Sunday, 18 October 2015

Overthinking Food

"They're just apples."
Lately I've been having a lot of light bulb moments. Not big life changing ones, mind you, just little ones that cause me to think and make small course corrections like a captain sailing a ship on calm waters.  I had one of these this morning while I was visiting the Ventimiglia market in Italy.  It happened like this...

The Ventimiglia market is a large, vibrant, covered market made up of six long rows of vendors selling every type of Italian food you can imagine. 

The middle three rows are piled high with fruit and vegetables imported from everywhere in Italy, France and Spain. Rows one and six span the length of the sides like culinary bookends for the fruits and vegetables.  This is where the bakeries, pastry shops, cheese specialists, delicatessens, butchers, dry goods and fresh pasta sellers are set up.  Bunched up at the back there's a fish monger, a few florists, and a stall that sells luggage, hats, and aprons. 

When I visit, I tend to shop everywhere but the fifth row is by far my favourite. It's reserved for a dozen or so local producers, many of whom are older Italian women from the surrounding countryside. Their tables are overflowing with a seasonal mishmash of fruits and vegetables made up of, it seems, whatever they happened to gather from their garden that morning or the day before. 

I was strolling down row five, buying up this and that, when I spotted one of the women selling pretty little apples. I almost missed them altogether because they were partially hidden by some bitter greens that she'd piled haphazardly around them. 

I'd never seen little apples like these before so I wanted to know all about them. What breed were they?  Was the tree native to here?  Are they always this small? Where was her farm?

I started my food interrogation with "what were they called?" but instead of answering, she shrugged, put a handful or two of them into a little white bag and replied, "they're just apples." 

I laughed out loud.  "They're just apples." I repeated. This was my lightbulb moment which was:  perhaps that's all I needed to know.

Over the years, I've developed a habit of asking growers a lot of questions about the food I'm buying. Sometimes they share interesting information about their products, perhaps a recipe. I love hearing their stories and look forward to repeating them when I serve meals made with the ingredients.  

This insatiable need to know the story behind the food we eat has become a trend lately. We crave accountability and provenance and we love a good food story and I confess I'm as guilty as the next person.  Just ask my friend Colin who sells his products at the Lansdowne Farmers' Market in Ottawa.  He jokingly calls me a "food spy" because when we first met, I asked him so many questions about what he was selling he grew suspicious.   
To my Italian apple vendor in row five, her apples were just apples.  Simple.  There was no story.  Her apples were delicious, pretty, and a only a few Euro per kilo. 

So this is my story about having no story about the apples.  Old habits die hard.


donna baker said...

Well, apples aren't just apples. Different flavors and textures. They cook differently and I don't like too hard or sour apples. Plus, what if it's from the last tree of its kind, or brought over from Jerusalem by the crusaders. I would like to know those kind of things too.

@askans said...

This is really a funny story. Being food curious and having to live with a simple answer. Happy that the apples were just delicious.

Karen Barnaby said...

There was a time when food was just food. People grew it, people ate it. It was celebrated by being cooked well, not wasted, and eaten with gratitude. I admire and am grateful for the farmers who are bringing breeds and varieties from the brink of extinction, and support them wholeheartedly.

Needing the pedigree papers on every morsel of food is a first world activity. On the other hand, people are deaf and blind to where their food comes from. There's a fine balance to appreciating what you eat and flapping your mouth off about "this exquisite heirloom" or the perils of shrimp farming.

Denise said...

"They're just apples." Perspective is reality. That was her reality. She had the appIes on her table. I accept her reality. I often ask questions too. I'm sure I would have asked about these apples. They look quite special to me, but like you, I'm just fine letting them remain a mystery, and not knowing any further details. ;)

Unknown said...

Hahahaha. I love this story.
Having our eyes opened by people who have never seen the wider world, whose 'little apples' are as when they discovered them as children.
How many of the things in our daily life do we take for granted, but were discovered by us in the far past as wondrous.
Tony. NZ

Elizabeth at Eiffel Tells said...

This shopping trip is charming. The beauty of the produce grown in old local gardens is that they may be from heirloom varieties of plants that survive well in that particular environment without drastic human intervention. Sadly these plants are rapidly disappearing from our seed reservoirs, thanks to the intervention of multinational companies who promote genetically engineered seeds.