Price setting, Part 1

The past few months have been a whirlwind of journalism conferences and travel. The last stops were Sicily and Istanbul, to places that made me think a lot about food, where it comes from and what we do with it. It’s hard to write about the experience and not sound like everyone else who visits Italy. But I’ll say it anyway: fresh, local food is paramount and available and, most importantly, affordable.

Here is a daily market in Palermo where the clams are so fresh they squirted water at me when I peered into the tub of water they floated in.

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In Ortiga, an island off of Syracuse at the eastern tip of Sicily, we stopped at a market stall for fresh oysters the size of a grown man’s palm and a glass of sparkling white wine — for €1.50 a person.

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The next day, they were splitting open sea urchins and scooping them out of their spiny purple shells, dousing them with a squeeze of lemon and serving them up. They were bright orange and salty.  We found a ricotta cheese that was baked, called ricotta infornata, braised brown like a loaf of bread on the outside and creamy on the inside. It was perfect with a stack of broiled peppers another merchant was selling for a few euro.

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In Lipuri, a tiny island off of Sicily, four custard and ricotta filled pastries and three cappuccini for breakfast cost €11. A lobster freshly cooked at Filipino’s cost €9. I kept wondering why the wine was expensive until it occurred to me that the prices were for bottles not by the glass. Even at one of Syracuse’s busiest restaurants, Sicily in Tavola, a fantastic white cost €13 for a bottle.

Here, you can get a glass of wine for that price and even one cappuccino would be nearly half that. Actually, we ordered two cappuccini and a pesto/hazelnut morning bun at Verve in Santa Cruz a couple days after we got back from Sicily and the price was $15. The morning but cost $5.50 alone. “We could have three arancini for that,” I muttered walking out to a table the cafe had set up in a parking lot. Everything felt bland and big after being squeezed into streets so slim two people have to brush up against each other to pass by.

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The Slow Food movement had a lot to do with the marketing and revitalization of Italy’s food traditions, as well as improving the quality of products like olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But the movement was working with an infrastructure. Every morning in Canetto, a hamlet of Lipuri, a fish vendor would roll up in his mini-truck with the day’s catch. He parked outside Sisa, Canetto’s only supermarket.

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But food is less expensive than here everywhere I have traveled in Italy.  Even when the Euro was stronger than the dollar, we spent less money on food, whether in restaurants or from produce markets. Even in Florence and Rome. Subsidies play a part. But food in the United States is also subsidized and the quality is nowhere nearly as good. So why is our food so expensive in the United States? One argument is that we pay more for pasture-raised meat and organic produce, we are paying the real unsubsidized price of food. That the market is distorted because of ag subsidies and consolidation. But it’s not that simple. It’s not uncommon for growers to set their prices at farmers markets based on the income of the neighborhood. You can buy the same bottle of olive oil or honey for less depending on where the market’s located. So who sets the floor and ceiling of prices?

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