Nearly two weeks of my recent holiday were spent in Italy. It was my first visit to the country and we spent ten days zig-zagging from Venice to Rome on a small-group guided tour. There was a lot to see (and I will try to share some of it here in due course) but I found myself thinking about the food more than I had expected – after all, we have a strong Italian culture here and can eat good Italian food anywhere from Port Douglas to Hobart. The tour brought unexpected revelations and insights, though.
The first was regionalism. Italy is tiny but is still not ‘a nation’ in the way Australia is. Each region of it was politically separate from its neighbours until the nineteenth century and each still has its own dialect and kitchen culture today, dictated in part by what the land produces and in part by its (long) history. We travelled through the Veneto (Venice), Liguria (La Spezia and Cinque Terre), Tuscany (Florence) and Umbria (Perugia) to Lazio (Rome), seeing and tasting the differences as we went. I will now return to Claudia Roden’s excellent The Food of Italy (1990), which is organised by region, knowing why that approach makes so much sense. (The other book I will return to with more understanding is A Taste of Venice – at table with Brunetti, recipes by Roberta Pianaro illustrating Donna Leon’s delightful novels.)
The second was how Italian dinners are organised, not in our appetiser – entree – main – dessert pattern but in a longer sequence which separates components we would normally serve together. This formal meal structure (condensed from Wikipedia) is the basis of restaurant menus:
A drink (often wine), sometimes with a small amount of food, e.g. olives, crisps, nuts, cheese.
The antipasto is a slightly heavier starter, usually cold, often cold meats and melons, etc.
Literally the ‘first’ course, it consists of hot food and is usually heavier than the antipasto, but lighter than the second course. Non-meat dishes, especially pasta or soup, are usual.
The meat course – and not much beside the meat will appear on the plate. The primo or the secondo may be considered more important depending on the locality and the situation.
A contorno is a side dish and it’s commonly served alongside a secondo. It usually consists of vegetables, raw or cooked, hot or cold. They are always served in a separate dish, never on the same plate as the meat.
A fresh garden salad ; may be omitted if the contorni contained many leafy vegetables.
Formaggi e frutta
An entire course is dedicated to local cheeses and fresh seasonal fruit. The cheeses will be whatever is typical of the region.
Dessert, e.g. tiramisu, zuppa inglese, panna cotta, cake or pie.
Caffè and Digestivo
Coffee and grappa or another ‘digestive’ alcoholic drink.
This is obviously a big meal by anyone’s standards and a shorter version (e.g. Primo, Secondo and Formaggi e frutta) is more usual in daily life, but we were treated to an elaborate wine-tasting lunch in an Umbrian village and it followed the traditional pattern faithfully … for at least two very pleasant hours.
Lunch in Spello*
Here in Australia, the Primo and Secondo categories have blurred together, so that a pasta dish is often our main course. Probably as a reaction to that, we add far more sauce to our pasta than the Italians do: our ‘Spag Bog’, for instance, will normally be a meat course with perhaps a quarter as much sauce as pasta, while theirs would have just a spoonful for flavour.
The third surprise was just how much of each Italian meal consisted of carbohydrates in one form or another – bread, pasta, rice (risotto), maize (polenta) and beans – and fresh vegetables. Meat plays a rather small role, despite the prominence it is given by being served unaccompanied.
No surprise at all was the fact that Italian food in Italy is, in general, no better than Italian food in Australia. It’s a cuisine which depends so much on the quality and freshness of ingredients, and we can and do eat very well indeed.
* Thanks to Yvonne (intrepid traveller) for the photo.