Turning the corner into Piazza del Campo, the heady aromas of roast porchetta, pungent pecorino and spicy salami assail our nostrils as we take in the glorious spectacle. Fat-flecked salami of every size swing gently in the winter breeze. Curvaceous cheeses crumble as customers clammer for a chunk. Jars brimming with sun-kissed wildflower honey glint like liquid gold in the winter sunshine. And legs of streaky prosciutto do a meaty can-can signalling the start of the Christmas food market at the heart of Siena.
Everywhere that is anywhere has a Christmas market these days and if you’re a foodie (although not a veggie!), nothing much touches the glorious bounty that awaits at the Mercato nel Campo (literally market in the field) which celebrates the excellence of local Tuscan produce and traditional producers. Lasting just 2 days, you’ve got to be quick to catch this one but its worth the train ride from Florence, I assure you! It’s absolute foodie heaven!
The morning sun is still climbing above the terracotta rooftops as we dive headlong into the melee to begin our culinary journey across Tuscany and beyond. Each stall hosts a different producer with all the usual suspects that you might expect but in such variety, size and plenty that almost takes your breath away. Whether its ash-coated pecorino, piles of earthy truffles or chewy pistachio nougat, each one takes enormous pride in their work offering great chunks to taste and seconds to seal the deal.
Stall after stall offers salami, but each is slightly different. Whether its the one selling metre long salami, or gourde-shaped ones, or garlic salami, or spicy salami, all taste fantastic. And then there is the traditional Finocchiona, a delicately fennel-flavoured speciality of Siena. Finocchiona supposedly owes its origins to a thief at a fair near Prato, who stole a salami, hiding it under a pile of fresh fennel, or finocchio in Italian, which gave the salami it’s delicious taste. But ask a local charcutiere and they tell you a different story relating back to the days when the republic of Siena was at war with nearby Florence. The prices of spices were controlled by the Florentines but not wanting to be beholden to their arch rivals, the Senese decided to add a local herb, fennel, instead of pepper and hence Finocchiona was born. Whichever is true, it’s all deliciously moreish!
And then there are the cheeses. Fresh ricotta sits plumply in its containers. Stalls are piled high with hard Pecorino Toscano, a ewe’s milk cheese documented as far back as the first century AD by Pliny the Elder. Tastes vary from creamy fresh pecorino to its nutty mature cousin.
Jet-black wax-covered Caciomulo cheeses are stacked next door, the name recalling the tradition of carrying cheeses to market strung across the back of a mule or horse – cacio meaning cheese, mulo meaning mule. And yet more stalls show off blue cheeses, goat’s milk cheeses and the ubiquitous Parmesan.
Mix in truffle stalls with abundant piles of the earthy fungi just waiting to be sliced over pasta or into a creamy sauce. Stalls with Senese pici, a simple flour and water, hand-rolled spaghetti-style pasta. And yet more with delicately flavoured prosciutto sliced wafer thin to melt in the mouth. You could dine like a royal on the abundance.
And the sweet toothed are catered for too. Tables sag under sugar-mountains of biscuits, cream-filled canoli, chocolate salami and local candied fruitcake Panforte. Gateau-sized creamy nougat, or torrone, of every flavour torment the tastbuds. Whilst bitter-sweet liquorice sticks sit alongside the brittle black-gold slabs, hammered down to gob-stopper-sized chunks to suck on.
But the most famous local sweet cake must surely be the melt-in-the-mouth Ricciarelli piled high and dusted in snowy icing sugar. Legend has it that these biscuits date back to the 14th century when Riccardetto della Gherardesca brought them back from crusading in the middle east. Crunchy on the outside, soft and light inside, these days Ricciarelli, or “little curly things” convert local almond crops into delicate delights, traditionally eaten at Christmas.
Each stall sagged under the tasty bountiful Senese harvest as we ooohed and ahhhed and wowed our way slowly round. Hardly knowing where to start our grins grew wider as we dived in! Our bellies grew happier with each new morsel and our rucsack of goodies grew steadily heavier as we divested each producer of their wares and all without touching a drop of the local wines!
But the market isn’t just for food and drink. It hosts a range of beautiful local crafts from handwoven wool wraps, multicoloured toys, handmade christmas decorations that twinkle in the Tuscan sun, trinkets, cookery equipment and all manner of wooden goods.
Our favourite stall is hosted by man-mountain Romano, a wood carver who creates beautiful and delicate old fashioned spinning tops with his massive, gnarled hands. His walnut, wrinkled face suggests he’s worked on the land for a lifetime but this man is more than a woodturner. Talk to him for just a few minutes and you realise he’s a poet, a philosopher and a gentleman. When asked the price of something he replies that the value of his toys isn’t monetary but is as an expression of love between him and the receiver. He uses a range of different local woods, all of which have their own fingerprint or grain which creates such swirls and patterns as to render paint or further decorations totally redundant. He also offers free repairs on any of his toys, but they’re made with such skill, attention and love that I bet they’d last a lifetime!
And so, as the winter sun arks across the sky blue heavens, we finally wend our way back to the station laden down with all manner of treasures. A hand carved cheese board and half a dozen chunks of cheese. A woollen shawl and leather-backed notebook. Home decorations and wafer-thin prosciutto. And tastebuds and bellies satisfied with countless Tuscan tasters. If only we’d brought bigger bags to carry it all! Ah well, we’ll just have to come back next winter to stock up again!
Facebook : Siena – Mercato nel Campo
Finocchiona from www.lepriniandrea.it
Honey from www.apiarisantantonio.it
Wooden spinning tops from www.romanocheli.com
Woollen products from www.artesmonteriggioni.com/en/
Used books from www.libreria-ancilli.it
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One final note: This is not a sponsored post. I paid my own way on this trip and can personally recommend it and the products mentioned!