tiny game birds or whatever is your choice.
I still found time to walk a few dozen metres along the original stones of the Via Sacra which joins the Via Appia into central Rome – this was the start of Ancient Rome’s main street, as famous for ritual and festive celebration known as Feraie Latinae – and also prostitutes. Too sad to almost report, morose looking Eastern European girls were working the Via Appia as we drove back into Rome. Plus ça change; rien à changer, etc.
It seems there has been a market on the Via Sacra / Via delle Cerquette site since Ancient Rome was at the centre of the world and by then home to over 1,000,000 people. The farmer’s market is just three years old.
One more stop before lunching on panini’s filled with warm Porchetta. Another remarkable location – the Azienda Agricola Iacchelli. Here is a working farm and agriturismo (B&B) that was started after WW2 by a family who moved to the Castelli from the Marche (www.iachelli.com).
zucchini flowers, haricots, borlotti beans, escarole, potatoes (rarer than you think that far south), peaches, plums, apples and – if we need proof positive of freshness – celery ends that are evidence of same.
“As children we’d always have a fresh raw hen’s egg when we came to market. Just crack it open and down it goes,” shared my guide. Funny thing is, I was just reading of how eggs were enjoyed like this in Ancient Rome where a specially pointed tool was provided to pierce and not break the shells.
Here we meet Michelle Smith, one of those remarkable self-taught, follow-their-nose-and-instinct people: “Frascati excites me for the same reasons as it did the Romans – it’s green, has clean air, great views, history, it’s near lakes and sea, has quaint neighbouring towns and it is near Rome”.
A few warehouses on the roadside defy the unknowing passer-by. The Norcineria put all previous salumeria’s I have ever visited to shame. The root of the word is Norcia – a place famous through Italy for cured meats – and Norcineria has become another way of saying fine butchery.
The place was remarkable. Anyone serious to follow my journey will find it off the Via Casilina in Montecompatri. This is a pork heaven – farmyard and wild. Just as the ceiling is hung with cured meats, so the air hangs heavy with porchetta warm and fresh from their ovens out back. Chic glass doors slide silently and effortlessly open and shut as customers come and go.
The clock kept ticking and time was pressured – this time at least. Frascati and the Castelli are my new adopted home. I may be cooking there in good company someday very soon.
So, we move onto the land of the region’s oldest vineyard which legend says was sited by Bacchus himself. This is no small enterprise, producing around 600,000 bottles a year. Principe Pallavicini is a place of calm and serenity – a place at one with Nature herself.
I am told of how the estate has invested heavily this year in the very latest GPS technology to tell, from space, when the grapes are ripe for harvest. This news is quickly softened by confirming that the older, wiser men at the winery then take samples and taste – just as they’ve done for centuries across the Castelli.
We go below ground to the bottle storage – it is the original cistern for an aqueduct which fed fresh water into central Rome – its terminus being close to the Trevi fountain. The cistern was cool and my body shook in pleasure at knowing where I was standing as the story was put my way – bless you, www.principepallavicini.com
Frascati pre-dates Rome. It was home to two Medieval Popes and on the Grand Tour. Wine making was in place before the Ancient Romans and the name Frascati is said to derive from the ancient custom of putting branches over the doors of wine cellars to tell everyone that the new wine had arrived. Some even say that the town’s name was first Frescati before becoming Frascati.
History rocks this place. I am rocked by this place. It’s now where I have my hair cut, as if to lock me in further. Talk turns to Leonardo’s home town of Trapani and the famous Sicilian Couscous Sagra on the beach. Another story for another time.
Having come up from Naples to Frascati, it seemed only right I went to see Pulcinella. Imagine my delight at being taken backstage during the explosive performance of this 17th century Neapolitan classic.
Pulcinella knew a thing or two about telling tales – next time someone tells you some food is local, ask some questions – nicely, but firmly. Whilst at it, always walk by when freshness and quality is below par. Never compromise. That’s not the way of Blue Collar Gastronomy©.
NOTE: Frascati is 14 minutes for a €1 train ride from Rome Ciampino airport. The Mercato Contadino is 08h30-14h00 every Friday on the Via di Grotta Portella (12). As they say ‘Buono, Genuino a Naturale’.
All fresh produce pictures for this article were shot on an iPhone4 and none were edited for colour or contrast. The produce sings loudly in the Castelli Romani. The customers would expect no less.