I stepped into the butcher’s shop and found quite a crowd. There must have been seven or eight people waiting, patiently, while the fierce lady butcher served, chopped and wrapped. She did seem fierce, her hands holding up bloodied hunks of meat, her voice raised and strident as she called to her customers. Before her was a glass-fronted cold cabinet full of her offerings – manzo, the beef; agnello, the lamb; some pollo – chicken. She sliced and diced, or minced, according to her customers’ requests.
With virtually no Italian to speak of, I felt shy. I had hoped for an empty shop where I might approach the counter and point at what I wanted – some minced beef, half-a-kilo. A hadn’t counted on the local crowd or the complexity of explaining my required animal and its preparation.
Deciding on retreat, I slipped back towards the door. But the lady butcher was loathe to lose a customer. ‘Signora! Signora!’ she called as I sidled out, pretending not to understand that she was calling to me, eyes downwards as the waiting crowd all turned curiously to look at me. More Italian exhortations followed, which I assumed were along the lines of: ‘come back! I’ll serve you soon! It won’t be long! Please wait!’ Aspetare, per favore!
But I was out of there, pausing in the narrow cobbled street, panting a little. These confrontations were still able to rattle me. I had only a miserable bit of Italian at my command, and felt unsure and rather stupid. My mission to buy meat for dinner was aborted. What would we eat?
Deciding that an omelette might do, I continued on, walking up the hill. A few doors up, opposite, I saw another butcher’s shop. This one was much smaller and less new and shiny, but at the moment it had no customers. A friendly-looking butcher stood behind his glass cabinet of meat, and as I glanced in he looked back at me with a mild, engaging smile. I decided to act a little more courageously. I went in.
‘Si, signora?’ the friendly butcher enquired. ‘Manzo?’ He was a mind-reader. ‘Si!’ I replied enthusiastically. He hauled out a hunk of beef. ‘Er…’ I said, pointing at the mincing machine behind the counter. ‘Macelleria?’ he enquired, smiling, happy to have interpreted my meaning. ‘Si!’ I said again, gratefully, as he began stuffing hunks of meat into the machine, producing fresh mince.
‘Quanto?’ he enquired. How much – I understood that.
‘Er…’ Was ‘half-a-kilo’ ‘mezzo kilo’ or did that mean something gibberish like ‘medium kilo’?… While I dithered, the friendly butcher asked, ‘mezzo kilo? harf?’
The transaction was concluded smoothly and with smiles all round. I always go back to that butcher now and between us we’ve managed steak-for-the-grill, cotoletto for crumbing, pollo for roasting. I still scuttle quickly past the fierce lady butcher’s shop. Sometimes she’s standing on the doorstep, and I worry that she’ll remember the day I ran away.