Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Do Italians do it best?

Been a while since the last entry as I've been running around a lot, not least to a wedding and the home of salami making in Italy - in different towns I hasten to add.

So I was pondering on a suitable topic and came up with the title of 'do Italians do it best?'

It's the eternal question to which Italians will always agree ... but would everybody else?

They have a simple approach:
1. Great ingredients
2. Simple dishes
3. Live to eat - don't eat to live

1. Great Ingredients
Italians pride themselves on their use of great quality ingredients. And who can blame them? Life without parma ham, pasta, parmesan and other great produce that doesn't begin with a 'p' would be quite dull. But there again, there's an awful lot of duff versions available at 40p a pack from Tesco which call themselves the same thing but frankly taste disgusting.

So I rephrase to say life without the best italian produce would be very dull.

Equally, the vast array of seasonal fruit and vegetables that the Italians have access to is phenomenal and they are fortunate to enjoy non-uniform shapes and numerous imperfections which result in beautifully flavoured produce. Elsewhere, their food hygiene regulations allow a little more freedom resulting in mouth wateringly tasty hams and cheeses used to make the best panini/filled pasta/charcuterie and cheese platters.

2. Simple dishes
How can one of the best foods in the world be toast with oil and salt? But not just any old toast, we're talking Tuscan [unsalted] bread toasted so it's chewy and crunchy at the same time, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with salt. If you have good ingredients, don't muck about and hash loads of them together - keep it simple and you won't go wrong.

My best recent dishes include:
- grilled king prawns with oil, garlic, lemon and parsley with a glass of chilled pecorino wine.

- bruschetta topped with cannellini beans that had been gently seasoned with a tiny amount of rosemary and mixed in with fried onions and garlic
- a glass of vin santo with freshly baked cantuccini biscuits, still warm from the oven

None of these are difficult but they make the most of the beautiful ingredients available. n.b. much of Italian cooking comes from simple peasant dishes where lots of things weren't around so they made the most of the few things they had.

3. Live to eat

Italians can talk for hours about which pasta goes best with which sauce. This can get rather tiresome but it does highlight how much they love their food. The only thing that comes between them and food is football (never eat in a pizzeria at 8pm when a big match is just starting - you may be waiting for a while). They are also quite traditional so lunch is generally at 1pm and dinner is at 8pm. Apart from very special occasions when they might be a little more flexible but unlikely.

Italians will also find a way to celebrate all things food like and will regularly indulge in such things as an annual Festa of the Mushroom or Festa of the Cherry - all a good excuse to spend a day indulging in those particular foods. Yes, we do this a little bit but nowhere near the same extent and across all social circles as the Italian do.


Let's pick out some of their [very few] weaknesses...

a) Breakfast
They're not very good at breakfast and you never get a good bacon roll in Italy (or builders tea for that matter).
b) Other cuisines
Their love of their own food makes Italians very wary of anything from over the Italian border so don't even bother looking for a decent Chinese/Indian/Thai/Burger/Mexican/Spanish when you're over there as you'll struggle. At least the Brits are open to everyone else's cooking and as a result we pride ourselves in one of the best cross-sections of world cuisine across our restaurants...in the world!
c) Other countries
Is Italian food as good with ingredients from other countries? I don't think so. British bruschetta with plastic mozzarella and an unripe Dutch tomato is nowhere near an Italian version (and it's brusk-etta not brush-etta!)Unless you have access to such great produce as they enjoy, it's difficult to recreate those dishes to the same level.

Sometimes fish and chips or dim sum just hits the spot where pasta al ragu falls short.

And in summary, Italians do it best in their own country with their own ingredients...but the rest of the world is still up for grabs!

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