Does Italian food taste different at sea level and mountain top?
Here’s a weird thing. Probably my favorite thing to cook and eat is spaghetti al tonno. Wherever I am in Italy, I know that I can find the ingredients I need to make it, namely: spaghetti, tuna, tomatoes, anchovies, capers, onion, garlic, red pepper, basil, salt and water. That’s it. True, I may buy different brands of the boxed and canned items (spaghetti, tuna, tomatoes, anchovies, capers) and the fresh items may change somewhat from place to place (tomatoes, anchovies, capers, onion, garlic, red pepper and basil), but basically, in most places, all of the various brands are interchangeable, or I recognize what differences to expect: Barilla v DeCecco v Garofalo v Rummo in the case of pasta, for example. I have been making and eating spaghetti al tonno for years and years and by now I have my recipe down, for better or worse — some say no to garlic; I say no to no garlic.
But here’s the weird thing. As much as I like making and eating spaghetti al tonno, I like doing so much, much less when I am in the mountains. So my research question is: Does food taste differently based on altitude, or am I responding mostly to cultural cues?
Here is how I set up my experiment. First off, in case there is a genetic component to this phenomenon, I may be a tailor-made test subject, with paternal grandparents from Sicily (my grandfather was born across the street from a tuna and anchovy processing plant in Bagheria) and maternal grandparents from the Valtellina (two kilometers from Switzerland, hello Villa di Tirano) and Liguria (also in the north and on the sea but practically halfway to America, ciao Vernazza), I present the perfect mix of both north and south and mare e monti (sea and mountains), with a touch of basilico thrown in.
The actual experiment is similarly impressive. Within the space of a month, I travelled from Presicce (104 mslm), a small town in Apulia, to Savignano Irpino (741 mslm) in Campania, to Ruffrè Mendola (1200 mslm) in Trentino-Alto Adige, a transect that covers 1161 kilometers (721 miles) in distance, from the profondo sud to the profondo nord and 1096 meters (3595 feet) in altitude, so pretty much sea level to outer space, or close enough anyway, when it comes to taste bud performance. During that time, I prepared and consumed spaghetti al tonno many, many times, or at least four times, or in any case, once in each place.
And here are the results of my scientific study: Prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) tastes really, really good in the mountains. So do milk and cheese. Pane di segale? I fall on my knees in praise of it. Apples? Delicious. Spaghetti al tonno? I could barely eat it.
And I am just not sure why. It is not that it tasted bad, but that it did not have much taste, or it had a strange taste, or it just was not what I was hungry for. There was nothing wrong with the ingredients I bought. A Conad, a Despar, a Coop: they are the same no matter where you go in Italy, as far as I can tell. Rio Mare and San Marzano are similarly standard, and whatever happens with capers, onions and garlic over distance and altitude, if anything, could not have been the cause.
No, the difference was in me, and that difference was, if science is to be believed, my position in the atmosphere, with relation to the Earth’s surface. Apparently, things like anchovies and capers taste differently at sea level (Presicce) versus mountain top (Ruffrè), 0 feet above sea level versus 5,000 feet, let’s say, according to one study. Above 5,000 feet, there does not seem to be any greater change in taste perception.
But I am not so convinced. There is the Savignano Irpino factor to consider. What were my perceptions there? In addition to the spaghetti al tonno, which was fine, I also had a pizza with anchovies. The anchovy pizza was good, although I liked the vegetarian with asparagi (asparagus) and friarielli (broccoli rabe) even more, but that lies outside of our study design. Savignano stands in the middling range, just 741 meters or 2431 feet above sea level. But the fact that I really liked the friarielli pizza suggests to me that the crisp mountain air does a number on anchovies. They don’t like being hauled out of their nice warm salty seas, and I bet they dislike being swept up a frosty mountain side even more.
So maybe it is all a place thing, a cultural geography thing. Seaside, salty sea, salty air… it just puts you in the mood for capers and anchovies which, let’s admit it, are not the easiest pair to get along with, as much as I love them. Likewise, up in the Dolomites, fresh air and green grass just call out to you to try the sweet cheeses of the region. The pungency of an anchovy or a caper does not hold the same appeal that it does in the Salento. Likewise, the relative mildness of the cotto and the formai dal mont (cheese of the mountains) would just fall flat in the southern seaside towns, delicious as always, yes, but out of place, not in character.
So is Savignano Irpino the perfect place? It might be the perfect compromise. You have the cool air and sweeping green vistas of a mountain town, but the green is more campo di grano (wheat field) and uliveto (olive grove) than pascolo (pasture), so you can nibble an anchovy, and cut a caper, on your pizza or in your pasta, without feeling strange about it.
Wherever you go, however, you might want to take your culinary cues from the local landscape. When you are in the mountains, enjoy the products of the mountains; for whatever reason, the breads and cheeses and wines of the place just taste better. Likewise, when on the sea, it is the local fish and vegetables that you want, as well as the local wine, all of it being done in that major Italian style, but bearing grace notes of the local place from which it came, and in which it is most enjoyed.
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