When in the center of Florence, the grocery options are slim, and usually tucked between historical something-or-others or wedged into back alleys. It is much better to do a round of shopping – to the fruit woman, the meat man, the egg guy, etc – at the markets than run into the small and cramped mini “grocery stores” that you may find along the way.
(*Side note and travel tip! Unlike in the US, the markets are actually cheaper than in the stores!!) So markets it is – and they take up most of my shopping time in a normal week.
Going to a Supermarket outside the city center is an interesting experience. I’ve done it a few times now and every time am overwhelmed in this store that should be more familiar to me than the center markets. Yet, somehow I always end up flabbergasted- especially when I am following around my boyfriend that takes food as seriously as I take shoe shopping (yes, sometimes I can be girly.)
This past week, our fridge was pretty bare and for processed foods, heading outside the city center is much cheaper than in, so we hopped on a two euro train to Lastra A Signa – a little suburb of Florence where Rami’s parents live. Rami’s Dad, Bassel, picked us up at the station in the car and came with us to the Ipercoop – aka the Walmart/Target, etc of Italy.
First things first: there is a reason that there are no rogue shopping carts in Italy. Why? Because you have to (kinda) pay to use one. Stick a Euro coin into the slot located on the handle and the cart is freed from its chains linking it to all others in the corral. Slow Travel did a much more thorough job of demonstrating this than I ever will have the patience for so if you are extremely interested in the detailed process, check it out here.
*Warning – if you do have people coming up offering to “help” you by returning the cart to the corral, please keep in mind that they are not helping because they are a nice person, they are helping because your euro coin is still lodged in the cart and they will earn that euro for walking a few feet – unbeknownst to most that are not used to this process.
However, overall – this system is very well done and I think a good thing for the US to take up – though I can hear the complaints now. “I gatta pay a dolla for a friggn cahhht?!” But I’m sure that the city of Haverhill wished they came up with this idea before half of the city’s carts ended up in the Little River.
Once getting a cart, the fun begins. At this point Rami is trembling like a four year old walking into Toys R Us. In this IperCoop right at the entrance, there’s a pizzeria and foccaceria or bakery counter, as well as a small tabaccheria where you can buy a number of things including the Florence Soccer Team Fiorentina paraphernalia, tickets to the games, cigarettes, lottery tickets, place bets, or play some slot machines.
Turn right and you’re in main area for shopping – which it seems like a normal grocery store in the States, but it is this fact that throws me. For, yes, at the markets, I see many strange things. But in a grocery store, I guess I’m expecting things to be “normal.” Looking through the aisles, however, proves me oh, so wrong.
Think large squid and octopus spread out next to fish under the glass – sometimes still kind of moving. In the meat section, there are skinned rabbits under plastic wrap – complete with heads and eyes that make you want to look the other way. Chickens with feet, snails, brains, tongues, and other things you don’t even want to know about.
At this point, I am struggling to find solace in something my brain knows how to comprehend so I run to the produce while Rami bounces around in front of the fish. But in between the apples and celery (which is monstrous for some reason, as well as the Bell peppers) there are products that are as foreign to me as tripe (cow stomach for those unfamiliar with this famous Florentine dish. PS if you see it in a store or market, it is usually bleached. So, I stupidly googled unbleached and successfully found a picture. Click if you dare. Yes I have eaten it, no, I didn’t really like it and I can tell you that what it looks like in that unbleached photo is how it tastes…bleugh)
Rami and his father have now followed me as I suddenly am hoarding apples into our cart. It’s fall. It’s apple time, and for once I know more than them and explain the difference between Granny Smith and Red Delicious. One point for the New England chick. But I soon lose my ground when we turn to the next aisle wherein Rami becomes extremely excited to find these things:
(in English I found out that it is called a Persimmon. Apparently these grow at home too but the New England chick was unaware).
“You have never had these have you,” Rami said as he tried to reach the last of two packages in the entire store. I assumed they must be in season and my thoughts were confirmed when he then turned and asked his Dad if he wanted some too. To which his father responds that no, they have some a home. Where did they get them? “Borrowed” them off the neighbors tree, he says with a smirk.
As I eye the fruit, Rami gives me the background info and, as if to make me want to taste these foreign things more, explains the name for them is Kaki – which basically translates to “shitty.” And though they may taste lovely, they are extremely shitty to eat. Think strings of chunky gelatin encased in a really thin skin that completely explodes when you bite into it. Alas, another fruit I look horrible eating. Figs were the first. NOTE: If an Italian ever asks you if you’ve had figs before and you haven’t, do not try to save face by saying you’ve had Fig Newtons. You will not save face, you will lose it.
So the shitty fruit also made its way into our carriage and we proceeded deeper into the labyrinth that, at this point, I knew was not the norm. But I was struggling. I know how to buy food so I went strolling to the meat section to try and find something familiar enough to pick for myself in between the liver and the brains. I grabbed a pack of diced steak and walked to Rami who was busy looking at the multitude of cheeses.
“We could do a stir-fry,” I asked more than told and his Dad leaned over my shoulder to look at what I had picked up. The two then proceeded to examine the meat as if I had cut it myself and then gave me a 21 question attack as to when I would cook this and how I would do it.
“Ahh the meat expert,” Bassel mumbled as Rami inspected the package – seemingly to make me feel better. But truly, they are right with meat here, it won’t last more than a day or two – and this is my kryptonite. Because when buying anything like a cut of meat, you have to plan in your head what you will use it for and when. And, because they are Italian, it needs to be the “right” cut of meat for the right recipe. Fail. They would be horrified as to how I cooked in college.
My meat selection, after a few minutes of debate, did make the cut (ha meat puns) and made it into our growing cart of produce. But after this botched attempt at helping out, I decided to stick to what I knew and ran around the store getting milk, yogurt, and cleaning products for our kitchen. How can you mess up sponges? Meanwhile, Rami, with a huge grin on his face, is throwing things into the cart like Supermarket Sweep. Chocolate-filled mini croissants, eight different types of cheese, this type of sausage, that type of pepperoni, this, that, and over there types of sliced meats (this ended up all being part of an amazing dinner that Mr. Chef was planning in his head.)
So as he was off in playland and his father was perusing the entire aisle of Olive Oils, I realized we also needed eggs. Unrefrigerated in Italy, mind you, you’ll find them in an isle all their own. And there are a ton of options – but mostly in only four packs. Me, going by my American sense, grabbed the only dozen there was and wandered back to the cart – in which Rami had just put a bottle of soda in that horrifyingly resembled urine. Basel said nothing as I slowly placed the eggs into the cart but as soon as Rami turned and saw what I had done, he scoffed.
“No. Not those,” he objected, as if I had suggested to buy a package of arsenic. I looked at his father for backup but he only shrugged his shoulders.
“He’s right this time,” he almost apologized to me and made the walk of shame back to the egg isle to exchange my eggs for better ones. The problem? I had picked the hormone eggs. Basically, they would be perfectly normal eggs in the states, but Italians are so health-conscious, these are known as bottom-of-the-barrel. Mind you, there is proof that these other eggs, the “norm” for Italy, are definitely not as chock-full of hormones – which is proven from the few times I have found half-formed or full-formed chicks in my eggs.
This second mishap on my quest for a successful Italian shopping spree had me raising the white flag. Though it looked like a supermarket, and acted like a supermarket, I am still American and don’t value the quality of food as much as Italians. I can go to the store at home, stock up on everything, and it’ll last for weeks without even a touch of mold. Here? There are spots on fruit in a day. Meat rots in two. And people wonder why here, people in their 80’s are riding bikes and lugging groceries miles, while the US nursing homes are full of elderly that are immobile. Yes, exercise and way of life are elements of this comparison, but our food definitely has something to do with it too.
After the egg debacle, we did the rounds in the shampoo and home goods isles – places where I could hold my own a little better, and then proceeded to check out. Last scramble? There are no bag boys here. If you’re on your own, it is an absolute scramble to pay, ask for bags (yup – you have to pay for each one. (smart and green), and then proceed to bag everything before the checkout girl begins to shoot the next person’s produce directly at you with an annoying smirk that you can’t bag fast enough for her liking. This is the most panic I have experienced in this country. Thankfully, with three people it wasn’t that difficult…but then I packed the bags wrong.
All in all, it’s better here – minus the chicken feet. Healthier food? I can’t complain. Italians know how to do it even without the Whole Foods stores, and all that strange stuff? It actually is amazing that they can make just about any part of the animal something edible. This is what the majority of the world needs to do – especially in the US with their mass production, waste, hormones, and preservatives. Cut it down, and you’ll just live a longer, healthier life. Let’s get going. Just don’t ask me to pick out the eggs.