To ask me about Italian food is to unearth a store of memories, all of them delightful. Each one conveys a different taste, an almost visceral memory. The sensuality of Italy is there at every turn, its ability to make one feel alive and human.
My first memory is of dinner in the home of the bus driver who was driving me and a group of travellers around Italy in the 60’s. I was goggle-eyed at the generosity, the huge plate of antipasto and then the primo piatto, a giant dish of lasagne. Well, I Iove lasagne, and this was the first time I had eaten it in Italy. It was lushly, softly, tasty – a wholly new experience. My host’s wife, the proud and slightly nervous cook, urged me on with ‘mangia, mangia’. So I ate a vast second helping until I was full to overflowing. It is an old story of foreign ignorance: the next course was not the dessert but a chicken dish of enormous size. How I managed I cannot remember, but I was young, foolish and constitutionally stronger than now. I hardly slept, but felt I had begun a journey.
In Bologna I ate, in the main square, at an eye-wateringly smart restaurant that served a lasagne that has served to make every one since then a disappointment. I have lost the name of the place, but it showed me how simple things can be beautiful.
In the very early days of Special Places in Italy,I visited a house in Tuscany run by a South African. He served lunch at the bottom of the garden,nothing but pasta, salad and a glass of white wine. It was done with panache and confidence, every mouthful perfect. It needed no ornament. I wonder how long it takes for an outsider to
become irretrievably steeped in Italian pride in their local ingredients.
Reflecting on those memories, I can see that the Italians have the gift of combining simplicity and perfection. The finest
ingredients, a touch of panache and beauty – and ecco! Even the 5-course meal I had at the Frantoio in Puglia last year was simple in its way, but proud too, everything grown in their garden and altered only subtly by their skill. My notes reveal: panzerottini con ricotta e bietoline selvatiche (fried pasta with ricotta and wild Swiss chard), cicorielli selvatiche assise in cesto di pecorino (wild chicory in a basket of sheep’s cheese), morbido di caprino allo zafferano con pere e composta di pere (soft goat’s cheese with saffron, pears and pear compote), zuppa con funghi cardoncelli e fagioli ‘Nasieddu rosso’ di Sarconi (mushroom soup with Sarconi beans), agnello con patate in coccio (lamb and spuds).
On the Isola Tiberina in Rome I ate carciofi a la romana, stuffed with garlic, mint and parsley – a wholly new way of eating artichokes and their leaves. I can still taste that crunchy, nutty outer leaf. Simple but stunning.
Having said all that, there is a sense of humour about food in Italy, too. In the Crete Senesi, we were served 36 courses – most of them ‘tasters’. Sixteen would have filled us. One of our party collapsed, hysterically, into the final course, her face lost in cream.
But let not lasagne and pasta dominate these memories. In Torino last year, boiled meats and tongue reminded me that there is much, much more to Italian food than I knew. (I never eat pizza, anywhere. Too much pastry for me, but I suspect that I am being unfair on Naples.) From the great Torino Slow Food conferences and shows, one learns about the thousands of small-scale growers who battle to keep their products alive in the face of cynical competition from the big boys. Italians really do love their food, and are proud of their regional diversity; they can talk about it with a passion that most of us reserve for other things. I love them for it.