One of the really big differences I have noticed between Northern Italy and Sicily is the shopping experience. Whilst there were plenty of lovely markets and independent shops in Friuli, there seemed to be a supermarket on every street corner. Most of my Italian friends shopped in Eurospar and Ipercoop so, despite having dreams of sallying forth to the local market with a wicker basket on my arm, I was much more likely to do the same as them.
Oh my word, it is different here in Sicily. Sicilians are a seriously enterprising bunch. Everywhere you go there are stalls set up on the side of the road – usually selling locally grown produce. At the moment we are coming to the end of citrus season so you will often see someone parked up offering a few small crates of blood oranges for sale.
I had an eduction in Sicilian shopping from Viviana, our landlady. She took me to Belpasso, the next town along from us, a little further up Mount Etna. Firstly she took me to a farm shop where she buys most of her fruit and vegetables. This shop simply sells the produce available from the farm. If it isn’t in season, it won’t be there. Whilst waiting to be served (it is rare to help yourself in a Sicilian shop), you chat to your fellow shoppers. It takes longer than we are used to, but once you get used to the pace, it is really enjoyable. Under Viviana’s instruction, and the suggestions of a few other friends, we now have our places to buy veg, fruit, eggs and cheese. In the UK, shopping like this would be considered desirable – providing you have the time – but would likely be exorbitantly expensive. The opposite is the case here. Local people shop in this more traditional way not only because they are very interested in knowing where their food has come from but it is also considerably cheaper to do so.
The practice of being served by a shopkeeper felt quite limiting to start with. For example, when I want to buy embroidery floss, I visit a mercerie. In nearly every village and town you will find one of these shops. They sell wool, sewing and embroidery supplies and patterns, etc. I am used to going to Hobbycraft and rummaging through the DMC and Anchor sections and usually leaving with far more floss than I intended to buy. When you visit a mercerie however, all of the merchandise is behind the counter or stored away in big old fashioned wooden cabinets. After requesting what you want, the shopkeeper will go out of his or her way to assist you. I now find myself returning from an embroidery supplies expedition with only a couple of skeins of floss beautifully wrapped in paper.
We have come to appreciate the human touch in Sicilian shopping. We are frequently offered samples to taste before we buy. The shopkeeper is often closely involved in actually making the products they are selling so they have a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm to share.
The picture above illustrates all of this well. Today we went to a shop in Catania selling leather goods. This is their website. Whilst deliberating on which bag I should buy, the owner’s son invited us into the workshop at the back to see where everything they sold was made. We were shown the templates for the bags and the selection of leathers that were used. When we had made our choices – a satchel for me and a valet tray for Mr Stitches – they were taken back to the workshop to be polished before we took them home. Whilst we were waiting we had a long chat with the owner’s son about how the business had started and what life in Catania is like generally.
We have really come to appreciate this slow paced, relaxed, chatty and often educational way of shopping.