Once Upon A Time Bread

I took this March 12, 2020, the first week of Lockdown in Italy, and bread had run out at stores and we were all bewildered

This morning I went to my new to me neighborhood market. Conveniently, it has a bar right at the entrance so of course I had to test it out before anything.  I ordered a macchiato al banco, and while there at the counter I studied my new shopping grounds. The space is smaller than my old market but there are probably the same number of vendors.  Light streams in from ceiling windows and it is clean and cheery.  My old market was dark and cavernous with many aisles of built-in metal vendor stands, the kinds that are shuttered at the end of the day with weighty padlocks.  It made for a dark and drafty market day and when I first started going there I’d get lost in the passages.  The new market’s perimeter is lined in built-in stands and are reserved for the meat, fish, cheese and dry-goods vendors.  The produce sellers are set up in the middle on miscellaneous tables, boards and crates.  Everything is beautifully displayed and is the picture of bounty; it is a vibrant green canvas of tender peas, wild asparagus, and bumpy fava pods sprinkled with crunchy radishes and sweet strawberries.  Almost every stand has a big bowl of washed puntarelle curling up in cool water ready to serve for lunch.  

This is new territory for me and it will take a while to pick my favorites.  Several weeks at least.  It took me months to land on my favorite vendors at the old market.  It took them about two years to recognize me as one of their regulars.  I had to prove my loyalty.  I sort of dread this first part of the relationship, because that’s where we’re going, like it or not it’s a relationship you establish with your vendors.  It takes time to get to know each other.  You figure out each other’s pros and cons, you build trust, there are ups and downs, until finally, over time, you settle into a comfortable understanding.  But it requires investing time.  Because I don’t enjoy shopping in general the last thing I want to do is invest time in shopping.  But it’s the only way.  I know what is coming because I’ve done it before:  I will be a novelty; a straniera  who is either to be entirely ignored or be taken advantage of.  The first few weeks at my old market I’d come home with bags of bruised fruit, over-priced produce, and way too many etti of Pecorino Romano than I needed.  As an introvert, I don’t enjoy engaging in conversation with strangers but I remind myself that soon they won’t be strangers, soon enough they will become my cheese guy, my egg lady, my porcini couple.  I will probably always be their Americana customer until another one moves into the neighborhood.  Then she’ll become the other American.  

At least this time around I speak Italian. It’s been 3 1/2 years since I’ve been here, and I’ve learned a few things in that time.  For starters, I won’t need to spend half of my market time gaping at oversized Amalfi lemons or wondering what most of the greens are.  Cicoria, agretti, cardone.  I know what they are now and I’ve learned how to prepare them.  I also know when it’s already too late in the season to buy them.  Basics like what a padella is (pan) don’t delude me anymore and I now understand recipes that random nonne sing out to me while shopping.       

I’ve walked the circuit three times and I already know where I will be buying my bread today.  Her eyes have been tracking me since I sat at the bar.  She knows I am new.  She knows all of the market gossip I’m sure, as well as all of the customers’ stories. We come in like the tide and over the years she has polished all of our histories, sharing them over and over with others.  I am the new one and she will be selling me bread.  I could harden my heart and walk right past her but it’s easier to just stop and surrender.  Buongiorno she calls out hoarsely, dentures spreading into a smile, eyes brightening.  Is this what a spider feels?  Her hand fans out over loaves of varying shape, size and color.  How will I ever choose?  I look for one that seems particularly spongey.  Brrrrravisima! she congratulates me, as if I have won a prize, rolling over her r with extra emphasis because I have made the right choice.  I feel so accomplished when Italians say it like that.  In an instant I’m back in kindergarten getting a star on my forehead.  They’ll say it when I’ve finished all the food on my plate at a restaurant or when I choose the right dish from the daily specials.  I’ve chosen a loaf of Genzano.  It’s made traditionally, like things used to be made, not like these days she complains, where you can just mix up a bag of yeast in five minutes, no, this is done come Una Volta, wild yeastShe’s chatting excitedly now, and though in her late 80s she’s quite spry, jumping around from shelf to counter to cashier and soon grey folds begin to form at her ankles as her hose droop.  This loaf arrived this morning from Genzano di Roma, now just 45 minutes away by car but once a faraway place that was fragrant of bread baked in wood ovens fired with Chestnut wood.  For generations the town’s signature smell and distinct bread was talked of far and wide, each loaf carefully marked with a distinct print by each maiden baker, for it was the women who carried the risen dough up the hill to the town’s public ovens.  One day a pope was given a slice of this bread and now it bears the official Genzano sticker on it, emulating a baker’s print of old, proving it’s geographical indication.  I receive the carefully wrapped loaf and decide that I want to eat Once Upon a Time Bread forever.      

I want to be careful this time around not to get too friendly too fast with a new vendor.  Three years ago I was too happy to practice my broken Italian and I got stuck with overpriced lemons and wilted arugula.  I’m hoping this loaf isn’t too dry.    

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