I wasn’t hungry, but I wasn’t going to let the opportunity to do my favorite thing abroad pass me by. I walked into the grocery store.
By “grocery store” I don’t mean Starmarket or Shoprite; those don’t exist here in Parma, Italy. The biggest supermarket near me is called Conads, and it’s a fraction of the size of the average American supermarket. Furthermore, there’s no need to go there for fresh produce or even meat. My Italian host parents explained to me that the food in the small local produce and meat shops are fresher and more flavorful than that of the supermarket.
I love exploring food stores and shops in other countries, because you can better understand the culture this way. Most places outside America don’t have huge supermarkets with every imaginable item; instead, the food available is grown nearby, and in turn is cooked into long standing traditional dishes.
The shop I entered held juicy grapes, sweet oranges, crunchy apples, and yellowing bananas. There was fennel, onion, cabbage, and the most delicious tomatoes. Most of the fresh produce was from Sicilia. A few types of pasta lined the shelves, accompanied by sauces suggesting potential partnership. Nuts that I didn’t recognize sat in wooden barrels, not because they were completely unfamiliar but because they were unshelled. Italians do the cracking themselves.
“Ciao!” The shop owner said to me. I tried my best not to seem American. I wanted to practice my Italian.
“Ciao!” I responded. He asked me if I was looking for anything, where I was from, and what I was doing there. It became pretty obvious I wasn’t Italian when I struggled to respond. It turned out it didn’t matter, because he didn’t speak English anyway. My quest to become fluent continued.
I didn’t want to buy anything in the store, but after our conversation he sent me home with a kiwi, an apple, and a banana free of charge. I told him I didn’t need a banana, and I wasn’t kidding. When my host mother asked me what I usually eat for breakfast, I said during the week I’ll usually have a banana. She returned the next day with fifteen bananas. I tried my best to eat them all, but to no avail. With nine very ripe bananas, I knew what had to be done.
I made banana bread.
My host family had never heard of banana bread or “pane di banana” (which literally translates to bread of banana). I overbaked it but my host mother said it wasn’t overdone. Apparently Italians like their bread a bit more crunchy. While I prefer my banana bread “morbido,” meaning moist, I do greatly enjoy the crunch of one famous Italian item.
In the small grocery shop, there weren’t just vegetables and fruit, nuts and pasta. There was also a shelf of Italian snacks, called taralli. The shop owner explained that a fresh shipment had arrived that day.
“Non da una fabbrica,” He said. I knew this much Italian; it was not made in a factory. The taralli here was handmade.
There were different flavored taralli, which he described by pointing to various items in the small store. There was olive oil, red pepper, onion, and garlic. I asked what the best one was, and he said they were all amazing but you have to be careful because it is easy to get “grasso” eating them all day, using his hand to gesture toward himself. Grasso means “fat” in Italian. In the end I couldn’t decide, but he already had a bag of taralli open. Before leaving the store, he gave me one along with my paper baggie of fruit.
“Taralli alla cipolla,” He explained. He raised his hand and pointed toward onions sitting casually in a wooden box. Grabbing his gift, I took a bite.
My teeth munched down on the circular stick of water, flour, and yeast. Yet it would be a shame to describe it so simply. The olive oil allowed for an almost buttery sensation, the crunchy treat easily dissolving into my mouth with a sweet, oniony taste. Maybe it wasn’t dissolving so much as I was eating each bite with unparalleled agility. I wanted more. As a college student on a budget, with plenty of food at home and scared of getting fat (I could have easily eaten the whole bag) I left the store.
I saw a bag on the shelf of the supermarket a few days later, labeled “taralli integrale,” or whole wheat taralli. I was happy but skeptical. Was it possible? Could I eat more taralli and not get grasso? I took my chances; I bought the bag. Then I took a bite.
I could not taste the onion, because it was lacking. I could not taste the sweet olive oil, because the whole wheat overpowered the flavor. However, what turned me off the most was the texture; it did not melt in my mouth. With each bite the mixture of flour and yeast seemed not to disintegrate but to break down into smaller particles, creating a dusty feeling between my teeth. Disappointment encompassed me.
On my walk home today I passed the same little grocery, where I waved to the nice man who had given me fruit for no charge. He called me inside, where we conversed in Italian, which was slightly improving on my part. He packed me three clementines, for which I felt like it would be wrong not to buy something. I knew what I wanted. I figured it was OK to be a little grasso.
At home I sat eating my taralli alla cipolla, savoring each bite. For dessert I finished off the banana bread.
Italy has a lot of very good food. Not only cooked dishes, but fruits and vegetables with more flavor than I thought they could ever have. If you travel to another country, please, do it right. Walk into a grocery store. You don’t have to examine everything, but look around. If a vegetable or fruit starts singing to you, focus your eyes and answer the song; ask the price. Talk to the local shop owners, they’ll point you in the right direction.
If you’re reading this, you’re a person who appreciates delicious food. Be adventurous. Try something different and unique to where you are. Of course, you’ll bring your own culture too. Slowly, we can show the whole world the greatness of banana bread. And for the love of God, save the whole grain flour for your pasta or toast if you want. Just buy the plain white flour taralli. I recommend it with olive oil. Also onion.