A cultural explanation of why us foreigners love Italian food
Never and nowhere you will find a man who does not like Italian cuisine! Indeed, any form of disagreement stops when pizza, pasta, risotto, bruschetta and pannacotta are brought over to the table.
What kind of epidemic took the world, pushing people to worship Italian specialities? A possible answer is not only the combination of ingredients, but also the idea that eating with a lot of passion is part of the overall Italian culture. And the word ‘world’ (sorry for the wordplay) is exactly the key. Italian recipes were always affected by several cultures who passed through the territory of the Roman Empire, some as subjugated peoples – some as conquerors. Culinary influences were mixed like anywhere else, and later, fresh spices and unusual products from the new continents arrived in the ports of the peninsula.
A little bit of history
The Italian diet already used to contain all kind of foods such as meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, although they were sometimes combined in a way that today would look weird to us. With the spread of Islam into southern Europe in the 9th century, a clear oriental impact on Italian cuisine could be seen. In Sicily and southern Italy, the Arabs brought the culture of ice cream preparation, as well as other Arabic delicacies and sweets. For example, the cassata, a famous Sicilian dessert, comes from the Arabic name of its pottery, the qas’ah.
The tradition of cooking ancient Roman dishes was poorly preserved in the Middle Ages. Indeed, as people could rarely afford meat, they developed different vegetable recipes. However, an evergreen Italian food such as pizza has its roots from the time of ancient Romans, who already prepared a similar bun, later called pizza. After some centuries, the popular Margherita pizza was invented in honor of Queen Margherita: green basil, red tomatoes and white mozzarella reflect the national colors of Italy.
The Italian identity and the national sense of food was took shape among the magnificent Roman ruins and the beauty of the Venetian canals, in the narrow streets of Naples and under the bold arches of Bologna, in the Renaissance splendor of Florence and in the noisy factories of Milan.
Tradition as a reminder of true values
So, let’s say it. Although it may sound pretentious, Italy is one of the last few nations in Europe capable to preserve the tradition of gathering family and friends at the table. Here, this ritual is seen as a salvation or an escape from a fast paced life and from the alienation increasingly hauting human beings. This is why, almost every lunch or dinner is accompanied with pasty wines whose scents spread on the table like a summer sea breeze.
Never a table for one… It’s the tradition!
Indeed, in Italy food is a real pleasure that is celebrated daily in the company of amily or friends, whether at home or in a good restaurant. The typical meal is prepared in large quantities, and cooking may take hours, because the Italians never eat alone. Lunch or dinner is viewed as a time that families should spend together, talking about problems, events and experiences.
The contrast between North and South
One of the main geographical differences between North and South of Italy is the wide Po Valley. Indeed, as soon as you move South of Emilia Romagna, you will cross Italy’s mountainous backbone. That is why in the North there are more pastures and – where there are pastures – there are also cows. Beef and veal, milk, butter, sweet creams and delicious cheese such as Parmiggiano Reggiano are king here.
Olive oil is used throughout the boot, but in the South it is the key ingredient, because butter or creams are not used there. However, there are plenty of goats and sheep, and from their milk you can taste the strong Pecorino cheese. From Marche downwards, you will rarely find a veal, but you will rather find lambs, porks and chickens.
Even home-made pasta is made differently depending on the traditions of each part of country.
Finally, the islands. Sicily was influenced by the Greeks, the Spaniards and the Arabs, and not for nothing the cous-cous is a traditional dish. This also applies to seafood. The fish from the Adriatic is different from that of the Tyrrhenian Sea and, especially in the warm Sicilian sea, swordfish is common.
The Italians are bound to their provinces and get angry if they come from Venice to Florence and find their cuisine prepared in a different way. Recipes did not move from one province to another, because the Italians love everything that is domestic.
Wine as a way of life
An old Roman proverb says: “To get to know a nation – sit at its table, try its food and drink its wine, then you will know what kind of people they are“. Having said that, the Italian love for wine is not a secret. Italy is the largest wine producer in the world, and the locals use it in an abundance as, on average, they drink 13,6 billion glasses of wine annually. For everyone to enjoy this nectar of the gods, in Abruzzo there is even a free, 24-hour fountain of wine. The oldest winery in the country, Barone Ricasoli, was founded in 1141 in Tuscany.
Wine is one of the cornerstones of Italian culture and lifestyle, a crucial element that encourages the passion pervading the whole country from its top to the bottom. In ancient times, the Greeks, who considered wine a sacred drink, called Italy Enotria, which means ‘country of wine’. Wine was already an integral part of everyday life, a custom that still today remains the same. Thus, in Italy, the cult of wine continues to be seen as a gift from the sky, and a number of Italian vineyards (there is no corner of the country where they cannot be found!) grow with a great deal of love and creativity. Finally, Italian wines have a specific taste because they are prepared almost exclusively from autochthonous grape varieties. Although you can easily find white wines of the highest quality, Italian red wines are known to be the best in the world.