Market day is the high point of the week in a Tuscan town. Each town has its regular market day, a very small town maybe hosting just a few stalls of fruit and vegetables, bigger ones filling several streets with all the goods under the sun. One of the joys of being on holiday in Italy is having the leisure time to explore its tastes and flavours, by wandering the small food shops and observing what the locals buy. Food is taken seriously and the buying of it is a social activity, market day more so than ever, with people flocking from the countryside around to buy and sell.
Whenever there is a market of any size in a Tuscan town, you will find a stall selling porchetta. This is a favourite market snack and treat – a whole young pig, spit-roasted and stuffed with an aromatic mixture of herbs and salt. The meat is tender and the stuffing tangy with the herby salt. You can buy a packet of slices by weight (100g is called an etto) or purchase a panino, a crusty roll, filled with slices of porchetta to munch on there and then. Ask for some of the stuffing to be added if you like strong flavours.
Wander around browsing the other stalls as you munch on your porchetta panino. You will find vans selling cheeses, some will just have two varieties of pecorino cheese, the sheep’s milk cheese that is a Tuscan speciality, others a huge selection of cheeses from all over Italy. Every area produces cheese with different characteristics, depending on the pasture that the sheep graze on. Pienza in Southern Tuscany is famed for its creamy pecorino, the fresh ones mild and the stagionato (aged) ones smooth and gentle on the tongue. Pecorino from around Rome has a stronger flavour, and is the cheese used there instead of parmesan to grate on pasta and in cooking.
Taste the cheese before you buy. If you ask about a certain cheese you’ll be offered a sliver, to help you decide, then you can decide how much you’d like to buy. A whole round of a stagionato cheese to keep or just a quarter for your picnic today.
The fruit and vegetable stalls will be loaded with fresh produce, whatever is in season. In spring and autumn juicy bulbs of fennel, finocchio, make a wonderful salad to accompany your pecorino cheese, sliced thinly and tossed with some salad leaves, or layered with dramatic red blood oranges, arancie sanguinie, in spring when there are still some left over from Sicily’s winter harvest. Once you have chosen your fruit, strawberries, apricots and peaches in early summer, luscious grapes, figs and pears in early autumn, you are all set for a picnic lunch in an olive grove. You just need to search out the Forno, the bakery, follow your nose into a side street, it will be baking up a storm for the market, with crusty loaves of bread, trays of focaccia, pizza bread, local speciality cookies.
You could of course continue to wander the market, examining stalls of everything from white embroidered linen, ironmongery selling barbeque grids and tongs, to cheap shoes and clothes, wooden household implements and plastic wares. The bars will be bustling with coffee drinkers. Then with a swish of a broom by 12.30 the market stalls will be packed up and gone, over till next week, leaving the Tuscan town to the serious matter of lunch followed by a siesta.