What I learnt about Italian food in Italy

Lunch in Parma
Last month I went to a ‘North American’ society meeting, bonding with Canadians and Californians over our preference for pants as opposed to trousers. We discussed our favorite Brit drinks — several enjoyed Strawberry cider — our degrees and the usual university details.  As soon as I mentioned my year abroad in Italy, they said in a heavenly chorus: ‘Was the food ah-mazing?’

‘Well, yes,’ I replied with trepidation, ‘but I did get bored after a while.  They have such a different way of looking at food.’

‘What was the best thing you ate?’

Momentarily forgetting Spadaro I blurted out, ‘My host mother’s soup!’

‘You stayed with a family!’ I could see the images of rolling Tuscan hills and pasta sauce bubbling for hours on the stove floating before them.  Perhaps fortunately, they knew nothing of Pan di Stelle, Esselunga or Viva la Mamma! Box.  ‘You must have learnt so much about Italian cooking.’  The statement threw me.  Did ?  If so, what did I learn?  In a cider and Dante induced haze I replied simply, ‘I guess I learnt you can freeze pesto.’

spremuta 'fresca'

You can make fresh pesto and, adding less oil than you normally would, wrap it up in aluminum foil and freeze it in single serving portions.  When it’s time to eat, gently add pasta water to the frozen sauce, whisking with a fork to liquify it.  I learnt that lesson over lunch with my host mother, moments after arriving in Pavia.  But that was by no means the extent of what I learnt.

Learning about Italian food isn’t about following recipes but about understanding techniques.  It’s learning what al dente means and about the holiness of orange juice.  These techniques combine with attitudes to create an Italian food vocabulary.  This vocabulary is the building blocks of Italian meals.

Gnocchi con porri e pistacchi

So what did I learn?

  1. See above about pesto.
  2. Uses for tomato concentrate include (but are not limited to): a ketchup substitute and a pasta sauce to be watered down with pasta water.
  3. A ball of mozzarella, even from the grocery store, makes an acceptable second course.  You can add olive oil and oregano if you aren’t on a diet.
  4. Those soup mixes of beans and legumes are good.  Soak, cook, puree.  Cheese and oil are optional but expected.
  5. Insalata = anything you dress with oil and vinegar (insalata bianca = iceberg lettuce, insalata rossa = radicchio, insalata mista = from a bag at the grocery store).
  6. There is (barely) any meal that doesn’t go well with bread.
  7. Meat and cheese combined are bad for digestion (lasagna is not a frequent meal).
  8. The polite way to eat fruit is with a knife and fork.  Including oranges.  Including when on a train.
  9. Anything sweet is an acceptable breakfast food.
  10. Impress your guests with cauliflower: put the whole head into a pot with a bit of water.  Cover.  Let cook until tender when pierced with a knife.

Do you have any favorite cooking techniques?

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