If there is one thing I hate on holidays its an early start (okay, 7am). But when you are meeting well-known gourmand Chef Libero for a personal tour of the local markets, it pays to get in early. And frankly as the first rays of warm sunshine filter through the awnings of Florence’s magnificent farmer’s market, I can think of worse places to be.
As the owner of the renowned Tuscan restaurant Villa Machiavelli, Chef Libero has been buying the finest produce here daily for decades, and, happily for me, he is sharing his local knowledge with Trafalgar guests. It’s one thing to wander the markets as a tourist, alone; it’s quite another to be guided by a bone fide local expert.
This morning, he has tasked Julie, Natalie and me with a (thankfully short) shopping list for his restaurant’s lunch menu. As my personal food shopping style consists of assaulting a supermarket on the weekend, and then never stepping foot inside another for seven days, shopping local-style with Libero, is a learning experience.
Know who has the best produce
For this shopping expedition I was at a disadvantage from the get-go. My shopping list was in Italian, which I was trying to decipher with my high-school French (Tip: This doesn’t work. Don’t try it). But it became apparent that sourcing the best food means knowing which vendors specialise in what – and knowing them well enough that they’ll offer you their best produce of the day.
Today, Chef Libero knows exactly what he wants and from whom. Purposefully striding towards one particular stall tucked away in a corner, he greets the owner affectionately. And so - out from under a cloth - she conjures a tray of succulent ox-heart tomatoes, a variety that Libero says will make the most flavoursome sauce.
Stop and chat
Time and again, Libero stops for a convivial, laughter-filled conversation with market-goers. He waves and talks, not only because of his large, joyful personality, but to learn what is going on in this labyrinthine place. He is finding out who has the freshest zucchini flowers, who has the first mushrooms of the season, who has the ripest peaches today. It’s a friendly approach to shopping that puts a smile on my face whenever he reaches over to shake a stallholder’s hand.
After half an hour of exploring and shopping, it’s time for that most quintessentially Italian experience – espresso. In between a butcher boasting a cabinet full of ducks and a deli window stuffed with hand-made ravioli, we arrive at a small, bustling cafe. Here our group stops for tiny cups of espresso, along with sweet Italian pastries. (It has been at least an hour since breakfast after all…) As I sip my coffee, what I find fascinating is that no one is rushing, no one hurrying. Here, the locals are simply enjoying a moment to gossip and relax.
Taste and learn
As we get to the meat section of the market, I notice thinly sliced cooked meat in various windows. “Ah!” Libero says, `You have to try this,’ he tells me enthusiastically, handing me a small dish of the meat from a bubbling pot, along with a large crusty bread roll. He shows us how to stuff a segment of bread with slices of the meat. I bite and taste (hey, when in Florence…) as does Julie, who is undoubtedly conflicted as I know she is (mostly) vegetarian. As she takes a mouthful, I am seriously impressed by her game face. After all, it’s not every day that you eat tripe a la Fiorentina before 9am. But the lesson here is, you have to try new things to learn what you like (or might give a wide berth to) in the markets. You never know what you might find (even if you’re vegan.)