I am pleasantly surprised with the wonderful weather that we are having here in London lately, it’s sunny, the sky is blue, there is no wind. Too early to think about spring already? Yeah, I thought so. This weekend I will be enjoying the lovely company of my fiancé’s family in Bournemouth and while I am writing this post there are some delicious slices of home made pizza waiting to be devoured at lunch! And this actually brings to today’s topic: Italian food culture abroad.
As you may know, I have lived in Italy almost all my life and I can easily say that my Italian roots are very strong, especially when it comes to food and to our “food culture”. Yes, I will call it Italian food culture, because food is indeed a massively important part of our every day lives. It is so important to the extent that 90% of the shops are closed during lunch time, from 12:30 until 15 (timings depend on the city and on the shop itself) and this leaves foreigners in disbelief. I, on the contrary, was taken aback when I first started working in the UK and noticed that the average lunch was a meal deal made of a sandwich (how can people eat them???), crisps and a drink. :O First of all: how can you survive the entire day only by eating that? I am already starving after two hours with a normal meal, so I can only imagine what it would be if I were to eat only a sandwich. On another note, people at work are always amazed by the amount of food that I eat and that somehow I don’t put on weight. All this made me wonder: are we Italians really so different from the others when it comes to food? Is it really true that we pay more attention to what we are eating and hence we are considered to be ‘healthier’ and ‘skinnier’?
I spent a lot of time thinking about that and had several conversations with my British fiancé, who loves food even more than me, and I came to the conclusion that there is not one single answer to that; it’s a combination of different factors that have contributed to our food culture and to the way we relate to food. Here I gathered my thoughts:
1. Ready meals
We don’t have ready meals. Easy as that. Why should you buy spaghetti bolognese (which by the way is totally wrong and does not exist in Italian cuisine) when you can easily make it at home? And don’t even get me started how bad and unhealthy ready meals are for you: just take a look at the ingredients and half of them come with weird names and tons of preservatives.
2. Simple recipes and fresh ingredients
The freshness of ingredients is at the very core of Italian cuisine just like the simpleness and purity of the recipes, which has often been misunderstood as tasteless and boring dishes. Tiramisù is made with mascarpone cheese, eggs, sugar, savoiardi (lady fingers), coffee and cocoa powder. Carbonara is made with pork jowl (or cheek lard), eggs, Pecorino cheese (or Parmigiano) and ground pepper. THAT’S IT – no cream, no butter, no garlic.
Besides, one of Italy’s best characteristics is its weather and thanks to that we have a never ending supply of fresh vegetables and fruits, always in seasons. That’s why it is quite difficult to find anything which is not in season and also any other ‘tropical’ delicacies. (Believe it or not, even something like avocado is not that common in Italy).
We don’t do a 20 minutes sandwich and crisps lunch. Nope! Sandwiches are snacks in between meals and certainly not a substitute. Whether we are at work or at home, we never skip lunch and to us is the most important meal of the day. And it’s very rich. We’ll have an antipasto and then either a primo o secondo (oh yes, we don’t have a main meal, we don’t do odd numbers) and then of course an espresso. You simply can’t have lunch without an espresso at the end. Full stop.
4. Drinking culture
Italy is quite a sophisticated country when it comes to drinking: we don’t drink on empty stomach and we are extremely fussy about wine, and for good reasons I would add. And we drink tons of water with our meals. There is no such thing as having a cappuccino with pasta or with any other dishes. Cappuccino can only be drunk in the morning with a croissant, please remember that.
Not really something we do. We like nuts, fresh fruit, but that’s about it really. Crisps are for aperitivo or parties.
6. Cooking at home
One of the things that I remember most from my childhood is my parents inviting friends and family over for a Saturday dinner or for a Sunday lunch. The excitement would start few days before and we’d be preparing the menu and then do all the groceries and shopping and spend the day before cooking. Italians like going to the restaurants, however nothing will beat the smells and tastes of home made food, especially if meals are made following your grandma’s recipe.
In the end it’s all about embracing the freshness that surrounds you and to eat without feeling guilty, without counting calories, but simply by finding the perfect balance on a daily basis. And of course eating a panna cotta never killed nobody from time to time.