My Italian friends tell me that there is a law that every neighborhood–at least in Rome–is required to provide space for an outdoor farmer’s market. Grocery shopping or fare la spesa for me starts there: at the market. With time one learns the best way to navigate the stands of produce, fish, meats and cheese. One vendor may have a relationship with a farmer that has special lettuces, like wild radicchios–striated in greens and deep reds–with leaves more like flower petals. Another may carry scruffy field greens, wild asparagus and fennel or have access to special potatoes. Someone may have amazing sausages, another excellent whole chickens or the morning catch from the sea.
Once a selection of produce has been requested, frequently the stand owner figures out what will be prepared. Vignarola? (It’s a classic Roman spring dish of peas, artichokes or asparagus, fava beans and cured ham). Then the vendor will chime in: “At the end, cover the top of the casserole with a layer of Romaine lettuce leaves. Cook another ten minutes, very dolcemente. It gives it more sweetness.”
Many conversations at the market have lead to improved cooking and eating at my home. “Do you plan to eat the melon today or tomorrow?” If I reply with a later date I am told it would be best to come back that day. Lugging a bag or two from the market, I may need to stop at the pasta store, the tea and spice shop, the salumeria for cheeses and cured meats, the biologico or health food store then the enoteca for wine. I may be tempted to stop at the frutta e vedura shop, as ten months out of the year they supply me with fruits, vegetables and Amalfi lemons. These lemons are like no other lemons on earth.
Let me take a minute to discuss my close relationship with lemons. For the last fifteen years I have started every morning with a mug of aqualimone. Filtered and simmered Roman tap water, arriving to my kitchen faucet using the same routes from the surrounding hills into the city center as the ancient Romans originally planned, with the juice of half a lemon and a tablespoon of raw honey is all you need. In America the juice of a whole lemon is necessary.
My daughter recently sent me an article touting the health benefits of aqualimone, all of which I intuitively assumed. Drinking it in the morning kills bacteria that have festered in the kidneys and liver all night, clearing out any potential cold and flu threats. Lemon juice is full of vitamins, unique minerals and trace elements. I suppose you could find the info online yourself, if interested. But, when made with an Amalfi lemon, which is bigger, has a very thick zest, is juicier and more fragrant than any other lemon plus a tablespoon of any of a dozen raw honeys available locally, then aqualimone makes me feel thankful.