The Italian (Bad) Job

Last weekend, with much public trumpeting, my hometown played host to a "Real Italian Food Market". Or at least that's what it professed to be. Now, my family have always loved all things Italian - the food, the wine and so on so it was with great enthusiasm that we wrapped up against the unseasonably chilly October air and headed off into Derby's Market Place for a much anticipated dabble into la bella Italia. Unfortunately there was just something decidedly 'un-Italian' about it. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of stalls with all the things you might expect from a market in Italy. There were sausages, breads, olives, unfeasibly tall cakes and all manner of oils and vinegars. But, somehow, I felt let down. After all, I've seen plenty of Italian markets before. Ok, to be honest, I've not visited that many genuine Italian markets and only one of them was actually in Italy … but I have travelled there more times than I can count.
Ok, I'll count. If you include the 2-hour trip from the South of France into the market in Ventimiglia and a day trip to Rome from East Midlands Airport then I've been to Italy at least … twice. My credentials to pass judgement seem to be slipping here, I know. But I've eaten in plenty of Italian restaurants … one of them was even in Italy. And I've cooked, and eaten, plenty of Italian food. And I have a clear impression of what the 'real' Italy is like. Busy piazzas  with police officers, clad in Valentino or Armani, peering over their sunglasses to chat up girls on street corners, while taking dramatic drags from their cigarettes. Everything very exaggerated, vespas buzzing past, immaculately clad Sophia Loren lookalikes waving graciously at smart young men and thrice air-kissing their girlfriends. Air filled with the smell of tomatoes, basil and garlic cooking. The sound of chattering, babbling, bouncing Italian speech patterns  and laughter everywhere.

And this so-called 'Real Italian Market' had none of that. Perhaps it was too early in the day for the smell of mouth-watering Italian delicacies to tempt the tongue, but there was no sign of anyone firing up a cooker to rectify that. And the stallholders themselves didn't seem all that full of Italian good humour either. Stony-faced, they patrolled their stands as if they would rather have been anywhere but where they stood. Granted, England on a dull, cold autumn day may not be your first choice of venue, but presumably the intention was to sell their wares so a little hospitality would have worked a treat. Only the large group of children from a local primary school made any noise at all. They certainly brought life to the market with their 'shopping lists' and their giggles as they each picked out an item for what was sure to be an educational picnic later on. But even they couldn't stir the dour merchants into life. Their questions answered only with studied patience and no trace of enthusiasm.

The adult visitors seemed, as we were, a little underwhelmed by the selection on offer. There were plenty of odd shaped pastas, coffees and balsamic vinegars, but it all seemed very familiar, and very little different from that on offer in our local Tesco. Perhaps supermarkets really do bring us the world in a trolley? Or perhaps I've entirely romanticised the idea of an Italian market?  But I've seen plenty of travel and food programmes about Italy and so I'm sure I have a reasonable expectation. Call me cynical, but I couldn't help suspecting that this particular "real Italian market" was nothing of the sort, and that clever advertising and wishful thinking had replaced authenticity.

Whatever the reason, this had all been a bit of a let-down. And, still yearning for a little bit of Italy we retreated, empty-handed, to the nearest Caffe Nero to redress the balance. Now I'm not going to suggest that this was any more authentically Italian than the market, but it certainly felt that way. And that was, after all, the point.