If ever there is a day in which you need a boost in morale, a visit to a food market in Florence is always the anecdote. It is absolutely my favorite food tour to do and I feel my heart flutter any time I walk through these food treasure chests. If you really want to understand the neighborhood culture in Italy there are a few things you should always do when traveling:
1. visit a local coffee bar every morning. Pick one near where you are staying and always go there.
2. hang out at a the closest food market. people watch. observe.
I could pour my heart out as to why I think food markets are so crucial to a healthy society. I studied a bit of food politics and anthropology so this stuff gives me geeky goosebumps. Aside from the fact that (from some vendors) these markets provide local, seasonal produce at affordable prices…these markets are a meeting point for locals. It is what keeps our social skills sharp since we are forced to talk to one another. Supermarkets are sad, individualistic places with weird lighting and questionably fresh food. When you go to a food market, you have to talk to either the farmer or the vendor, and sometimes the people around you! I am definitely apart of the social media/smartphone/tablet/laptop generation yet I see that if we aren’t careful, we will loose certain social skills such as looking someone in the eyes and having a meal together without doodling on our electronic devices about it.
When I was home last year, I experienced one of the saddest moments in my life. I was in a small, neighborhood grocery store at the produce section with those bright lights shining on the perfectly ordered display and realizing there wasn’t my fruit and veg guy from Sant’Ambrogio in his thick Florentine accent asking me if I wanted odori (herbs) and how to prepare the peppers he hand-picked that morning from his farm. I stood there alone with other lone shoppers chugging along the store aisles and I realized “this is no way to shop for food! Viva il Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio!”
It is a true shame about how exclusive food markets are in the states. Well, I should only say the west coast since that is my experience. I couldn’t stand that I had to spend 2-3x as much for “local” organic produce. Understandably, these markets cost more because the US agricultural subsidy program is a complete paradox and favors big industrial producers of conventional corn, soy, wheat and cotton rather than small hard working producers of nutrient rich seasonal vegetables that people don’t have crazy allergies to. I have a theory as to why we don’t take small-scale farming more seriously, and that is America really hasn’t hit rock bottom in terms of feeling hunger, aside from socio-economical reasons such as marginalized communities (not born with a silver spoon in their mouth) making minimum wage. And that could be a reason why they shrug off the importance of supporting local, small farmers who produce vegetables and fruits. If you think about it, Italian cuisine is based off of peasant foods when Italy in certain times in history really hit rock bottom. That experience has lead to a certain amount of sensibility in how agriculture is supported and funded. Granted, it is not all glitter and local organic gold. The claws of industrial food are definitely sinking into Italy. However, you can still find the human spirit and real produce at food markets in Florence, for example.
If you are in Florence, you can’t miss these food markets:
1. San Lorenzo Central Market- This stunning cast iron structure was designed by Giovanni Mengoni who was also the architect for for the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. Since 1874, this market has been a culinary hub for Florentines and now travelers from all over the world. If you can wade away from the stalls of souvenir crappola, make it inside the market of San Lorenzo to still wade your way through dinky stands of tourist-trap food souvenir shops. If you can read between the lines, you can still find real butchers with every organ on display, see the bistecca fiorentina in the flesh (literally), artisan cheese cases (not the ones with brands like “Conti” whose products you can find in the airport) and the best fish mongers in town. I am lucky to know some amazing local chefs, one tells me she only gets her fish from San Lorenzo. The top floor is a food lover’s heaven with slightly overpriced snacks and meals, however it is a great place to meet at most hours of the day (until midnight) and it is nice that you can choose to have a plate of truffled pasta and a glass of chianti at what is basically a food court or taste various fresh mozzarellas at the cheese bar.
Details: Indoor Market, Piazza del Mercato Centrale. Mon-Fri: 7am-2pm (the upstairs food court is opened till midnight 7 days a week) and Saturday 7am-5pm
2. Sant’Ambrogio Market- This is where you can find my heart. Like the Central Market, Il Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio was also conceived by Giovanni Mengoni in 1873. Originally, the area of Sant’Ambrogio (defined by the nearby church), was mainly open fields which could explain the street that parallels Via De’ Macci: Via dell’Ortone. Ortone sounds very close to the word “orto” which means vegetable garden. The stalls that line the outside of the market are different than the ones you see at San Lorenzo. Here you will find the produce vendors and on some sides you will find a sort of market of household goods, vintage clothes, shoes and other useful items. This is a classic representation of an Italian mercato. Italian markets aren’t only for food, they also sell stock items, clothes and practical goods at lower prices than in the stores. Expenditures and salaries of Italians are a lot more modest than people realize. I very much appreciate that this historical market hasn’t completely sold out to selling tourist crap like San Lorenzo has. Chefs and locals agree that Sant’Ambrogio is the place for produce. While there are still vendors who go to the wholesale distribution center to get goods, there are a few who sell produce from their own gardens and farms. We meet these intricacies on food market tours with Curious Appetite Travel.
Details: Piazza Ghilberti. Mon-Sat 7am-2pm. http://www.mercatosantambrogio.it
3. Fierucole- The old tradition of “fierucola” was originally a celebration of Nativity of the Virgin Mary, held by local peasants in Piazza S.S. Annunziata in Florence and was called “Mercato della Rificolona.” I personally love the Fierucole because here you really meet organic food producers and natural food purveyors, as well as crafts made totally by hand such as wooden spoons, leather shoes and other artisan crafts. Fierucole showcases small-scale organic farmers and sometimes street food and live performers. I was once mesmerized by hot coals melting hanging cheese and then spread thick on toasted rustic bread and served with local, organic wine. These Fierucole are held in either Piazza Santo Spirito or Piazza S.S. Annunziata where the history of the festival began. It started in 1984 with a “Fierucola di Pane (Festival of Bread)” and then transformed to what it is today, with more to celebrate than just bread.
Details: Piazza S.S. Annunziata 1st weekend of the months of September-November and December 8th. 9am-7:30pm Piazza Santo Spirito 3rd Sundays of every month (except August) 9am-7:30pm. http://www.lafierucola.org
4. Mercatale- Nearly year round (minus January, July and August) is an ode to history almost with this food market fair in Piazza della Reppublica. What many people don’t know is that this Piazza (Square) was the original location for the Mercato Vecchio and it was actually a food market until the end of the 19th century when Italy became a unified nation state and Florence was (for a short period) the capital. The square was demolished from its food roots and became a glossy symbol of a new, modern city. Thankfully the Mercatale reminds us of its “foodie” roots with this monthly market. Nearly a hundred producers from around the region come to show off their farmstead goods such as local honeys, olive oils, cheeses, meats, herbs, crafted soaps and lavender products, wines (tasting are involved!), pastas from their own grains, organic produce and more.
Details: Piazza della Repubblica 1st Saturdays of the month (except January, July and August) 8am-8pm.
5. Cascine Market- More on connecting modern sites to food history, Le Cascine Park was created as an agricultural estate and hunting reserve for the Medici family way back in the 16th century. Today, it is Florence’s largest green refuge with space to stroll, bike, rollerblade, picnic and even catch some rays at the pool within Le Pavoniere. Every Tuesday the entrance of Le Cascine is colored with street food, food stands, vendors who sell things like jams and candies, produce and tons of clothes and household goods. This is a great find for people wanting to experience a food market out of the city center and also want to do some bargain shopping. If you’re traveling with kids, this would be a good stop because they have a few stands for carnival-like rides and games.
Details: Viale Lincoln, Parco delle Cascine. Tuesdays 7am-2pm. Every Sunday in December. Extended hours on the Tuesday before Christmas 8am-6pm.
More Local Food Markets (a bit smaller, but where you can still get daily fresh fruit and veg):
- Piazza Delle Cure
- Piazza de’ Nerli
- Piazza Dalmazia (Rifredi)
- Piazza Santo Spirito
- Ponte Rosso (near Parterre)
- Piazza dell’Isolotto
- Piazza Artusi
- Piazza Puccini
- Piazza Acciaiuoli
And more! Any on here that I am missing? Leave a comment!
Viva Mercato Sant’Ambrogio,
The Curious Appetite
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