1During my recent ethnographic fieldwork at Porta Palazzo in Turin, which has one of the largest and oldest farmers’ markets in Italy, I befriended and worked with a number of farmers who regularly sell their produce at the farmers’ market. It then became clear that this market was one of the few places where city folk came into contact with the people who produce their food and that there was an important exchange of knowledge and life perspectives that went on in the social life of this place. Farmers’ markets not only support the local production of food, but also help in the sharing of local knowledge of culinary traditions. However, the more I listened to my informants, farmers and shoppers, the more I realised this institution was undergoing a period of precariousness. How could small-scale farmers compete with big agribusinesses? It also seemed that new hygiene regulations, which appear tailored to supermarkets and large-scale food production, were turning out to be costly for small businesses. In addition, regulations do not always respect diversity, history and the cultural character of many foodstuffs and traditional methods of selling. Regulations and laws tend to homogenise and standardise food and where it is produced and sold for the simple reason that this makes it easier to control. Although there has been a great deal of debate over the impact of EU regulations on ‘traditional’ forms of food production and over the various attempts to protect regional, local and traditional foods, especially in France and Italy, the ‘traditional’ methods of food distribution have been largely ignored.1 The Porta Palazzo farmers’ market offers a number of ethnographic examples that demonstrate the double edge of new European Union regulations on food, hygiene and public spaces.
2Using ethnographical information collected at the Porta Palazzo market, this article looks at some of the new challenges facing markets and, in particular, the impact of new national and European Union regulations on traditional and small-scale forms of food distribution and production. Both the views of farmers and their customers will be taken into consideration to shed light on changing attitudes towards food and provisioning.
3The Porta Palazzo farmers’ market takes place under a cast-iron structure built in 1916 and partly restored in 1999. It is perhaps the most characteristic part of the Porta Palazzo market, which also includes a resellers market for fruit and vegetables, a clothing and fish market, as well as two other covered pavilions occupying most of Piazza della Repubblica’s 51 300 m².2 Located just outside Turin’s historical centre, it is an important crossroad into the city. With only a few seasonal exceptions, farmers tend to come from the agricultural areas surrounding Turin, mainly the provinces of Torino and Cuneo (generally within a 150 km radius). There are approximately 100 producers at the height of the growing season. The goods for sale range from fresh seasonal vegetables, cheese and salami to live chickens and plants. People from all over the city and nearby areas are drawn to the market because of the wide range of goods on offer, low prices and the spectacle of the marketplace. In addition, especially at the weekends, foreign tourists are frequent visitors. The farmers’ market has a reputation for the quality and ‘authenticity’ of the goods sold there.3
4In cities it is often difficult to think of food as being produced locally. However, the farmers’ market directly connects the city to its adjacent farmlands. In Western Europe, this connection has been weakened over the last century; with modern transportation, refrigeration and increasingly centralised food distribution, local farms are often marginalised from urban food distribution networks.4 As regulations tighten and profits shrink, small-scale farming is struggling to stay in the market.5 It seems that people living in Italian cities are losing the possibility of buying locally. In addition, municipal governments have done little to encourage or promote farmers’ markets as essential elements of urban foodscapes. Despite an increasing demand for organic produce and an interest in locally produced food (as in the Slow Food movement) on the part of consumers in Italy, the farmers I worked with did not echo these positive trends in the evaluation of their state of affairs.6 As I frequented several neighbourhood markets in Turin, it became clear that these markets were struggling to adapt to a changing use of daily time and stringent regulations.
5Early in the morning the municipal police come to check that all of the market vendors are in their assigned spaces. Later they pass to make sure that prices are displayed. Although a special unit of the Carabinieri (military police) have the last say on upholding hygiene regulations, the municipal police are supposed to check that the municipal hygiene standards are maintained and that there are no major food safety issues. Sandro, one of the policemen who patrol the market regularly, waves to Pietro and Giovanni who are setting up their stalls. Later in the morning Sandro will stop and have a coffee with Pietro and talk about football, turning a blind eye on the bucket of murky water under the table, used to rinse off the knives for cutting cheese. This is the human-side of regulation letting bad habits to slip by, respecting time held traditions that were not conceived with modern hygiene standards in mind.
6This description shows where ethnographic research gives us access to practice.
7If we were to just read the European Union regulations, we would never know how an Italian market really operates. Market administrators, local police, vendors and shoppers are all active agents in negotiating how the market is run. However, the laidback police approach described above is becoming less lenient with the demands of increasingly rigid regulations often conflicting with traditional ways of displaying and selling food. When European Union regulations for food hygiene were first introduced in 2000 with the consequent publication of Italian regulations to conform to the European Community standards, the farmers at the Porta Palazzo market faced new challenges.
8I was able to get a better idea of the impact that new regulations are having on markets while doing fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation at the Porta Palazzo market from 2001 to 2004. I carried out two different types of participant observation during my time in the field. Initially, my observations were made from the perspective of the consumer: I went to the Porta Palazzo market to do my shopping at least three times a week for a year. This is how I got to know the territory, the people working at the market and the goods sold there. In this phase, I also carried out informal interviews with approximately thirty-five shoppers of different ages and genders. In 2003, I worked at various stands throughout the market selling everything from sweets to cabbages. For four months, I worked with four different farmers’ in the farmers’ market area of Porta Palazzo. During this time, I was able to have in-depth discussions with the farmers’ who employed me, other vendors and I developed relationships with regular clients. In the field, I did not carry out structured or formal interviews but the sheer number of hours spent dialoguing with my informants gave me access to an abundance of ethnographic material. However, I did carry out semi-formal interviews with market administrators and the municipal police at the market and in their offices. I also had the opportunity to accompany a police officer on his daily rounds of the market.
9Markets have always been difficult places to control. Traditionally, they were places that ran mainly on the laws of economics: the desire to trade and the laws of competition. However, since food is involved in these exchanges, hygiene and health has long been a concern for the municipal authorities in charge of administering markets in Italy. In the past, markets were often associated with disease and dirt due to the number of people they attracted, the live animals sold there and the often chaotic nature of market exchange. In 1834, the largest market in Turin was moved from its central position in front of the city hall to outside the city walls at its current position at Porta Palazzo (presently Piazza della Repubblica) in an effort to stop the spread of a cholera epidemic. In addition, markets produce daily an incredible amount of waste that must be properly disposed. The area must be cleaned every day.7 Although the economic activities of the market are perhaps the most difficult aspect to control, the hygienic maintenance of modern hygiene poses a number of challenges when dealing with an age-old public institution. Sanitation policies and stringent new regulations have an impact not only on the physical structure and location, but also on the social and economic life of markets. This is not only a historical issue but something that has risen to the forefront due to preoccupations with the contamination of the food supply and other concerns about the overall safety of food in Europe and North America.8
10The presentation of the European Commission White Paper on Food safety in January 2000 was perhaps the European Union’s first big step in addressing growing concern for food safety in expanding Europe. European Union regulations have required a great deal of revision in the face much criticism, food supply scares and the necessity and complexity of bringing all member states into conformity.9 The EC Corrigendum to Regulation (EC) no. 832/2004 on the hygiene of foodstuffs is the current regulation concerning markets: more specifically, Annex II, Chapter III “Requirement for movable and/or temporary premises.”10 Most of the regulations deal with hygiene conditions of the premises where food is sold, personal hygiene and storage. They are extremely general and open to interpretation. When the original document was amended in 2004, a clause was included allowing member states to adapt the regulations: “enabling the continued use of traditional methods, at any stage of production, processing or distribution of food.”11 This would appear to be a necessity, given the great diversity of the various EU members, from Spain to Estonia and Poland to England. However, as this article will show, the Italian government’s policies make little difference between large distribution, supermarkets and wholesale markets, on the one hand, and traditional forms of food distribution, such as markets and specialty shops, on the other hand.
11After looking at the general EU regulations let’s turn to the Italian regulations to see how the government had interpreted and responded to the EU regulations for markets. The Ordinanza Ministeriale of September 21, 2001 is the current legislation drafted by the Health Minister governing markets.12 Even though this document left regulations open to the interpretation of local authorities, a number of points appeared more relevant than others and they have had a noticeable impact on the farmers’ market. For example, the regulations specify that the paving in market area must be easily washed, waterproof and with proper drainage.
12This regulation has had a substantial impact on the physical appearance of the farmers’ market at Porta Palazzo. Its original paving was made of huge blocks of stone that according to one shopper “gave the market its traditional feel.” The city found that this paving could no longer be considered hygienic since it was difficult to clean and refuse could get trapped between the stones. The market was repaved to bring it up to standard. During this period, the farmers’ market was moved for several months from its usual location to a neighbouring square while the old paving was replaced with asphalt and concrete, conforming to the new standards. The farmers with whom I spoke told me that this had been a particularly difficult time:
“I lost a good part of my clients during those months and even some after. No one could find the market anymore and there was no parking. The move was badly organised and we paid.”
13Franco, a vegetable farmer from the Cunese, lamented his loss of business for several months during the works. After completion there were both positive and negative effects. Daniela, a retired secretary and regular shopper, noted that, “Yes, it seems cleaner but when they took away the stone paving it lost its charm. It just isn’t the same.” The farmers who sell their wares under the historic nineteenth-century cast-iron pavilion echoed this opinion; they did not see what was wrong with the old facility. The hygiene service workers welcomed the new paving because it was easier.
14Although the renovation seemed to be quite superficial in all regards, the main impact of the works was on the image of the market. There was a contradiction in the opinions of my informants, particularly the shoppers, between tradition and modernity, dirty and clean.
15The question of hygiene pervades market regulations and the discourse of market users. Within the hygiene discourse lie political and economic agendas, a strong message about public order and cultural differences. Laurence Bérard and Philippe Marchenay state that:
“Hygienic norms accompany the globalisation of the economy through the different sanitary regulations that States today must comply with. They [regulations] also cross cultural registers because of the place that certain countries give to hygiene; this changes the way in which inhabitants perceive food and the role they grant it. Even inside a culturally homogeneous situation there is still the question of the representation of risk.”13
16In the case of Italy, which for the most part can be considered culturally homogenous for the most part, the concept of hygiene is changing as a result of new consumption habits. As the average Italian consumer becomes used to shopping in supermarkets, where the lighting is bright, the flooring uniform and the shelves carefully stocked and ordered, the disorderly presentation, noise and congestion of the market have less appeal. Most of the shoppers at the farmers’ market, men and women, were retired and had been frequenting it for many years. Unlike the resellers’ market on the opposite side of the square, most of the vendors and their customers are from the Piedmont region. Conversations in Piedmontese or Turinese are quite common. In contrast, the other parts of the market are very popular with the well established community of migrants from the south of Italy and the newly arrived immigrants from Romania, China and Morocco. Excluding pensioners, the clientele is predominantly female and, on weekends, entire families can be seen shopping throughout the market. Nigerian women and other immigrants come to the farmers’ market to buy live chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits. Recently, a Chinese farmer started selling Chinese vegetables, attracting a new clientele to the Piedmontese dominated market. As Italy becomes increasingly multicultural due to a recent wave of immigration, concepts of hygiene are proving particularly difficult to apply cross-culturally: they are challenging culturally constructed concepts of clean/dirty and safe/unsafe.14
17Often talking about hygiene leads to expressions of racism: several times I overheard Italian shoppers in the market saying: “No, I wouldn’t buy from the Moroccans. They aren’t clean. Don’t ever buy vegetables from the Chinese. Who knows what they do to their vegetables.” Fear of contamination and dirt can some times be interpreted as fear of the “other”. In addition, hygiene norms often take on a political meaning: it frequently is a from above to below method of imposing social order and values. The relative newness of most ‘ipermercati’15 in Italy makes it easy for them to conform to hygiene standards, and they can be considered as models of the Italian nation’s image that the current Berlusconi government would like to put forward: a well-ordered country of abundance, peopled with eager consumers.16
18Changes in hygiene regulations at the Porta Palazzo farmers’ market demonstrate changing Italian attitudes concerning hygiene and social order that often put modernity in direct conflict with tradition. There is a desire to reshape the market to make it meet changing conceptions of hygiene; while at the same time, there is a struggle to keep its ‘traditional’ elements.
19The renovation of the farmers’ market was just one of the ways in which regulations have had a direct impact on its physical nature and how the obligation of insuring hygiene norms can have affect the vendors’ livelihood. As many farmers and producers have demonstrated, you can change the market, but it is much harder to change people’s habits and traditional way of working. Although there is hot and cold running water in areas near the covered pavilion, most vendors, for their main water source, use the old fountain with the bulls head (symbol of the city), where pigeons gather to drink. When I asked sixty-five year-old Claudio who sells produce why he did not use the new facilities he answered, “Perchè ho sempre fatto cosi!”17 Some old habits die harder than others.
20Often the cost for conforming to new regulation is out of reach for small vendors. Pietro’s small refrigeration unit was often breaking down and the health inspector gave him a hard time about the general hygiene conditions of his stand in general. The refrigeration unit did not keep cheese and dairy products cool enough and Pietro displayed some of the cheeses in handmade baskets that were not always cleaned at the end of the day. Pietro told me it would cost too much to get a new refrigeration unit and if that was the case he might as well close up the stand. This vendor played a reciprocal game of appeasement and false promises with the local police: they kept warning and he kept promising. As for the baskets, they were what made Pietro’s stand different from the others cheese sellers. As Silvana, a regular customer, explained: “The baskets make the cheese look like it has just come from the farm.” Her statement shows how the display of food can lend authenticity to the product. Many customers at the farmers’ market prized authenticity over food safety and hygiene. It leads one to think that the application of regulations has to be pragmatic and should take into consideration local realities.
21Hygiene regulations are only one of the areas where things are changing at the market; regulations on all fronts, in particular those governing economic transactions, are changing the way the actors operate. Some vendors, however, refuse to change their ways. Economists have long given up on the possibility of using traditional markets as models of economic theory: although they should embody perfect models of competition, price fixing and other human elements of the market spoil the rational world of economics.18 Again, the market is a good example of how theory and practice tend to differ.
22Agriteco, the managing company of the farmers’ market, has tried to ‘educate’ the farmers about new rules, many of which are a direct result of EU regulations, by holding meetings and handing out informative leaflets. The office for the development and promotion of the market, The Gate, has also led a number of campaigns to convince the vendors to comply with the new regulations; as for example, to the fact that all prices must be displayed, along with the country origin and class. All vendors were issued with cards and pens with the market’s logo to mark the prices. Most of my informants made a half-hearted attempt at putting prices on some items and not others. I noticed Giovanni, who sells vegetables, had not displayed his prices and I asked him why: “Oh, yeah, I better put out the prices before the police come by to check. I used to like it when we didn’t have to display our prices because then you could really talk to your customers. I put out the prices now but I still give a discount to my regular customers and people I like.” Giovanni expressed his reluctant compliance and underlined the fact that he still had control over setting his prices based on his personal relations with his customers. Although the regulation for displaying prices makes perfect sense and aims at protecting consumers, it is only a symbolic gesture on the part of vendors who at times change their prices on the basis of the time of day and competitors’ prices.
23The Porta Palazzo farmers’ market is a historic structure and institution which has had some difficulty in adapting to the new regulations. Italian regulations take into consideration the historic nature of many city centres and market areas: markets in historic areas were given three years to comply with the regulations, instead of having to achieve it immediately.19 However, as one client stated above, markets can lose some of their character when they are altered to bring them into conformity. Most of my informants, shoppers and farmers, were suspicious of change and resistant to modernisation: “Why do they have to go and change something that has always worked? My family has sold vegetables in this market for three generations and these are some of the hardest times.” Some informants like Franco, a 43-year-old farmer, associated the latest changes with economic decline.
24Although Agriteco was trying to think of innovative ways to promote the farmers’ market at Porta Palazzo, such as Sunday markets in the square in front of city hall, not far from Porta Palazzo, and an advertising campaign, it still seemed to be missing the mark. Most of my informants felt that the market administration was doing a lot of talking with few results; everyone I worked with in this study complained of declining sales and a diminishing number of people attending the market. Although I was aware that people are bound to complain and see the past in a more favourable light, it was revealing that out of the thirty people I worked with or interviewed there were perhaps two who were satisfied with their jobs and their financial situation. Most waxed on about how the market had been “più animato” (more lively) in the past and how they used to sell twice as much. The present and future were generally seen in a negative light: “My father sold his vegetables at the market and still helps me work in the fields. I have to work all the time—from dawn ‘til dusk. I want my children to have a better education so they do not have to work as hard as I do.”
25For many small-scale farmers there is little incentive to continue selling their produce at the market: the cost of production has increased and demand has declined. They cannot compete with the international agribusinesses. Most of the farmers selling at the Porta Palazzo market are over sixty and there are few young ones to replace them when they retire. Like Franco, most have encouraged their children to pursue other careers. Generally speaking, both the farmers and their customers are aging.
26Despite this general pessimism, most of my informants also felt that their function was important; how else were people in the city going to get anything good to eat? A certain fraternity and sense of obligation was expressed during many conversations about food distribution and eating habits. Sandro, a farmer from the Chivasso area expressed his concern for the safety of the food supply in Italy: “After all of the reports on television about mad cows and genetically modified food, I feel that my work is important. People come and buy from me because they know I don’t use a lot of ‘poison’. The vegetables I sell are healthy and I am here to explain that to my customers.” Sandro felt that he was offering his clients the type of transparency that lacked in supermarkets or with produce resellers markets. Sandro used the world ‘veleno’ (poison) when talking about pesticides. At times there may be a false sense of security about the ‘naturalness’ or organic nature of food bought at farmers’ markets: many small-scale farmers use a great deal of pesticides and, due to a lack of practical knowledge, apply them in a way that is damaging to their own health and to the environment, not to mention their customers’. This is not always the case but most farmers I worked with felt that they had to use pesticides to maintain a good level of production if their business was to be profitable. In the above quote, Sandro also underlined the importance of the media in Italy in shaping people’s eating habits and views on food safety and health. Nearly every news broadcast has a piece about food, whether about a regional specialty, new studies on healthy eating, the rising price of food after the introduction of the Euro or outbreaks of ‘mad cow’ (BSE), and a great number of Italians watch the news while eating lunch or dinner.
27Many Turinese I interviewed, young and old, confirmed that the Porta Palazzo farmers’ market was an important place in the history and imagination of the city; however, few who I interviewed outside of the market square admitted going there no more than once or twice a year. Anna, a forty-eight year old housewife, told me how she enjoyed going to the market as a child but admitted that: “It is so much easier to get in the car and drive ten minutes to Auchan (a major European supermarket chain), buy everything I need for the week and put it in the car and drive home. If I go to Porta Palazzo I have to take the tram, carry everything home and it all takes a long time. It isn’t very convenient.” Anna’s view that the market was inaccessible or a more difficult option for provisioning was shared by many of my informants. In particular, women who worked and who did most of the grocery shopping told me it was nearly impossible for them to go to the market since they worked all day and the market was only open from early in the morning until 1 pm during the week. Although the market is open all day on Saturday most men and women told me they had children to care for and it was too difficult to take them to the market. Women are generally in charge of provisioning in Italy.20 This task has been complicated by the fact that most Italian women now work full-time outside of the home and have to find time to do the shopping before or after working hours.21 The market is not an option for those who live and work outside the city centre.
28A discourse of modernity also enters into the equation when it comes to market appeal. Giovanna, whose family has had a stand selling sweets at the market for three generations, explained to me: “Yes, when immigrants came from the South to work in the Fiat factories in the 50s and 60s they came in droves to buy sweets at our stand. They wanted to make packages to send back home. They wanted to show everyone how well they were doing. Now, they are much more civilised. Almost everyone goes to supermarkets to do their shopping. It’s more modern. It’s cleaner.” I discovered that in the minds of many Turinese the market was considered backward and dirty. It seemed that supermarkets represented what Italians wanted to consume: goods that are well ordered, homogenous, recognisable and presented in a hygienic, if not sterile, environment.22
29However, not all shoppers I interviewed were so charmed by supermarkets. Antonella, a regular market shopper, told me: “I go to the farmers’ market because I can find Piedmontese products that I can’t find anywhere else. I also like the social aspect. I share recipes with other shoppers and I have known some of the vendors for over fifteen years. At the supermarket you never talk to anyone.” Anna and Enrico, both in their early thirties, shop together at the market on Saturday afternoons and they explained: “When we have the time we like to buy our produce from the farmers. It just tastes better. We have made friends with some of the people who sell at the farmers’ market and we all have a drink together at the end of the market. It’s very social.” For all three informants sociability at the market was important and was also a factor that set it apart from supermarkets. As Antonella mentioned, local produce was also important to a number of shoppers who complained about the globalisation of the food supply; expressing the view that fruit and vegetables were always the same everywhere and in all seasons. The farmers’ market is a place where people can find locally produced and seasonal food.
30Although new regulations are being applied to farmers’ markets throughout Italy, they still manage to maintain their local character. Even as hygiene regulations often hinder traditional ways of doing, the actors involved in the buying and selling in these markets negotiate their own interpretations of new norms with local officials. However, regulations are often created with and for big industry and supermarkets, leaving little room for diversity and traditional methods of food distribution.
31Despite a decline in the perceived number of customers and sales, farmers’ markets are finding a new clientele in a young generation of urban professionals who are concerned with what they eat and where it is produced. However, the Porta Palazzo market’s mainstay are the elderly retired who come there to find local produce, speak their dialect and socialise. With some support from the municipality and government initiatives for small-scale producers, farmers’ markets could continue providing an important provisioning alternative in an urban foodscape that is becoming increasingly homogenised.
32Markets are important social spaces in cities where public spaces are disappearing and contact between city dwellers is limited. If markets become sanitised and controlled spaces, there is the risk that this will have an impact on the social function of markets. Farmers’ markets offer a unique opportunity for people who live in cities to have an exchange with the people who grow their food and live in the surrounding countryside: this is one of the few links left between the urban and rural. When do regulations cross the line from protecting citizens to destroying historical institutions? Historical farmers’ markets, like Porta Palazzo, need to be protected and encouraged.
33Farmers’ markets are a trend that has taken hold in the United States, where the demand for locally grown food has increased and people are looking for an alternative to imported food and large-scale production.23 Italy, on the other hand, still seems to be throwing off its agrarian past and embracing the modernity of supermarkets and, increasingly, of prepared foods. As social and economic changes take place in a country struggling to find its footing in consumer culture, farmers’ markets are redefining their place in urban food distribution. Although farmers’ markets remain traditional places for provisioning appealing to a wide clientele, niche markets for local and organic food are beginning to develop in favour of these age old institutions. It is however local knowledge and traditions that keep diversity alive at Porta Palazzo.