Written by Emma Reynolds, (Hamilton College) Student Correspondent CET Siena, Fall 2015
I left the CET building, where I had just had my Italian class, and headed down our street toward Piazza Gramsci, which is where the Wednesday mercato starts. It stretches down the streets behind the piazza, which also happens to be the main bus stop in Siena, forcing me to traverse five lanes of traffic to get to the first row of tents. The first tents are clothing vendors, touting piles of sweaters and fall-colored coats hanging from the tops of the tents. Patterned pants are displayed by the dozens, clinging to each other while experienced women—this is obviously not their first or even twentieth mercato—peruse for the right size, the right material.
The clothing gives way to flowers, who spill from the tables onto the sidewalk. Today, among cacti, mums, and roses were the colors of every season: the petals were that of sun-touched clouds and hot embers and dry prairies. Scattered among their clumps of petals were vendors selling trees. One tree in particular caught my eye, not because of its stature or color—it was a small tree home to only a few green leaves—but because of the tag attached to one of its branches. The small piece of cardboard boasted a rotund, deep red pomegranate. I wondered if anyone would buy the tree today, and if so, where they would put it. In their garden? Along their driveway? Would it produce fruit this year? In five years?
Hungry after these thoughts, I passed the final floral vendors and went down the hill to the food. The food sellers are always the same people, always in the same order. First along the street are the two women with the buckets of olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and salted capers. I stopped and bought a small bag of the tomatoes (the sun-dried tomatoes in Italy are larger and much softer than those in America, as if they were left out in the sun for a little less time, their sellers allowing them to retain some of their original suppleness).
Around the corner you find the fish and meat: raw fish, cured fish, salted fish, fried chicken, roasting chickens, salami, prosciutto, ham. These are often the busiest, most-sought-after vendors: the vendors stand, elevated two feet above the customers, leaning over their counter as they watch each customer point to the meat they want. It’s fascinating to watch: the men cupping their ears to hear the order, and then quickly slicing the meat onto a scale, wrapping the le fette. the slices, in wax paper with accuracy and speed, and handing it down to their customer with a quick smile, before locking eyes with the next customer, signaling I’m ready, what can I get for you? I bought salami from the vendors who offered samples, a courtesy I always appreciate.
Across from the meat vendors are my favorite couple: they sell cheese, olives, bread, nuts, and dried fruit. After helping an American family order a specific amount of cheese (moments like that are some of the best, because I’ve been in their place, been the one struggling to say you want half of that or a little more or a fifth of a kilo, and the vendor just looks at you with utter confusion; it always feels good to help others back into the realm of communication by playing translator), I saw a bucket of the biggest uvette, or raisins, I had ever seen. They were gold-speckled green and twice the size of my finger. I asked for un cucchiaio, a spoonful, which ended up being a massive industrial-sized spoon. I didn’t stop her.
My last stop is always to the fruit and vegetable sellers who make up the last portion of the market. Their fruit is changing with the seasons: now there are persimmons instead of plums and pomegranates instead of pears. Apples and grapes are always available, and offered in a variety of colors and levels of sweetness, which most vendors label for you—a small detail that increases my affection for the vendors. Handwritten in black sharpie next to each pile of apples is a label like dolce (sweet) or dolcissima (very sweet).
I bought some apples, a bunch of carrots, apples, and a plum whose thin purple sheath of skin gave way to orange flesh as I bit into it while I walked, unable to wait. I left the mercato, craving something warm. I turned down a small street and then down another, steeper small street (Siena is built on three hills; hilly streets are the norm), and then headed left onto a slightly flatter street. There was my favorite take-away shop, getting ready for lunch hour. Take-away places, at least this one, are the opposite of all the connotations that that label carries in America. Here everything is prepared that morning—you can see the dishes being passed from the window between the kitchen and the serving counter, the waiters reaching to grab the hot plates and place them in display case.
Everything here is priced by weight. The lunch food selection ranges from pasta sauces to risotto with peas to baked apples stuffed with grapes. There are steamed vegetables and baked squash halves, quiches and stuffed mushrooms. I ordered a pile of freshly steamed spinach, which was, upon my request, drizzled with olive oil and salt before being covered with a plastic top to keep it warm. I also asked for a small slice (which in Italy usually means you’ll get a normal-sized slice) of lasagna.
I carry around a plastic spork for moments like this. It’s a nice one, durable yellow plastic, but one that only saw daylight when I went on backpacking trips at school. Now it’s used several times each week. I walk with my bags of food to Piazza Del Campo, propping myself against one of the pillars lining the perimeter. I spread out the foods from the mercato and the take-away place on either side of me, open my book, and tilt it against my backpack in front of me. I take out my spork, and I begin. I eat and I read and I watch the tourists eating gelato and the students gossiping and, when it’s time, I pack up my book, throw my empty bags away, and walk back for my next class.