It is one of the undoubted perks of my job that several times a year I get to travel to Venice for the purposes of research and development. This usually involves eating a lot of fantastic food, drinking superb local wines and occasionally relaxing with a spritz to reward myself for all the hard work involved in the former two activities.
But no matter how hard I am working, on my first morning in the city, I will spring from my bed (as a creature of habit this is usually in the same marble-floored room on the piano nobile of Pensione Seguso in Dorsoduro) and walk to the market.
Rialto fish market and the neighbouring fruit and vegetable stalls are shot in the arm for anyone who is passionate about food. The sheer scale, abundance and generosity of the produce on offer instill a feeling of wonder and delight that is as uplifting an experience as any I know. Whether it be the inky cuttlefish scooped from the lagoon that morning, the jumping local go fish that flip from side to side before you, or the terrifying head of a marlin from the Adriatic, staring back at you with black eyes, these are sights that deserve attention.
And the vegetables! There is nowhere that speaks of the seasons quite like a vegetable market and Venice has a particularly glorious one. It's a visual barometer of what's growing and what's in season and there is a rhythm to what appears on the stall throughout the year. The hearty greens, brassicas, cabbages and roots of winter give way to the abundance of flowering vegetables and vibrant colours in the spring. Summer is dominated by tomatoes and autumn brings deep golden hues, reds, ochres and browns as the stalls fill with pumpkins, mushrooms and marrows.
So when I have to leave Rialto Market and Venice to fly back to London, it is always with a great deal of sadness and a sense of loss. Why? Well, simply put, London is rubbish at food markets.
Yes, we have Borough Market (inexplicably only open three days a week) and we have some very decent farmers' markets in suburban car parks, but there is nowhere in the capital that comes even close to the glorious Rialto Market in Venice or the sumptuous San Miguel Market in Madrid or the vibrant Cours Saleya Flower market in Nice.
We have, as far as I am aware, only one genuine, full-time market in central London and that is Berwick Street. Here, the dwindling numbers of grocers are being replaced by fast-food carts selling (admittedly tasty) pizzas, burritos and hotdogs to hungry office-workers. Even those remaining fruit-and-veg stalls are a pale and sorry version of what they used to be; most tend, these days, to put their diminished selection of produce into neat stainless steel bowls in sparse and unappetizing displays rather than allowing it to overflow untidily, joyfully, extravagantly...
Thank heavens for the two Italian delis in Soho, Lina Stores and I Camisa, where good food is still celebrated and the produce is still enthusiastically prodded, smelled and bought. It is here, in these two tiny shops, that the spirit of the market lives on and, for the time being at least, we Londoners can enjoy the sense of indulgence that is so important to the appreciation of great ingredients.
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