Friday, June 12, 2015

Putting the Rialto Market into Context

Never had I seen such a sprawling fresh-food market. Stands of local produce surrounded us, the scent of fresh fish and saltwater filled the air, and people were moving in every which way, doing their daily grocery shopping. This wasn't Whole Foods or an all-natural grocery store, though--this was Venice's renowned Rialto Market.

During my trip to Italy last month, I joined Context Travel on their Rialto Market Walk. Context doesn't offer tours with tour guides, but rather "walking seminars" with docents, all of whom have advanced degrees . I didn't understand the difference until I actually went on the walk--as you'll read soon, it was extremely hands-on and interactive.

Before beginning our market exploration, Rachel, our docent, gave us an overview of the market's history. At over 1000 years old (!!!!), the Rialto Market has long been the head of Venetian commerce. Rialto was the first area of Venice to be settled, so even when the metropolis grew, it remained the "heart of commerce" and center of dogana (customs).

Rachel also pointed out that, if you look closely, there are markings in each area indicating what used to be sold there. For example, one of the sections reads "Casaria," telling us that cheese was formerly sold in that square. There was even a banking area where all of the money lending used to take place, which Rachel said was completely run by Jews (as charging interest was against Catholic belief).

Rialto Market has two types of shops: mini stores with semi-prepared foods (such as dried pasta) and traditional stands, which primarily carry produce. You'll notice that the stands are mostly run by immigrants, but it's thanks to them that the market has survived for so long. Rachel engaged our group in conversation with one of them, an immigrant from Bangladesh. He told us that he wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to begin work at 6:00, but doesn't get home until 10:00 p.m. These grueling hours have dissuaded many Italians from taking these jobs--and left me with great respect for these hardworking stand owners!

At one stand, Rachel purchased fraggoline de bosco as part of our tasting menu. These wild strawberries are extremely tiny, delicious, and hand picked in the mountains. While making the purchase, she pointed out that, by law, the stands must provide the grade, price, and origin of the products, which you can see below. Most of the produce comes from nearby Sant'Erasmo and Vignole (most local items are labeled as nostrano, or "ours"), but the best tomatoes come from Sicily in the south. We got to try some of these tomatoes, and they were the best I've ever tasted!

Speaking of produce, here's something to make you laugh. The first artichokes of the season are called castraure. You snip the tip off of the artichoke and eat it. Now go back and relate my last sentence to this item's Italian name. ;)

From the produce area, we made our way into the covered section of the market where fish are sold. Fish have always been sold here because the roof protects them from the sun, keeping them fresher longer. As Venice is situated in a traditionally poor area, "blue fish" were (and remain) the most commonly sold fish. These fish are fatty and meaty, and include sardines, mackerel, herring, and tuna.

In order to be sold, the fish must meet a minimum size requirement, as this sign states. Another inappropriate comment--the handwriting beneath it means "and mine," as this lovely graffiti artist is referencing...well...a certain part of him that he thinks is above a minimum size. I'll leave it at that.

Something nice about this walk was that Rachel showed us the food products sold beyond the confines of the market. As we passed spice shops, she explained that spices were never used to cover up bad meat but rather to make it more "exotic and luxurious." The Venetians began importing spices in the Roman times, trading salt for spices. As Rachel so eloquently put it, these spices turned a "poor man's food into a cuisine."

We got the chance to taste this very cuisine of which she spoke. At a caffè frequented by the Venetian locals, she convinced me to order a Marco Polo drink. It's an espresso with semi-whipped cream and the choice between ginger, cardamom, or cinnamon. I had a cinnamon one and it had a unique but wonderful flavor. Almost like Pumpkin Spice Latte, but so much better.

To finish off this two-hour tour, we hopped around a few cicchetterias, or restaurants that serve cicchetti (Italian tapas). Over prosecco, we sampled artichokes, whipped seafood and roasted eggplant on crostini, and--my favorite--buttery cheese from Asiago. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful morning!

Did I mention that all Context tours are capped at six people? There were three of us on the tour, and I can't imagine a larger group. The market is so bustling that it would be harder to hear her, harder to interact with her on a personal level, and harder to keep track of everyone. By keeping groups small, Context really engages its participants.

Context offers tours all around the world, so whether you're in Venice, Istanbul, or Vancouver, you can take advantage of these fun, educational experiences. Even if you do a tour in your hometown, I guarantee that you'll learn something new and see it in a whole new light--in context.

Practical Information: Rialto Market Walk
  • Price: $78/person; $17 for optional tastings (HIGHLY recommended)
  • Guides: one English-speaking docent with a history specialization
  • Transportation: not included (you meet at the vaporetto stop)
  • Activity level: low
  • What to bring: money for shopping (optional), camera
Full disclosure: I was a guest on this tour but this content is entirely my own.

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