Italian food to get even better

The Guardian: “Some Italians, it seems, are getting hot under the napkin about the standard of Italian food served in restaurants outside their country. Giovanni Alemanno, the agriculture minister, is chief among them. This week he announced a plan to introduce a policy of quality control on Italian food served abroad, lamenting the effect that the ubiquitous Italian restaurant is having on the reputation of his country’s food. Hundreds of Italian restaurants are created around the world every day, he said, but in most cases the only thing Italian about them is the name or a tricolour flag on display outside. ” (more…)

Date: Thu, 22 Aug 2002 14:20:16 +0100
From: “Martin Adamson” (spam-protected)
To: (spam-protected)
Subject: Nothing like mama used to make

Thursday August 22, 2002

The Guardian

Nothing like mama used to make

In Britain, we love Italian food – but is it the real thing? No, says the Italian government. Matthew Fort on whether our pasta is fit to be on the menu

Matthew Fort

Some Italians, it seems, are getting hot under the napkin about the standard of Italian food served in restaurants outside their country. Giovanni Alemanno, the agriculture minister, is chief among them. This week he announced a plan to introduce a policy of quality control on Italian food served abroad, lamenting the effect that the ubiquitous Italian restaurant is having on the reputation of his country’s food. “Hundreds of Italian restaurants are created around the world every day,” he said, “but in most cases the only thing Italian about them is the name or a tricolour flag on display outside.”

The fact is that most of the Italian food served abroad has always been appalling. Think Spaghetti House, think Pizza Hut, think of thousands of Da Ginos, Da Marios, Amalfis, Bella Venezias, Borgo this and Trattoria that. You wonder why it’s taken Italian politicians so long to wake up to the irreparable damage that these fifth columns of fifth-rate food have done to the reputation of one of the world’s most exported cooking cultures.

Of course, the most willing conspirators in this traducing of Italy’s great cooking traditions have been Italians themselves – the immigrants who sought to make a living out of restaurants in the countries where they settled, and quickly realised that they didn’t have to try very hard to do so.

The real irony is that the qualities of Italian food and cooking have never been more highly appreciated abroad. We glug down oceans of olive oil at a cost per litre that no Italian would begin to consider paying. Balsamic vinegar that you would never find in Modena, its city of origin, sloshes through the professional and amateur kitchen here. Would-be Valentinas and Giorgios make pasta at home, for heaven’s sake, something that few Italians can be bothered to do. Health-food shops and fashionable restaurants are saving such rarities as la cicerchia, a primitive pulse akin to a chickpea, when no one in Italy will give it table room. We worship pasta, mozzarella, focaccia and tiramisu. There are even some restaurants serving a passable approximation to authentic Italian food, albeit at a price.

There are limits. We probably can’t tell the difference between pancetta and prosciutto, between sugo (tomato sauce) and ragu (meat sauce), between mozzarella di bufala (made with buffalo’s milk) and mozzarella fior di latte (made with cow’s milk).

The supermarkets, on which we depend for much of our supplies and information, still persist in making fresh penne, when it should only be dry; in using durum wheat for certain pastas when in many cases it is totally unsuitable; in adding cream to spaghetti carbonara, which has the same effect on pasta as making a pizza a deep-pie; and so on and so on. There is, after all, a difference between blind lust and true love.

Food, like language, is the repository of history. You can read the history of a region in Italy through its food, from the Moorish influences of the sorbetti and pastries such as canaroli in Calabria, to the use of paprika, cream and veal stews, relics of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the north.

The trouble is that our knowledge and experience of Italian food is strictly limited. Italy is a country with an unparalleled variety of dishes, ingredients, styles and techniques. Every region, every zone within a region, has its own very particular identity, based on produce and season, that goes unacknowledged on the predictable pizza/pasta menus of the British high street. The butchers in the market of Vibo Valentia make their zingirole, a kind of celestial brawn, only between October and April. Signora Cappello in Reggio di Calabria only stuffs cherry peppers with melanzane and pine kernels in July, when the peppers first come in. For reasons that remain obscure, the bridgehead between the British kitchen and la cucina Italiana has been the food of Tuscany, which is probably the most restricted and most boring in the country.

But then Italians are similarly restricted. They suffer, or benefit from, a condition known as campanilismo, a profound sense of locality, of being rooted in a specific place. Because food has such a central part in Italian culture – Italians talk about food as incessantly and naturally as we talk about the weather – it is rare to find an Italian of one region who has a kind word to say about the food of another. Such passion also helps to preserve local food culture.

That is why, on the whole, Italian cooking has changed far less in recent years than that of any other European country. Like Chinese cooks, Italian chefs are more intent on reproducing traditional dishes based on traditional ingredients than inventing new ones. Of course, it has developed over the centuries, absorbing new ingredients (there was a time when there were no tomatoes in Italy) and techniques, but it has resisted the wholesale globalisation and homogenisation of food cultures that has led to national food identities stamped beneath the mighty boot of global brands.

Even so, perhaps Signor Alemanno should be directing his concerns at his own country, because there are disturbing signs that even Italy is edging towards the kinds of changes in the structure of its agriculture and retailing that have been the death knell of national food culture in less resistant countries. Open market forces, EU regulation and social change are all playing their part in bringing Italian agriculture and retailing into line with those of its neighbours. Particular vegetables, pulses, fish, cheeses and breeds of pig, sheep and cattle are all under threat. The Italian-based international organisation Slow Food has recognised the dangers and has set up what it calls an ark to protect endangered species and delicacies. The neighbourhood grocers, butchers, bakers and alimentari who once supported local life in Rome and other cities are disappearing fast. Agricultural units are steadily getting bigger. Agricultural variety is disappearing in favour of monocultures.

It is one of the abiding ironies of Italy that the wonderful quality of the food, so sought after by buyers for the chrome-and-plate-glass food emporia in London, New York and Tokyo, is sustained by a resolutely peasant underclass. Much of the landscape, particularly in the south, guarantees to immure those who continue to live there in peasant poverty and perpetuate those values. The same profound rural conservatism is in part responsible for the fierce pride and astonishing high standard of local foods.

In decrying the globalisation and homogenisation of food cultures, we fail to recognise the true cost of traditional indigenous cultures to the people who have to maintain them. This way we celebrate labour and indignity that we would not tolerate in our own lives.

Whatever happens to Italian cooking outside the country is completely immaterial. We will do what we have always done – reinvent Italian food in our preferred image, just as we have with French, Chinese and Indian. The real future of Italian food lies not in the hands of such politicians as Signor Alemanno, but in those of Italian consumers, and, while there may be a bit of wavering in the ranks, on the whole they are standing remarkably firm.

A couple of years ago I witnessed a dispute between a husband and wife over the correct ingredients for the filling of a pastiera, a kind of super-tart made at Easter. The argument involved, among other things, the correct mixture of crystalised fruits, the origins of ricotta, the use of crema (custard) and the addition of orange water. It started off in fairly good-humoured banter, quickly brought out jeering dismissal of the other’s point of view, heated up into an intense exchange of views and finally erupted into all-out barrages that came to a head when the wife proclaimed with magisterial dismissal: “Ma questo e un piatto romano!” (“But that is a Roman dish!”)

I couldn’t help thinking that it was all rather heartening. It was difficult to imagine such a passionate exchange in an English kitchen, or indeed an Englishman capable of holding his own on the matter of Victoria sponge.

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