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Here are 8 unusual items you could* buy in an Italian supermarket. *Could does not always mean should. Personally, one of my favourite parts of travelling is food shopping. We usually end up renting an apartment rather than staying at a hotel (sitting in a darkened hotel room while the kid sleeps is never an inspiring travel experience) and part of the joy of this is getting to shop for and cook local foods whether in markets, specialised grocers or just exploring the local supermarkets. There's something about the mundane setting of a supermarket that really highlights the foreignness of what's on offer.
Luckily my family is for the most part pretty tolerant of this enthusiasm, although there have been a few experimental meals when we lived in Japan when it was suggested that we try and work out how to call for a pizza instead of eat what I had made (more of that another day, but basically being able to Whatsapp photos of food packaging from the shops to my bilingual friend Nuria to translate was an absolute lifeline and meant that at least we never ate soap powder instead of sugar).
Anyway, we are in Italy at the moment, so I thought I'd share a few of the oddities that I've come across that mark out the difference between our local stores: upmarket Esselunga and good value Pennymarket and what's available back in the UK.
1. Ready prepared prickly pear
Now I'm not normally a fan of fruit imprisoned in a rigid plastic box. Its such a waste of packaging, and I just prefer to choose which fruit I want and the quantity we need. But this is brilliant. I really love prickly pears (and the kid, being a Jungle Book fan is at least in love with the idea of them) but after a few near suicidal attempts at gathering them in the wild, and discovering that they really do live up to their prickly name, I'm in love with whoever came up with this; prickly pears with the prickles removed. Thank you.
You probably already know that Nutella is quite a big thing in Italy. On this occasion we arrived at about 4pm and clearly a few people had already suffered a Nutella emergency. Its available in a variety of sizes from single serving (quite tempted to get a few to keep in my handbag just in case) up to 1.5kg. You will note that the own brand version just doesn't seem to cut it. We should probably buy some and carry out a blind taste test, in the interests of science of course. Shame about the palm oil.
3. Fresh yeast
OK so this packaging is not inspiring, but bear with me, this stuff is the business. If you bake bread, make sure you bring some home, it costs about €0.15 for enough to make 4 loaves and is so much better than dried yeast. It keeps for a week or so in the fridge. You can occasionally find it in health food shops in the UK, or by sweet talking the supermarket in store bakery, but I digress. Anyway, it is usually hiding somewhere around the ready made pizza dough and pastry (which you should also take home in your hand luggage if you've got space).
4. Pure alcohol
This alarming looking concoction is not for cleaning, but if you want to make your own liqueurs (it's ideal for Limoncello) or home bottled fruit. I suppose if you have a couple of fruit trees this would be win-win. You'll find it on the same shelf as the Scotch Whisky that costs about 50% less then it does in Scotland, because VAT or Brexit or something.
5. Whole frozen octopus
I'm not really sure about this. While I do love octopus, I haven't the first clue what to do with a whole one that size. Some stores have a frozen fish pick-n-mix section where you just fill a bag by weight and the fish isn't shrink wrapped. I find the massive box of suckery tentacles slightly alarming.
6. Unpasturised milk vending machine
If you are really lucky you will find one of these in the supermarket car park. I don't think you are actually supposed to drink this milk, it is for making cheeses at home. There is some sort of disclaimer that you should boil it before using but I suspect nobody does. Usually there are two machines next to each other, one sells sterilised glass jars, and the second dispenses milk into them. This one is styled as an incongruous alpine hut in a car park on a busy roundabout. I'm planning to make some Ricotta this week.
7. Vast selection of fresh fruit and vegetables and local cheeses and cured meats
It goes without saying that Italians take their food very seriously and particularly regional and seasonal specialities. The range and quality of what's on offer is always impressive and leads to most air freighted fruit and vegetables tasting of cardboard when we go back home (OK this last photo clearly wasn't taken in the supermarket, its our neighbour's front steps and represents about 10% of his apple collection. I'm wondering what on earth he's going to do with them all)
8. Anchovy flavoured toothpaste
Obviously not actually toothpaste, and you can get this in the UK, it just costs 10x more. I add this to almost everything for a salty, umami kick. Just don't actually brush your teeth with it.
Bonus tip, this is the shelf of wine that comes in a Tetra-pak and costs under €1 per litre. This is one thing I'd recommend not buying
Thursday is market day in the mountain town of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana so on stormy Autumn day this week we headed there for a wander and to have lunch in local slow food favourite Osteria Vecchio Mulino.
We've escaped to Tuscany for half term. While nobody was looking I "accidentally" bought a whole crate of these beautiful artichokes and can't wait to cook them. I'm planning to simply boil them and serve with tonnes of melted butter and lemon juice. What do you think? Do you have a favourite recipe?