Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shopping for food in Italy ...At the Supermarket

Italian food is wonderful. There is no doubt that the best meal you will ever taste is cooked in a hidden away Trattoria, that usually looks closed from the outside, with paper tablecloths, and packed to the roof with ravenous locals. But trying to buy the ingredients is not a matter to be taken lightly.

Unlike the UK which has completely been taken over with large supermarket shopping, life here is relatively old fashioned. The three main choices are supermarkets (think corner spar shop rather than tescos), local shops and local markets. Here is my part one survival guide to shopping - at the supermarket.

In Italy, supermarkets only sell food . You may find a pile of strange goods near the entrance on sale including a broken plant pot, a light up nativity set or a nose hair plucker, but do not expect to be able to buy your cigarettes, shop for a TV, buy your life insurance, exchange travel money or visit the website.

Expect a maximum of two brands for each item on the whole. Chick peas are chick peas, and there seems no need for twenty different varieties on sale, and quite right too. For bread and cured meats however there is a bewildering choice. Expect to stand in line for at least twenty minutes to buy these items (you cannot just buy bread off the shelves, you have to fight for it and be mean) and be prepared to justify why you have chosen any particular thing, and have answers ready relating to which varieties of wine would go best with it.

And whilst you are at it, why not taste some of this cheese, have you tried that ham with this bread, and how is your aunty? Ok, so maybe this is an exaggeration, but it is more or less the prolonged conversation I hear between the surly cashier and the customer in front of me.

Then its the checkout. There will be a queue, and the cashier may close or disappear randomly at any time. She will ask each and every person if they need a bag, if they have a loyalty card and if they have the correct change. Hardly anyone pays by card here. In turn, they will look shocked at the notion of paying, hunt long and hard for their purse, and proceed to count out small change that would fuel an amusement arcade on Blackpool prom for a month, and then realise that they do not have enough to be of assistance. Not one person will anticpate this questions, even if they come everyday, instead patiently wait to be asked one by one.

Unloading the basket or trolley is also fraught with danger. It is done here on a one at a time basis. No matter how long the queue. So even if the conveyor belt is empty, do not even think about starting to unpack, especially if there is no 'next customer' plastic thingy. You will cause upset and distress. Instead wait patiently for the customer before you to unload items, one at a time, checking once again for freshness, going to fetch something they have forgotten, and then try and stack the basket into the overflowing pile for at least two minutes.

Then they will need to wait for the cashier to empty her till of notes into at least five different envelopes that all have a form to be filled in by hand, take a phone call, and then go outside for a cigarette before reluctalty returning to her work. The items will be processed one by one, at not great speed I promise, and then the customer will be asked if they want a bag, have a loyalty card or the correct change (see above for shock at being asked this difficult to anticpate questions...).

Then, and only then, will the cashier pass the bags and the customer start to pack their things away. Now you can start to unload your shopping and so the cycle continues.

The main difference is that the notion of food shopping is one of pleasure for Italians. It is not to be rushed. Many women still stay at home, especially the older ones, during the day, yet all choose to shop at lunchtime or around 6-7pm. There is no notion of the ten items or less. There is a notion of social interaction, of this being a task that should take you half an hour even if you only want a pint of milk and a white bap for your chip butty. Time in the queue is time to evaluate other people's shopping. Listen to conversations. Often the one the cashier is having on her telephone.

I am not sure if our habit of seeing the weekly shop as a chore, that is more and more frequently being given over to an online list and delivery service, is the right one. It is good to smell, touch and taste what you buy. To enjoy the process of making a meal. But not when I have half an hour for my lunch and just want to buy some bread.....


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  2. Hi Samantha,

    your is a funny post and I enjoyed reading it but... where are you staying?

    I can only imagine a little village in the Abruzzo mountains... And I wonder which supermarket you went to...

    Italy might not be as evolved as UK, however...

    True, supermarkets do not sell cigarettes (forbidden by the law) and you won't be able to subscribe life insurance but you can find lots of stuff besides food (including books, newspapers, plants and flowers, etc.) and a variety far larger than the two types per item you're mentioning.

    I guess also that the many Italian women staying at home are all meeting at your supermarket, because everywhere else the vast majority of Italian women are working and for a very simple reason: 1 salary is not enough.
    By the way, the picturesque portrait of Italian women having their social activity and networking at supermarket is something I can see very rarely. Like you, many women have only half an hour, they shop quickly what they need and have no time for social interaction.

    so.. What about changing supermarket? :-)

  3. Hi exxxplorer
    a little town in Abruzzo ...?? I wish and I am glad you like the post. Anyway I live in the centre of Rome.

    I have never yet been to a supermarket here that sells newspapers, plants or flowers - these are sold in streetside kiosks. I think each item needs a license and shops often don't mix goods. For example a bike shop that repairs bikes will not sell them (usually) Maybe due to the comprehensive paperwork involved in starting businesses here? This is not something i know too much about. Where have you experienced this in Italy?

    I agree that modern women now work more than traditionally here but it does remain the case that the older women and women with children generally stay at home, and their days centre far more than certainly in the UK around the family meals.

    LIke I said, I am not sure if this is a positive or negative thing. But slowly I am learning not to rush around so much.