Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
April 24, 2014
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Mangia Bene

Did you know that the history of market halls has not been written? That seems extraordinary given their role in the economic life of the Mediterranean. Market life in the Mediterranean not only has had an importance for the past thousand years; it is important today. The market is not only where economic life happens, it is where communities and peoples meet and relate to one another, where they share stories and foods. The growth of the modern supermarket in the Mediterranean means that the local markets are becoming smaller and less important. As that trend continues it’s possible that the Mediterranean will become as bland as an American supermarket. But I’m optimistic because even in America the farmers markets that have grown rapidly around this country demonstrated that people do want to have them and be engaged with them.

(Alberto Pasini, A Market Scene, in Istanbul)

Let’s look at how the markets formed over time. In the Mediterranean, feudal society was defined by the agricultural production of peasants who not only had to meet their own needs, but then had to turn over a portion of their crops to the overlords of the land. The owners, landlords, demonstrated their power through extravagance. The logic of this system stimulated the peasants to extract more from their land than they needed for subsistence which encouraged the continuity of production and the enforcing of seigneurial taxes. This system led the tenants of the land to work ever harder to achieve a surplus that they could exchange in local markets. The feudal economy led to great mercantile potential because the income not spent by the overlords and the occasional peasant surpluses (rare as they were) stimulated exchange. This exchange soon led to the coining of money, more traffic on the roads, and the rise of urban craftsmen. The rise in agricultural production, besides enriching the aristocracy, stimulated the development of cities.

Important nutritional consequences arose from this agriculturalization of the rural economy, the proliferation of rural markets, and the increasing connection between rural and urban markets. The most important was that foods of vegetable origin gained ground over meat among the poor peasants. Between 1050 and 1280 the diets of the different social classes lost the variety that had characterized them during the earlier Middle Ages. Bread and wine eclipsed other foods and relegated them to the position of accompaniments. Especially in the cities, their absence was almost intolerable: after two hundred years of agricultural growth, chestnuts, acorns, and alternate foodstuffs almost disappeared except in mountainous regions. The urban diet consisted basically of wheat and the rural diet was based on the inferior corns and pods. Braudel showed that this phenomenon was linked to the expansion of urban markets. Landowners living in cities imposed a wheat growing culture on their properties and the townsfolk bought it in the urban markets. Peasants preferred the less valuable products because their lives were more precarious and they relied on grains with higher and safer yields such as rye (in the Alpine regions from Piedmont to Trentino); spelt (in the plains of Lombardy and Emilia) and lesser cereals such as millet, panic, and sorghum (in Lombardy and Venetian plains and in central and northern Italy to different degrees); and barley (mainly grown in central and southern regions).[1]

In some areas fish was a basic staple. It was sold in markets in Cairo, Seville, and elsewhere.

Yet cookbooks contain few fish recipes because fish was not considered a food of great value. Bartolomeo Scappi, chef to Pope Pius V, published his cookbook Opera in Venice in 1570. He probably was Venetian because he dedicates the book to a celebrated cook of Venice and because he uses unmistakably Venetian language with terms of endearment and diminutives. There are a lot of Venetian recipes. He also provides information on the fish market (frequently comparing the markets of Venice, Milan, and Rome) and on the trade of cured or preserved foods. He reports that “various kinds of salted fish, preserved in leaves, either smoked, air-dried, or stored in brine” are available. Among these are Lake Garda carp, which are fried, then marinated in salt and vinegar (a technique to which the term “accarpionato” is applied) and “preserved in this manner for several days,” they are “transported to different places in Italy.” He tells us that while shad are transported “preserved in barrels with rough salt,” sardines “are caught in the sea around Genoa, salted in barrels of brine, and brought to different places in Italy (Chap. 149v). The same is true of Comacchio eels, since Comacchio “is surrounded by saltwater flats, and [the eels] caught there are very numerous and better than in any other part of Lombardy.” These are preserved in salt and brought to all parts of Italy. (Chap. 136r). In Venice, where the beccarie, the principal butchers’ shops of the city, were brought together after 1339 a few steps from the Rialto square, in the former Ca’Querini, the street and the canal were both renamed beccarie after them.

(Boqueria, Barcelona)

Markets in Catalonia went into crisis in the mid-fifteenth century as civil war erupted over the issue between Catalan merchants around protectionism and free trade. Mediterranean markets had been dominated by the Catalans, but with their turmoil there was a slow decline in the competitiveness of their products which allowed Genoese and southern French merchants to take over the Mediterranean island markets.

Sicily was a great market for olive oil in the ninth century, at a time when the Arabs had just finished consolidating their conquest. In 880 a sizable Byzantine flotilla appeared off Sicily and interrupted commercial traffic between Muslim Sicily and the cities of southern Italy. They captured so much olive oil in so doing that it is said that the price of this commodity fell markedly in the markets of Constantinople.

Descriptions of markets and gardens in Sicily during the Arab era are quite colorful thanks to the copious writings of famed Arab travelers such as the tenth-century traveler Ibn Hawqal who was very critical of Arab-Sicilian eating habits and manners and al-Idrīsī, who was the court geographer in King Roger II’s court in twelfth-century Palermo. Ibn Hawqal was also especially critical of the Sufi run hospices in Sicily which he describes as nests of sanctimonious ruffians and slanderers. They are no more than pimps, he tells us. Ibn Hawqal describes Sicily as a land of mountains, castles, military fortresses, and cultivated land. Outside the walls of the Kalissa was a huge market in Palermo, where the Piazza Ballaro is today, with the olive oil sellers, the millers, the money changers, the apothecaries, the smiths, the sword cutlers, the flour markets, the brocade makers, the fishmongers, the spice merchants, the greengrocers, the fruit sellers, the sellers of aromatic plants, the jar merchants, the bakers, the rope makers, a group of perfumers, the shoemakers, the tanners, the carpenters, and the potters. The butchers were in another market. Ibn Hawqal describes more than two hundred butcher shops. He also describes vegetable gardens and the excellent cucumber fields. [2]

Al-Idrīsī describes Mazara del Vallo in Sicily as unique in beauty and architecture with beautiful homes, wide alleys, huge streets and markets, industries, inns, gardens, orchards. His near contemporary, the historian to the Norman kings of Sicily Hugo Falcandus, described Palermo with its markets, its manufactures of silk, the noble’s groves of lemon and almond which fill the wide valley behind the city.

In Cairo, with whom eleventh-century Arab-Sicilians had a vigorous trade in cheese, oil, and textiles, markets had existed since the time of the founding of the city in 969. Many of these markets exist today in the same locales. On the south side of Maydan al-Falaki is the Suq Bab al-Lūq, a market selling home-grown vegetables, fruit, meat and imported fruit for the tourist market. Connecting the Maydan al-Azhar and Maydan al-Husayn with the Maydan al-Atabah al-Khadra is the Shari’ al-Muski, one of the great street markets in Cairo.

The towns of the Mediterranean were successful in creating central markets within the reach of the surrounding vegetable gardens and wheat fields they needed. A Venetian ambassador passing through Castile concluded it was only cultivated around the towns. The wide paramos (barren wilderness) where sheep grazed and the secanos (unirrigated land) reserved for wheat appeared to this ambassador as barren countryside. Around Castilian towns though he saw green patches of irrigated land. At Valladolid orchards and gardens bordered the banks of the Pisuerga.

The markets were mostly for and about food. Venice was one of the most privileged for food. Matteo Bandello (c. 1480-1562), the Italian novelist, was dazzled by the markets of the Venice and by the abbondanza grandissima d'ogni sorte di cose da mangiare (the great abundance of everything thing possible to eat) and he is a reliable witness. In Bandello's novels a good meal means a few vegetables, a little Bologna sausage, some tripe, and a cup of wine.

The control of markets was strictly regulated. Venice had a Grain Office which not only controlled grain and flour entering the city but also sales in the city markets. Flour could only be sold in two public places, one near St. Marks and the other at the Rialto. The Doge was kept informed of the stocks in the warehouses and as soon as the city had reserves only for a year, the College was duly informed. Merchants were advanced sums of money and the bakers had to provide the public with loaves made from “good grain,” meaning made of white flour, and whose weight might vary but whose price remained constant.

The markets were full of life, active, and numerous. The markets had numbered stalls—in Lucca there were 144 numbered sites on the marketplace of San Michele—and a varied and active proletariat. Pea-shellers had a reputation of being inveterate gossips. The frog-skinners did their job with frogs which came in mule-loads from Geneva or Paris. There were bakers selling coarse bread and butchers selling meat in the streets and squares. Wholesalers sold fish, butter, and cheese. The markets had piles of produce, slabs of butter, heaps of vegetables, pyramids of cheese, fruit, wet fish, game, meat which the butcher cut up on the spot, unsold books whose pages were used to wrap up the purchases. From the countryside also came straw, hay, wool, hemp, flax, and fabrics woven on village looms.

(Joseph Farquharson, Egyptian market)

This doesn’t sound much different than a contemporary farmers market in the U.S. or any contemporary market in today’s Mediterranean. That’s because the market is simple and because perishable goods are brought straight to the market from local gardens and fields. There’s another reason too: the food is sold directly, in a supervised market and the least open to deception. The market of the Middle Ages in the Mediterranean would be recognizable today: the peasant (farmer) who comes to town, anxious to obtain the money he needs to pay his taxes and who remains at market just long enough to make some money; the energetic salesman with his smooth talk and manner possibly preempting the rural seller’s wares in spite of prohibitions; the liveliness and social interaction of the market, where one can always find prepared food such as “meatballs, dishes of chick peas, fritters.”

Etienne Boyleaux’s Livre des métiers (Book of Trades) written in 1270 says that this open market method meant the goods come to an open market and there it can be seen if they are good and fair or not. Markets have been like this for millenia. The urban authorities during the Middle Ages in the Mediterranean devised regulations for these markets and kept a sharp eye on prices. In Sicily, if a vendor asked a price a single grano over the fixed tariff he could easily be pressed directly into service on the galleys.

The markets were held on set days and it became a natural focus of social life. There was no speculation and what was bought was bought there in the market as captured by the Maltese proverb “A man who buys fish while it is still in the sea may only get the smell in the end.”

At Carpentras, near Avignon, in the sixteenth century, répetières (women vegetable-sellers) went out on the roads to buy goods being brought in to market.[3] As historian Fernand Braudel wrote in Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: The Wheels of Commerce markets were like watersheds between rivers and ones experience of the market depended on your situation. The market could be your only source of food, as it was for the immigrant silk-workers of Messina. The nobles and bourgeoisie of the city often had some land outside the city, perhaps a garden or an orchard providing them food resource. To escape this dilemma, poor workers who were tired of eating “sea-corn,” usually half rotten from its travels, which was used to make the bread sold them at high prices, the only alternative was to move to nearby Catania or Milazzo and change their job.

Braudel discovered wonderful descriptions of markets in his research. The markets, for those who lived far from them, was a place to “display oneself,” presumir as the Spanish said. Soldiers and sailors were often denizens of markets because they were on the move. The sailor, says Benedetto Cotrugli in Della mercatura e del mercante perfetto written in 1458, was very primitive: “he has such a dull mind that when he drinks in a tavern, or buys bread in a market, he thinks he is important.” There is the story of a Spanish soldier who found himself at the Zaragoza market between two campaigns in 1645 and stood amazed at the piles of fresh tuna, salmon-trout and hundreds of other fish from the sea or the nearby river, but in the end he bought some sardines packed in salt which the landlady at the corner tavern grilled for him and which he washed down with white wine.

Markets sometimes could come to a standstill because some merchandise had to wait for the arrival of other goods from distant places. For example, the thriving saffron market at Aquila in the Abruzzi attracted merchants from all over every year. But the saffron could not be sold until the linen bags they were packed in arrived from Germany which in turn required the arrival of the leather pouches from Hungary into which the linen bags were sown for transport. Buyers and sellers both, in the early stages of the money economy, were affected by the arrival of the copper bars, also from Germany, used by the Aquila mint to strike the small coins used in trade, the cavali and cavaluzzi. Markets in the Levant experienced the same rendezvous of local spices, pepper, drugs, silk, and cotton with silver coins and woolen cloth from the West.

(Gustav Bauernfeind, Jaffa market in Palestine, 1889)

Braudel makes an interesting case that it was the trade fairs in northern Italy that were the commercial centers that were the indispensable motors of economic life. The trade fairs developed into exchange fairs. He calls the establishment in 1579 of the exchange fairs at Piacenza in northern Italy the event of the century from the point of view of the history of capitalism. “For many years the relentless ‘heart’ of the Mediterranean and entire western economy beat here at Piacenza. It was not, in fact, Genoa, a city, but the discreet quarterly meeting of a few businessmen at Piacenza that dictated the rhythm of the material life of the West.”[4] There were other fairs at Lanciano, Salerno, Aversa, Lucera, Reggio in Calabria. In Syria, the seaside fair at Jeble and the caravan fairs of Mzerib held a hundred kilometers south of Damascus in the desert.

The fairs were markets where wealthy merchants who were familiar with bills of exchange and credit machinery could sell and buy imported spices, drugs, and rich fabrics. From the countryside, modest peddlers offered their livestock, bacon, barrels and salt meat, leather, skins, cheeses, new casks, almonds, dried figs, apples, local wines and celebrated vintages such as the mangiaguerra, barrels of anchovy or sardines and raw silk. The market fairs were important for the economies because they brought into contact great trade routes with the capillaries of trade, the country paths and mule-tracks that led down from the mountains and hills. Economies grew and became more than local or regional inward-looking phenomenon; this was the beginning of a national market.

[1] Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Siân Reynolds, trans. New York: Harper & Row, 1972, vol. 1, p. 310.

[2] Amari, Michele, ed. Biblioteca Arabo-Sicula: ossia raccolta di testi Arabici che toccano la geografia, la storia, le biografie e la bibliografia della Sicilia. Lipsia: F. A. Brockhaus, 1857, pp. 4-5.

[3] Caillet, Robert, Foires et marches de Carpentras, du Moyen Age au debut du XIXe siècle, Carpentras, 1953, p. 23-24.

[4] Braudel, Ibid., p. 379.