Could an old-fashioned Italian grocery store be the future of grocery buying?

Montepulciano Italy - this micro store gave us foodie moments that don't exist in the mass marketing model of the supermarkets.
Montepulciano Italy – this micro store gave us foodie moments that don’t exist in the mass marketing model of the supermarkets.

Sometimes, during our recent holiday in northern Italy, we needed the Detective skills of a Sherlock Holmes to find the local grocery store. Having been bought up to look for a vast car park and a well lit supermarket as the signatures for fresh food buying, it was disconcerting to live in a series of villages – in Tuscany and Lake Garda – that appeared to be closed up for the season. Where do locals go for their daily bread?  The answer, as Holmes would have told us, is ‘alimentary’ which is the Italian word for corner foodstore. Go past one of these during siesta hour and all you’d see are shuttered doors.

These little shops, some of them little bigger than a hole in the wall liquor joint, turned out to be more like Aladdin’s cave when it came to tasty produce. We were never fluent in Italian, but the store owners – once it was our turn to be served – gave us full undivided attention. When we asked the cheese for example, they asked us in turn: local?

They meant the cheese. You could generally choose from a range of half a dozen non-local varieties, or from half a dozen cheeses that represented the locality. The same was true of prosciutto, and the bread of course was locally baked that day. Each day apart from our travellers budget breakfast of yoga and grapes, we dined on simple, artisanal, and fully delicious foods. I ate a lot of pasta, a ton of cheese, a truckload of bread – and over the five weeks I actually lost 5 kg. The diet had no added sugars and glutens and other bogus flavorings.

In fact it struck me one day that far from experiencing a traditional European grocery-buying process, I was in fact getting a taste of the future of FMCG.

What the supermarket model does is actually slow FMCG down. Instead of being delivered daily, so-called fresh bread is delivered every two or three days – and to compensate, and to retain that fresh fluffy feel, the bakers add gluten, sugar and various other nasties to simulate the fresh bread experience. Fail. The first thing we’ve chosen to do upon returning to New Zealand is to purchase one of those breadmakers, and to never again by the crap we purchased in the past from the supermarkets. The fresh Italian bread was really that life-changingly good!

But the same comment could be applied also to the local-ness of the products. We travelled extensively in northern Italy, and in each village the specialty foods – for example those cheeses – differed from region to region. Very often the manager of the food store knew the cheesemaker. Likewise he or she knew the bakers who delivered product fresh each morning.

This was the polar opposite of the New Zealand supermarket experience. Consider well-known New Zealand brands which are in fact grown, processed and packaged offshore. Consider health products – fish oil for example – which say fresh New Zealand on the pack, but originate, months previous, in factories based in South America. How can consumers enjoy the rich variety that comes from different regions, and from different seasons, when the supermarkets seek – for whatever reason – to homogenise their choices? In supermarket land, Braeburn apples grow 365 days a year. Strawberries are never out of season, but by the same token never quite in season either. The bread, as I said, is a simulation of the real thing.

Supermarkets represent the pinnacle of the production and distribution and marketing model circa 1959. Supermarkets were an amazing thing 60 years ago, but now in an age of RFID, social media, customised communications channels et cetera – not to mention a pickier health-conscious society, perhaps the old-fashioned ailmentary is closer to the future than the mass marketing model created during the age of the Jetsons. Support local I say. And start enjoying your food!

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