Friday, November 02, 2012

Italian Farmers Market - Turin, Italy

We are back from a wonderful trip to Torino, Italy for Terra Madre and Salone Del Gusto. It was incredible to say the least to be able to spend time in Italy doing not much more than tasting slow food. Chefs, artisans, farmers and producers from all across the globe were there celebrating their foods and successes. Anyone interested in food and culinary arts simply has to attend this massive celebration held every two years in Italy's 4th largest city. 

Huge permanent coverings over the market square.

However, it was on our daily roaming through the city that we came across the traditional markets of Europe. Held daily, rain or shine at various places throughout the city there is no place to better sample the local foodstuffs in their most pure form. Truffles, Italian mandarin oranges, charcuterie and cheeses of every imaginable kind, fresh meats and seafood, and of course, Italian baking. The markets contain anything you would ever need to create an Italian feast every single day of the week (except Sundays of course).  

Our favorite farmer at the local market. Eggs aren't refrigerated.
We visited these markets whenever we could and bought various kinds of treats that would sustain us through the rest of the day, but it was little hollow. All I could think about was the fact that our hotel did not have a kitchen so that I could properly get into Italian food. We settled for some wonderful Trattatoria's for our evening meals and snacked on mandarins, cheese, salami and bread during our walks along the River Po in the afternoons.

Clothes at a Turin market
The markets are obviously important to Italians as they are established in permanent locations with city infrastructure covering them. In the evening these market squares are used for paid parking. 

Throughout most of Torino, people live in apartments so the population is dense, but we didn't see one single supermarket during our travels in the city. The market was the only place other than a mini-market or small specialty shop to purchase what you would need. Furthermore, the markets didn't just contain food. On one side of the street, under a huge covering was the food, nothing but food. On the other side, another huge covering; but here you would find whatever else you needed for everyday life. Sewing supplies, fabric, cleaning products, clothes, shoes, you name it. Not a single craft in sight, no re-selling prints of "crying fairies", no artwork of Elvis or the Beatles. How refreshing it was to see markets focus on what you needed to survive instead of a place to go walk the dog and have a bag of popcorn. 

Fresh seafood of every kind
Now, you're automatically going to assume that I am opposed to all superfluous things that go along with "Fido" peeing on my table cloth while the owner is busy with his 3 foot long bag of candied popcorn...I am not. I just cannot help but think that if Edmonton farmers markets began to take the entertainment component out of farmers markets, then the producers and farmers would begin to see increased sales from people who avoid the crowds and reluctantly go to a supermarket instead. I can only imagine how frustrating it has to be for people who come with all their shopping bags to have to dodge around Starbuck wielding parents pushing double-wide strollers parked in front of the Fairie Print table just to be able to get their shopping completed. At the very minimum, it would be nice to have the food and the crafts segregated to be able to allow shoppers to be uninterrupted by the browsers.

There is nothing wrong at all with a little ambience from the talented buskers, and in fact that is the one thing that I found wanting about Italian markets. They were, perhaps, a little too business-like and stark. But, most importantly, it works for the Italian producers and customers and its been working for thousands of years.

It appears to me that markets in Edmonton are getting bigger and bigger. Record attendances are made from time to time and yet sales amongst a lot of the vendors that I speak with are down or stagnant. Year to year at Strathcona Market we are up around 400% in 2012 yet our sales were flat at City Market 104 compared to 2011. City Market had huge numbers of vendors and record attendances. At one market more than 35,000 people attended. Why then are my sales down or similar over last year?...because people don't want to buy groceries in a crowd.

One of the side streets at a Turin market
There is one train of thought out there amongst farmers market manager it seems. Bring in as many people as you can so that there will be that much more exposure to vendors, and in turn will increase sales in the long run. That is surely a sound plan, but here's the problem. It would be like having a huge BBQ every single day that your hardware store is open. Bring in as many people as you can and hope that you sell some hammers along with the free burgers. But when I need another hammer, I am going to go to the place that is not so crowded. Where I can park and go buy my hammer without battling the crowds.

Here's my best example. At St. Albert Market, our best sales week this summer was an event related to food held at City Hall. The crowds were noticeably sparse. One of the worst weeks we had was the Cruising Weekend. Huge crowd. Bring food people to the market and food sales will increase. Bring tourists to the market and food sales will decrease. Farmers make and sell food. Farmers Markets, approved by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, should be in existence for farmers to be able to sell food.

Cleaning supplies at the market
There would be a lot to change about Edmonton markets and how they are run, that's for sure. But, it is interesting to think how they could possibly change. Why not try to make markets supply things that we need to live like socks and underwear and soap and laundry detergent? Why not try to get people attending markets for necessities so they aren't forced to the farm-crushing superstores as often? Why not push the envelope of what we can produce or import as small business producers and farmers? Why not try?

Amazing cheeses!
The markets of Torino, Italy really opened my eyes to what successful markets are like. Markets that have run daily week after week for centuries.

In the meantime, we are grateful to have at least a few markets that attract foodies. Strathcona Market being the best by far. And, we are mostly grateful to our customers, who I know go out of their way to purchase our products. Without both a market and loyal customers, we'd be stuck in the commodity market along with the vast majority of other Alberta grain producers. 


  1. We sold eggs at our local farmers' market, and I was so often amazed when a Starbucks-waving visitor to the market would complain about the prices of our eggs ("I can buy eggs at Wal-Mart for 99 cents!"). I so often wanted to point out that he could brew coffee at home for about 30 cents instead of buying a cup at Starbucks, but I just smiled.

    We didn't see the unrelated entertainment events increase sales. More bodies did not translate into more sales.

  2. Rose, did you notice our favorite vendor in Turin was selling eggs? In a fridge. Actually, when we went into the mini-markets at night the eggs were on the shelf, not cold. Interesting I thought.

  3. Fascinating... and I wholeheartedly agree about the markets here. I intentionally never go because I detest the crowds. It is very awkward to try to shop for food amongst the throngs of people. I purchase from local producers, but prefer to buy direct, in person, in bulk, rather than weekly (in smaller quantities). I WOULD go to farmer's markets to fill the garden gaps if the retail shopping/entertainment component was removed. I am trying to get away from the spend y/retail ambience of mindless consumption.

    Glad you had a good trip - we were thinking of your family and were hoping that you were having a good time. I love Italy and want to go back... most especially, for the food!

  4. Great post John. I was at Strathcona today with my daughter and husband. We chatted briefly about using a lighter tasting grain to make bread for my daughter (who turn up her nose at the Red fife..and has eczema issues with modern day wheat). I wish we would have had the chance to chat more. When I was there a few weeks back to buy the Red fife the lady holding down the fort, told me you were in Italy and how big you were into the Slow food movement. Awesome

    I 100% agree with you that many foodies stay away from the busy markets because of the large crowds. I was one but, things have changed for me. Since having a child, it's become even more important than ever for me to eat real food so I do my best to get there but I will admit, I definitely frequent Planet Organic a lot too especially when I just don't want to go into the market. I never thought about it until you mentioned it but, man how I wish they would separate the food from the crafty stuff. It would be just so much more streamline. I can get to where I need, chat with who I need and not have to dodge the stragglers. Those crafty items are not what I think of when I hear the term Farmer's market and sadly it seem there are more cropping up, especially when visiting the smaller outdoor markets in the summer. I COMPLETELY avoid those ones. Too many have disappointed me.

    Anyways, I hope this soft white wheat works for bread! We absolutely love your products and will be telling my family all about it too

    Grace Scott.

    Oh and couldn't help but, laugh at your Starbuck's chat. I totally had one in the car today but, didn't want to juggle it with my bags. lol

  5. Oh and I forgot to mention, my husband and I absolutely loved your red fife wheat. We made a loaf of bread with it and it was ridiculously good. Plus we bought the pancake mix and it was hands down the best pancakes I've ever had. I finally tasted pancakes that had their own flavour and weren't a vehicle for syrup. :)

  6. Thanks for your comments Grace! So glad you've found us and that you are enjoying our products! It was great to meet you at market last Saturday too!

  7. Also...just for the record...I love a good Grande Americano from Starbucks now and then!

  8. A perfect example of what we are talking about was last weekend at Strathcona Market. The crowds were noticeably fewer because of the weather, but our sales were basically the same as other weekends. People who buy our products come to market to buy food, regardless of the weather, because they need food...browsers stay home.

  9. Great post!

    You're right-on about our local markets - I love poking through for a coffee and sticky bun. But grocery shopping for my family of six at the market is a total nightmare. The only groceries I purposely go to the market to buy, are your bulk grains. This bulk option is completely hassle-free, and I hope other producers will follow suit.

    AND, of course, your grains are amazing . . . Even to my children's pallet.

    Thanks so much,