The scent of the bottega

The word “bottega” conjures up the scent of wood and old memories. My grandmother’s wrinkled hand with which we’d cross a magical threshold. The smile of the shopkeeper, who’d ask, “Desidera?” (What would you like?) And the almost hypnotic dance between knives cutting prosciutto, hands touching cheeses, bread, and oily, crunchy schiacciate. Finally, the yellow paper that was wrapped around our purchases. “Anything else?” – “Yes, please.”

And then the wrinkled hand would firmly hold mine once more, while my other hand happily enclasped a piece of schiacciata to keep me good. The door closed behind us.

Going to the grocery store with my grandma was a ritual. It was part and parcel of the good life (of aromas, affection and routine) that I can still recall even after all these years and that shaped me as a person. A privilege for all of us fairly adult to have known the pleasure of doing the groceries before the consumeristic dystopia of shopping centers, big chains and the reification of products.

From the Renaissance onwards, you’d go to the “bottega” to learn a trade and to make crafts, sometimes even art. Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli learn their trade at the school, the “bottega” of Verrocchio, for instance. Walking around the streets of Florence and Siena, inside the large doorways at street level, you’d come across a master and many students carving, engraving, painting, sculpting, weaving and working leather in a virtuous creative and productive cycle, which was passed from old to young and vice versa. Paintings and later black-and-white photography exist of hard-working “botteghe”, where leather shoes, gold items, mosaics, silverware and wooden works were all made, even products that you could eat.

Slowly, in an almost natural process due to the evolution of the concept of gastronomy, over the years the meaning of the “bottega” also extended to the processing and sale of food.

The “bottega” is now a rare treasure trove that recalls old trades and encompasses products by master cheesemakers, butchers, bakers and gourmets and which enables interaction, social moments and conversation. Some grandmothers still cross the threshold, grandkids by the hand, and as they leave their bags are bursting with goodness, plus a piece of bread to nibble on.