Guest Foodie: Sarah at Cortona’s Vegetable Market

This is the second in our series of guest foodies.

When I go to the Saturday market in Cortona, a town in Tuscany that I love, I travel through time and place.

Produce at Saturday market in Cortona, Tuscany

Produce at Saturday market in Cortona, Tuscany

Perhaps because I grew up on a farm, I have great respect for people who have labored to bring food to a farmers’ market – and ultimately to our tables. I know from experience how much work, skill and even luck it takes to achieve a vegetable plot brimming with produce.

As a child, one of my most dreaded chores was hoeing the vegetable garden. Back then, under the Kansan sun, I didn’t care whether the tomatoes ripened on the vine or the sweet corn shriveled in the heat. If some nasty insect had devoured every plant in the garden, I’d have rejoiced at no longer having to perform the hateful hoeing.

It never occurred to me that children could happily care for a garden. Yet over the last few years, thanks to a documentary I’m filming in Cortona, I’ve meet many elderly people who have told me in nostalgic tones about how good it felt to know, even as a child, that they were helping put food on the table. Food was so scarce, they’ve all told me, that every family member lent a hand and even then there was still barely enough to go around. One particularly expressive woman told me “what we put on two peoples’ plates today would have fed a family of six”.

During filming, many of these same people also shared with me their memories of going to the weekly market, which they reached after an hour-long walk with their parents and siblings.

When I began the interviews, I assumed these families had been going to the market to buy produce and instead discovered that they came every week to Cortona to sell whatever they could. Sometimes they’d manage to sell a rabbit, sometimes a few eggs. They rarely purchased anything beyond the necessities they couldn’t produce themselves such as salt and matches.

The interviews have changed the way I view and experience Cortona’s Saturday market, which has been held here for hundreds of years and in its current incarnation blends the ancient and modern. I’m convinced that certain aspects of today’s market atmosphere – the stories, jokes, retorts, joys, laments, rumors, and little acts of friendship – date back centuries before the tourist masses discovered Cortona and the rest of Tuscany.

But hard-working agricultural families, the majority of Cortona’s population until very recently, are being swept away by the swift currents of modernization despite having been key to the local economy for years. While the town and its residents have benefitted from the economic growth, Tuscany wouldn’t have become what it is today without the labor of these people who spent their lives in loving yet arduous collaboration with nature and I worry what will become of this place now that so few people tend the fields. I fear the threads that have held the community together for centuries are being tugged apart and I fear wonderful little spots like this around the world might one day lose their “genius”.

Sarah Marder is the reporter, producer and co-director of The Genius of a Place, a documentary about the fragility of places of beauty. It is filmed in Cortona, Tuscany and shows this town struggling to find a balance between development and conservation of all that makes it unique, beautiful, livable and sustainable. Until now entirely self-produced, the creative team has just launched a crowd funding campaign to seek people willing to support the project through micro-contributions.

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