A GUIDE TO THE ITALIAN STATE OF MIND - Eating
We all seem to love Italian food, whether we cook it at home, go out to one of the many Italian restaurants in the UK or just try to emulate the Italian attitude to food in our day to day life. I must admit to being something of a purist when it comes the ‘Italian way’. Having spent some time over many years in Italia, I have had plenty of opportunity to experience the Italian approach to eating.
Being Italian is a full time job. They never forget who they are. Italy is sexy, but our Italy is not the same as their Italia. Italy is a soft drug peddled in a predictable package such as hills, sunsets, live groves, and lemon trees, red wine and raven haired girls. Italia on the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring but complicated. In Italia, you can go round and round in circles for years. So, people who live in Italy say they want to get out, but those who do escape all want to get back. Italy is not the sort of country that is easy to explain, but I shall try to share some of the Italians ‘state of mind’ with regard to food.
The Italians are consummate professionals of culinary consumption; No one else in Europe eats the way they do. They have republican vigour grafted on to tradition - having for centuries sought and found consolation at the table. They don’t just think that a sauce or that an olive oil is good, they know it is. There is a spontaneous gastronomic proficiency that cuts across social class, age groups, income brackets, education and geographical boundaries. Confident food related judgements derive from their unaffected approach to the table .If there are any tense faces at the table, it’s only because they are worried about the bill. Italians know what to choose and what to avoid.
Statistics confirm Italy’s gastronomic pride. According to a recent British survey, 90% of Italians prefer Italian cooking to other cuisines No other digestive tracts in Europe are as patriotic. Italian cooking also seems to be the favourite among non-Italians. Some 42% of interviewees put the food of Italy in first place followed by Chinese cooking and French cuisine. Historically, Italy endured intervals of poverty driven culinary insufficiency, but the Italian food that conquered the world through an age of emigration, was honest, practical and working class and stemmed from the ‘home’, where families blended simplicity with imagination and common sense.
The Italians eat too much, too often and while today they are increasingly tolerant of precooked and frozen meals, they still have not yet descended to TV dinners, the graveyard of family conversation. The TV and the microwave wave, which look similar, have not yet achieved the synergy they have found in the UK!
Italian catering is governed by laws that natives take for granted, but they aren’t obvious. Food and drink are a perfect metaphor for Italy, offering a vast expanse of habits and exceptions for visitors to get lost in, but I’ll try to give you a hand.
Consider the humble cappuccino, which we British drink in vast quantities in our growing number of coffee shops. But, after ten o’clock in the morning, it is unethical and possible even unlawful, to order one. Italians wouldn’t have one in the afternoon unless the weather was very cold. Needless to say, sipping a cappuccino after a meal is something only non-Italians do. Pizzas at midday are for school kids. Rice with meat is perfect but pasta with meat is embarrassing unless the meat is cooked in the sauce. Having a starter after your pasta raises no eyebrows, but eating a main dish of meat or fish instead of a starter looks greedy. Grating Parmesan over shell fish is an offence against religion. Wine in carafes is for tourists. As for garlic, like elegance, garlic should be present but should not intrude. The bruschetta garlic toast served in some Italian restaurants in the UK would be actionable in Italy.
A friend of mine, who ordered a cappuccino after an evening meal and was threatened with the Italian police, called this sort of thing ‘food fascism’.
The Italians obsession with food is like the English obsession with lawns, but more serious. They talk about food before they eat it, while they are eating and after they have eaten it. Digestive discussion reassures the stomach and prepares the mind for another meal and another discussion. Eating in Italy has become an obsession, with them spending 50 billion euros every year on eating out. Eating well in Italy is like hunting in a game reserve – it’s had to go wrong, but like us, the Italians also fall for marketing and like us all, all things organic and natural have been selling recently. Italians have started eating green salad again now they have called it rucola, radicchio, trevisana and belga. Olive oil has won its battle with butter, which has retired hurt. Menus have become florid, with the simplest dishes having acquired incomprehensible names. My friend in Italy, has resorted to reading the English translation to get an idea of what will be on the plate – ‘Shrimps and green bean roll’ may be clearer than ‘fagottino croccante alla maniera dello chef con gamberi e fagiolino'.
And next time, the Italian state of mind with regard to drinking