It is with no small dose of excitement that I can announce the moment we’ve all been waiting for: I have finally worked my way through enough meals here to feel myself qualified to write a blog about that Italian cultural pinnacle (apologies to art historians): the food.
Me and my antipasti. Worth doing an Italian degree for this moment.
One need only mention Italy in conversation and be forced to pause as a collective sigh is shared about the breathtaking wonder of Italian cuisine. Perhaps surprisingly, Italians are by far the worst for this, believing (not entirely without reason) to have been born into the best diet system on the planet, and feeling thus unmoved to stray from their pasta and pizza staples to the lesser known carb territories of the potato and the humble loaf, God forbid a naan.
Of course, I exaggerate, but it is a fact that when I asked my second years what their favourite food was, every single student answered pizza. In another class I had the same response, with the exception of one either very healthy or very deprived youngster who answered ‘carrot’. It wasn’t even pizza with artichokes, mozzarella and caramelised onions (an old favourite of mine), or pizza with prosciutto and super hot peppers (my new favourite having tried it in my first week here) – no, it was margherita pizza. Come? La pizza margherita? Con cheese e tomatoes? E basta cosi? Apparently so.
The thing about Italian cooking is that it’s not so much what comes out of the oven, but the ingredients that you put in, that are important. When students say they love margherita pizza, they are not picturing the Tesco 2 for £1 travesty, which I’m pretty sure is just bread with tomato paste and value – sorry, everyday – cheddar. No, they are imagining a heavenly doughy platform, lovingly adorned with the freshest buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes just plucked from the plant. Italy is blessed with a climate that favours fresh fruit and veg – as I walked to a friend’s house the other day I noticed a little lemon garden just doing it’s thing next to the busy main road – and when the raw ingredients are that good, margherita pizza is actually a delicious option.
It’s this ‘less is more’ philosophy that for me really sets aside Italian food. Sure, top british chefs might be able to do amazing things with some on trend parsley foam and a pomegranate jus, but I’m far more impressed by the little unknown chef in a restaurant I frequented in Messina, who managed to turn a simple dish of pasta with a spicy tomato sauce into one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. And of course, there was fresh parmesan to go with it.
Italy’s ability to do extraordinary things with vegetables can be summed up by one dish: La parmigiana. Britain just doesn’t get aubergines. We griddle them a bit and eat them dutifully when we’re told they’re in season: Italy cooks them in the oven with oil, tomatoes, basil and parmesan and creates the most delicious meal ever – it tastes a bit like lasagne except everything about it is better. In fact it’s only real similarity is that the layers of aubergine are stacked like those of the pasta – I can’t describe it, you’ve just got to try it everyone! Today I went to a local cafe for lunch and ordered la parmigiana, and I am convinced that it was as tasty from there in it’s little takeaway container as it would have been coming from one of the most expensive restaurants. Which leads me to another thing: Italy really doesn’t do fast food. For one thing, there is just no need: schools finish at 1pm and most shops close from 1.30pm-4pm, meaning that there is simply no excuse to rush through lunch. There’s a great Italian initiative called ‘Lo Slow Food’, which is fairly self-explanatory in its aims, that people have been trying to slowly push into Britain. Sadly I think we’re a little too dependent on the meal deal, and I do have to ask myself whether I would trade more leisurely mealtimes for my local town shutting down for three hours in the middle of the day. Places like Vapiano have struck a good balance between the two, mastering the Italian freshness if not the snail-like eating pace.
To give Italians their due, though, lunchtime is actually their main meal of the day, so they can be excused for making a bit of a meal (titter) of it. Breakfast, on the other hand, is a surprisingly modest affair. A coffee and a cake will do for most people. The selection of food on offer in cafes first thing in the morning is without fail characterised by alarming amounts of sugar. Think filled croissants, jam pastry tarts, and a good deal of actual cake. There is a fair bit of science behind the idea that eating something sweet in the morning balances your cravings for the rest of the day. Personally, I think it just gets me thinking about nutella way earlier than I would otherwise be moved to. For the first time last week I caved and bought some cereal from my local shop, a hefty €3.90 for a tiny box, but worth it to ward off type 2 diabetes.
Typical Italian breakfast. Still not 100% sure why it always comes with a shot of water.
Still, one can hardly be concerned about one’s weight when in Italy. This is particularly true of travellers, as each region boasts its own local delicacy, hence one is wont, nay obliged, to try everything that a region has to offer, lest one is unable to return to sample anything missed on the original visit. For this reason, perhaps among others, I have gorged myself on chocolate in Turin, granita in Sicily, fresh fish along the coast and peperoncini (really spicy peppers) in Calabria. And, of course, my whole stay has been peppered with ridiculous amounts of gelato. Although originating from Egypt, Italy is the undisputed queen of ice cream – it’s eaten all year round and is deliciously cheap. Down in the south pistachio flavour is particularly good, but it really is difficult to go wrong with ice cream here (except for one fateful mango and blackberry combination that I don’t want to talk about).
Local delicacies: bicerin (hot chocolate, coffee and cream) in Turin and granita (icy chocolate, more cream) in Messina.
There’s definitely room for Italy to broaden it’s horizons a little where food’s concerned, though. For the capital of a region, Reggio is seriously lacking in multicultural cuisine: bar one rogue Romanian restaurant on the high street I am yet to spot anywhere offering anything other than authentic Italian food. Teeny Cambridge’s offerings seem positively vibrant in comparison. So if I could set Italy some homework it would be to step up to the plate (sorry I can’t help myself) and look to broadening its culinary horizons – what it’s got is great, but think how amazing it would be with a little more variety. In the meantime, I’ll just wait here with my ice cream.
This photo does not do the ice cream justice, but will hopefully provide a sense of scale.