Sunday, June 24, 2012

Some things Italians believe about cooking

Riso di Grumulo della Abbadesse con gamberi e zucchine, eaten in Alba, Piemonte, Italy

During my trip to Italy, I will admit to being taken aback by some of the things I was told repeatedly about Italian cooking. My perspective on European cooking has been colored by the time I have spent in France. In France, I have been told that the French culinary tradition is at the center of the history of fine gastronomy in Europe. France reigns supreme in the history of restaurants, of a coherent and delicious cuisine, and of food in general. The best truffles are black and come from the Périgourd (or if you are in Provençe, the best truffles are still black but come from Provençe). All chefs worth their salt are classically trained using French methods. I have always harbored some skepticism about some of the more inflated claims about cuisine from French people I have either talked to or whose writings I have read. The French, God love them, are incredibly chauvinistic about all things French. One of my favorite things to do when in France or with a French person who knows how to cook well is to ask a question about French food and sit back and receive a history lesson. All this is to say that my perceptions of fine cuisine have been developed in part through a French lens.

So, here's some of the things I was told repeatedly in Italy about Italian cooking.

1. There is no Italian cooking. All cuisine in Italy is regional. The French don't have much regional cooking--it is pretty much the same wherever you go.

2. The French history of aristocratic dining (and by extension the development of fine cuisine) is not really French. Catherine de Medici brought her chefs from Italy when she married Henry II, and her chefs taught the French chefs to cook. The French culinary tradition is really Italian.

3. Except when it isn't. The French use too damn many sauces and heavy elements in their cooking.

4. Everyone knows that Italian white truffles are the best in the world. Even the French know this, deep down.

5. As is Italian olive oil. Spanish olive oil is distant pretender. And do the French even really make olive oil?

6. Nothing wrong with a meatball, but it certainly doesn't go on spaghetti.

7. There is a complex set of rules about what kind of pasta can go with what kind of sauce and when, with regional variations which put a non-Italian such as myself at a permanent disadvantage in trying to correctly sauce pasta.

8. One does not drink cappuccino after about 10 or 11am.

9. Whatever region of Italy you are in at any given moment is the only region that really knows how to cook properly.

10. American cuisine consists of the hamburger.

I loved the food in Italy. I was spoiled because the seminar, focused on food, provided at least two and sometimes three multi-course meals a day, with restaurants usually chosen for their high quality or mastery of regional specialties. I ate things which I rarely, if ever, encounter in my daily life in Oklahoma. The produce was wonderful. I loved much of the wine and developed a particular fondness for prosecco. But I am slightly dubious about some of the things I was told. As far as truffles and olive oil go, I have no particular opinion. I suspect it is simply a matter of one's taste. I don't drink coffee so I don't care about the no cappuccino after mid-morning rule. That people think their own regional or local cooking is best should surprise exactly no one. The rules about pasta (and, generally speaking, no big chunks of meat in pasta sauce) are too complicated for me to argue with, so I won't.

However, let's take a look at some of the other assertions, particularly the first and second. I think I can go along with the fact that Italian cuisine is highly regional. What we think of as "Italian food" here in the United States is really Italian-American food, and is a substantially modified version of the food of largely southern Italy developed by immigrants who could afford meat as more than just an occasional flavoring for the first time. But to say that France really doesn't have regional cooking I don't believe is correct. Yes, there's the matter of French "haute cuisine" which does have standard elements throughout France, but everyday cooking still has much regional variation. The everyday food I ate in Provençe is much heavier on the olive oil, tomatoes, olives and peppers that the everyday food in Paris or Lyon. Italy may lack the overarching tie of a historical national fine cuisine, but that doesn't mean that France has no significant regional variations. Plus, the farther one is from another country's cuisine, the more it seems to look the same. The Chinese would absolutely balk at the idea that there was one "Chinese" food, even though different regions share some of the same philosophy of how tastes should combine. It is highly regional, and only from an outsider unfamiliar with the regional variations does it look more alike than different. I suspect this is also the case with Italy looking a French cuisine.

And what about that whole Catherine de Medici thing? Most of the books of culinary history I have read indicate that Catherine's influence on French cooking is difficult to prove, and likely marginal at best. The only authors who differ with that opinion are, you guessed it, Italian. Certainly a national cuisine can change fairly radically over time and is influenced by the availability of spices and foodstuffs. Europe didn't have tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate or other New World crops until well into the 16th century, and some did not become popular until the 1800s. Yet the availability of these crops changed cuisine radically. Spices, as they became a prestige item in the Middle Ages, were thrown in great abundance into everything, in combinations which now seem strange to us, at least in aristocratic cuisine. We have different ideas about spices now. But it is unlikely that a 14 year old's chefs completely revamped French elite cuisine.

Finally, American cuisine does consist of more than hamburgers. And we do have a fair amount of regional variety, although the dominance of national chain restaurants has dampened those regional differences.

What is the main thing I learned about Italian beliefs about food? The Italians as just as chauvinistic as the French, but they both have really good food.

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