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Shopping in Europe - Covered and Open Air Food Markets
Want to get close to Europeans? Eat their food. They won't mind.
Guido Veloce Explains Europe to You - Issue #8

Shopping the Great Covered and Open Air Food Markets of Europe

One of the great joys for European travelers and food lovers is shopping at a food market in Europe. I'm not talking about the rapidly multiplying European Hypermarkets--gargantuan complexes of mediocrity that sell everything under a single corporate ownership--I'm talking about a complex of independent merchants gathering indoors or out in a space overseen by the government or by an entrepreneur who rents out the space to vendors.

It's an ancient concept. Virtually all medieval cities in Europe grew up around a fair or market. Today, even the smaller villages offer once-a-week traveling markets that set up shop in public squares just the way they've been doing since medieval times. People dress up for them. Hawkers hawk. Fish gleam on beds of shaved ice while unfortunate fowl hang by their necks next to stands piled high with colorful vegetables and fruits.

Evolving out of an older culture that shopped twice a day (and in many places still does) because of lack of refrigeration, these places offer, with few exceptions, the best of what the local countryside has to offer in the way of edibles.

Now, if you're one of those folks who demands a degree of Styrofoam separation from the reality of what you put in your mouth, you will undoubtedly be less enthusiastic about the food markets of Europe than I. But those of us who don't mind looking a fish in the eye (knowing the condition of a fishes' peepers speaks volumes about freshness) relish this kind of kinship with the things we eat. We have a tendency to balance the sadness over the death we've caused by preparing the food to bring us maximum joy--so that the sacrifice can be fully appreciated.

But enough of this. If you've read this far you've probably been to or wish to visit a food market in Europe. Maybe you want to learn how to jump in and buy great stuff to munch. Here are a couple of things to think about:

  • Bring a small pocket knife and fork on your trips (you can often buy knives at or near the markets, but forks are problematic unless you happen to like the plastic ones).
  • When you've located a likely market, search out a nearby park with picnic tables where you can eat comfortably before you run off to buy everything edible in sight.

What you can find to eat even if you can't cook it

Assuming you're holed up in a hotel and didn't rent an apartment for your vacation, you'll be limited to foods that are ready to eat. Don't let that scare you away from seeking out a meal at the market--there are plenty of options. Here's a list of some of typical market foods that are delicious eaten straight:

  • Olives
  • Pates
  • Regional Cheeses
  • Preserved Meats like Salami and Cured Ham (try regional hams in Italy, France and Spain). There are more regional types of salami in the world than have been counted, I'm sure. They'll slice it thin for you.
  • Roast Chicken (often found with roast potatoes, but not available at all markets)
  • Regional Breads
  • Boiled, Pickled, Salted or Smoked Seafood (in Belgium or some places in France, try the briny gray crevettes--tiny gray shrimp from the North Sea eaten like popcorn; in the Netherlands try herring served by street vendors)
  • Porchetta--Roast pig served out of trucks that visit the market places in Italy. A small porker is stuffed with rosemary, salt and pepper and then roasted over a wood fire. You can buy it by weight or in an inexpensive panino (sandwich).
  • Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, of course.

European Market Etiquette

DON'T TOUCH THE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. Ok, sometimes a vendor will tell you to just go ahead and pick your own. But if you want to raise the hackles of a vendor who is used to dealing with locals, just try poking around in his veggies with your unwashed meathooks.

Locals will tell a vendor when they plan to eat their fruit and he'll use his expertise to pick those at the appropriate stage of ripeness, especially for repeat customers he wants to keep happy.

Concepts of hygiene are funny, aren't they? In the US everyone feels free to poke, prod, squeeze, and otherwise deface the fruit of their choice and nobody says boo about it. And someone's gonna put that fruit in their mouth raw as sin. On the other hand, on hygenic grounds we demand that the fish we're gonna cook be shrink-wrapped in Styrofoam trays, maybe so we can't smell the horrid odor it develops after a week of marinating in its own bacteriological slime. Ok, just so you know, I'm not slamming just Americans here--many Europeans are falling in droves for the lower prices and higher "efficiencies" of the massive Hypermarket. Too bad. May the "butcher" offload his rotten filets by slipping them under the fresh ones in their packages of sole.

How can I buy this fabulous, fresh food? I don't know the language!

Foods in the market are generally purchased by the kilogram or, more often by the tenth of a kilo or 100 grams. A half kilo is 1.1 pounds. Thus, 200 grams is just about half a pound. By learning a few words along with the numbers from one to nine you can navigate through the market negotiations with relative ease. I'll even tell you how to eliminate linguistic knowlege of the numbers by counting digitally (Um, that's by fingers, which, like computer keyboards, are different in Europe, trust me).

Some quantitative words for use in Europe's open air food markets
English Italian Spanish French
100 grams un etto cien gramos cent grammes
200 grams due etti dos cien gramos deux cents grammes
half Kilo mezzo kilo el medio Kilogramo un demi kilo
One Kilo un kilo di... un Kilogramo de... un kilogramme de...

The Numbers

If you have trouble with numbers you can use your fingers. But Europeans use their fingers differently (no cracks about the Italians, that's another story entirely).

Some of you may have noticed the quizzical expression on faces of vendors when you've held out a finger to denote a quantity of one. That's because many Europeans use the thumb to convey the quantity of one. Two is conveyed by a combo of the thumb and first finger. From then on you've probably got it covered.

A Word about Covered Markets

In larger cities the markets will be permanently housed in a building with individual stalls, just like they were in Roman times. You are likely to find bars and small restaurants within the marketplace building. These offer the cheapo tourist a great way to eat what the local turnip truck drivers eat.

Generally, the restaurants in markets are far cheaper than tourist joints and the food earthier (you'll have to decide on your own if that means it's better or not--I figure market restaurants allow tourists like me to sample what people eat at home and it's almost always "better" than food "interpreted" for me by most tourist joints).

Many of the restaurants have opening hours to match the ungodly hours of the delivery personnel, so you can eat some pretty outrageous food in the early hours. Plus, most of the food is served from a steam table or right from a stove in the middle of the restaurant itself, so if you don't know the name of what you want, you can point.

One of my favorite places to eat is at the market in Athens. No need to learn Greek, just point and sit like everyone else.

The seafood market in Cagliari, Sardinia is one of the most amazing places I've ever visited. Have you seen all the underwater denizens they've captured over at the Monterey (California) Aquarium? This is better. Take the kids, but don't poke the carp. And make way for the people who actually need to shop. Market vendors can get justifiably peeved by gawkers who don't buy.

I'm outta here. Why not write me and tell me what European subject you'd like me to rant about in the future?

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