Tuesday, May 09, 2006


There are many more supermarkets in Modica than when I first visited in 1992. There is the Conad chain, with a supermarket in the Via Sacro Cuore and two bigger outlets, one easily accessible by bus, the other less so. The larger ones are fine, as are the other “chain” supermarkets, Sidis and Di Meglio; their displays of fruit and vegetables are mouthwatering and the staff are eager to help you.

But something is badly amiss at the Sacro Cuore store: there is nothing wrong with its produce and its butcher is friendly and efficient. But in other respects it is like a scruffy UK supermarket back in the seventies. They don’t renew their stock quickly, they don’t do their “facings” [I know that’s what they’re called from a Joanna Trollope novel!] they don’t check sell-by dates regularly enough and the floor tiles are precariously held togther with tape all over the place. Worse than all of that, though, is that if you need help – say, to find or reach something – they can be casual to the point of rudeness. I have twice nearly lost my temper in there because of this. All it needs is a little staff training!

It pains me to write about service in Italy in this way, as the country is renowned for good, professional service and courtesy in shops and restaurants; and, indeed, this is what you will get in most shops, big or small, where they are as polite and attentive if you spend three euros as if you spend three hundred.

All the supermarkets – yes, even the Sacro Cuore one! – will gift-wrap for you at Christmas, as will most other shops, all year round, for no charge. This is usually done prettily and with fine Italian attention to detail, too.

I have mentioned access: no bus stops at the Sidis although there are lots of other stores in the complex and the buses pass it. It is not that far to walk to it from the bus stop back along the road, but the problem is that for a good part of the way there is no pavment. [Indeed, you could be forgiven for wondering what they have against pavements in parts of Modica!] This is just bad planning; another matter for my epistle to the Mayor?!

Health-store items such as vitamins cost a lot more here and I suspect that this is because they are not stocked by the supermarkets. There is currently a debate in Italy about whether to allow pharmacies to open in supermarkets; there is some fear that, if this happened, some of the small, conveniently located pharmacies might go out of business. [And there are plenty, I have to say, always clearly signposted and they all give friendly and good advice.]

You also can’t buy newspapers and magazines in the supermarkets here [which I find strange] though this is not the case in the north of Italy.

I have trouble buying carrots, potatoes and celery because they are sold in much larger amounts than I need and there are no small packs of prepared celery hearts [or at least, I haven’t seen them]. There just aren't the number of single-person households here that there are in the UK.

As for spices, I have sent to Britain for the more unusual Indian ones, as, apart from cinnamon, juniper and mustard seeds, they are hard to find here. [“Why move to Italy if you want Indian spices?” you may say. It is just that I miss preparing certain exotic recipes now and then.] However, recently a friend told me about a shop in nearby Ragusa called “Global Foods” and I went and cleared them out of their supply of tamarind, fresh coriander and – would you believe? – baked beans! [Well, like Everest, they were “there”, you see!]

There are many independent butchers and all their shops are air-conditioned, orderly and spotlessly clean. Luckily I have the best one in town right opposite the flat! They all stock certain prepared food such as dishes of chicken wings with olives and herbs, spiedini [kebabs] and you can get veal and chicken cutlets already breaded.

For cold meats you go to the salumeria if you don’t want to go to the supermarket. Just along the road is the “Sfiziosa”, again, one of the best – and most expensive – in town but it is worth it. In my opinion they stock the best crudo [Parma or San Daniele ham] in the area; they have a stunning array of cheeses, too, but I am convinced that the best Pecorino cheese in Modica is to be found in Mr Cannata’s salumeria in Modica Bassa.

In general, food is cheaper here than in the UK, fruit and vegetables noticeably so, especially if you buy from the various lorries that you see around or from a market; but then you have to buy enormous quantities – such as a crate of peaches or 10 kilos of potatoes – which I can neither carry nor get through quickly enough.

Beef costs about the same as in the UK; chicken a little more; pork less. Lamb is quite difficult to find, except at Easter, and it is very young and therefore boney: the first time I bought some cubed lamb I tried to get the bone off and ended up with very little meat! [I now know that Italians cook it bone-in, for the flavour.] I haven’t yet seen any minced lamb and the only way to get decent-sized lamb chops is to visit the nice folk at Iblea Frigo [ a frozen food centre] where they will cut up a whole shoulder into chops for you.

I have been doing Italian cooking all my adult life, yet now I realise that in the UK, this was an approximation, because the cuts of meat are so different. I have adjusted some of my recipes accordingly and am getting used to it, though.

Now I am going to say something iconoclastic! It is all very well for professional chefs and for foodies like me to bang on about the desirability of seasonal food. But the fact is that when you have lived in Britain, where these days you can get almost any food, from any country, at any time of year, despite yourself you do come to expect it. So, sorry, dear cookery writers, but my answer to the question, “Do you really want strawberries in December?” just might, sometimes, be “Yes!” It is quite strange, when poring over recipe books, to have to stop and ask myself, “Now can I get this or that ingredient here at this time of year?” And yet the fact that seasonal and celebratory food is prepared here – and prepared in the home – remains one of the reasons why I came.

Oh dear! A lot of the above seems rather grumpy! I didn’t mean it to, as much of the time I am absolutely delighted with my shopping. The photo was taken the first time I bought citrus fruit with the leaves attached. This may not seem much if you have always lived around the Med or in California or somewhere, but I assure you that for a Brit it is truly miraculous!

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