Ever since Italy became an integral part of the Grand Tour in the last century, northern races have had a love-hate relationship with it. The noise, the chaos, the wild gesticulations and the emotional candour are all aspects of life that have been bridled in the north. And yet there lingers among the northerners a desire to know it; the same fascination that makes people stop to look at the scene of an accident.
Italy as the antithesis of the northern cold both in climactic and emotional terms is a well-worked theme. E. M. Forster used it as a backdrop to turn his quintessentially English heroes and heroines into people who connected with their emotions; today the Tuscany of the colour supplements represents holidays, sun, food and wine, and perhaps a dabble of culture. It is a place where repressions and emotional control take second place to an appetite for life.
There is no doubt that Italy, and especially southern Italy, is an unrelenting assault on the senses. Arrive by air in Rome and once outside the airport it begins: the heat makes the tarmac shimmer and the skin tingle; the air is heavy with the smell of oleander, black tobacco and diesel; background noise seems twenty decibels higher than usual; colour and light assail the eyes. It is in many ways a land of sensual excess.
It is also a land of spectacle. The backdrop provided by nature is endlessly surprising and varied, and against this natural beauty Italians play out their lives in a kind of boisterous, chaotic street theatre. The bustle, the loud speech, the large gestures all make sense when the whole is viewed for what it is: a theatre of life where every action is performed for public appreciation.
All of which explains why in Italy a meal is never simply the intake of calories, but is rather a celebration of appetite. It’s not just the effort in the preparation that’s appreciated, but also the gathering of the ingredients. My friends there think nothing of walking for four to five hours in the mountains to gather a few skinny little wild asparagus stalks which will, at best, be enough to flavour an omelette. At a dinner party in mid-August our host had driven to Caserta, an eighty-mile round trip, to buy buffalo-milk mozzarella. Not because it wasn’t available in the local supermarket – it was – but simply because the mozzarellas from Caserta tasted better.
More than anything, what is appreciated is purity in the raw ingredients. By this I mean that their provenance should be known – it’s what Italians call ‘genuino’ or unadulterated. Let me illustrate this point better by describing a lunch we went to a few weeks ago at the house of my friend the poet, Gerardo Vacana. ‘Just a simple, light lunch,’ he promised, ‘nothing too heavy.’
We began lightly enough with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto from his own pig, fresh bread, and olives from his own trees that he’d brined himself. Simple, pure and easy on the digestion. We drank his own cabernet and poured his own olive oil on our bread.
Next came home-made sagne – a kind of tagliatelle common to our region – in a light chicken broth. This too was light and digestible. The chicken, of course, came from the coop in the garden. After this came the home-made ravioli, each one painstakingly filled with ricotta and home-grown spinach, covered in the lightest of sauces made with cream, butter and parmesan. Then in quick succession came the chicken that had made the broth, served with potatoes and re-fried turnip greens, then the roast beef course and lastly two desserts. By five o’clock we sipped our coffees, and gratefully accepted a glass of nocino, a home-made liqueur based on walnuts which has the remarkable property of aiding the digestion of such Pantagruellian feasts. There is only one thing you can do after such a meal, and that’s take a short siesta that allows you to get up sufficiently rested in time for dinner.
The obvious question is how come Italians are not all hideously obese, if this is how they eat? The answer is that most of the time that’s not how they eat. If you call on anyone unexpectedly at lunch-time, likely as not you’ll find them eating a salad with maybe a slice of cheese. The kind of liver-crippling lunch that I’ve described is not daily fare, it’s for guests. In a way it’s as much a part of the daily theatre as anything else. The abundance and the effort made in the prepartion and gathering of the ingredients is all part of the theatre of food. It’s a show-case designed to both honour and impress the guest with quality, and above all with quantity.
It’s hard to avoid the assault on the senses and on the stomach. There is such enthusiasm, such verve when it comes to eating and partying that the visitor is swept along with it. The word ‘no’ simply disappears from the vocab, and every preferred good feelings of appetite is greeted with a ‘yes’. The Latin tag ‘semel non satis est’ – once is not enough – was never so apt. The word ‘diet’, too, is rarely heard. There is a well-established principle in Italian life: no pain, no pain.
As Italian food is increasingly found on menus in Ireland the question arises, how much of this culinary tradition can we import? Despite the often asserted claims that good Italian food can be got here in Ireland, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the best we can hope for is a pale imitation. Not because the skills don’t exist – they clearly do – but rather because of the igredients. Tomatoes from under glass do not taste the same as unsprayed, unforced Italian tomatoes freshly picked from a hot Apennine hill-side. Hot-house basil is not in the same league as the herb form Genova; fruits straight from the trees have an intensity of flavour unmatched by those that are picked immature and then shipped in nitrogen half-way around the globe. And bread: until we learn to buy daily from bakeries that make bread for immediate consumption as opposed to bread designed to stay soft for five days we’ll never know the joys of the real baker’s art.
But this apart, Italian cooking is more an attitude to food than a set of recipes. It involves a willingness to source the best ingredients even if it’s inconvenient, acceptance of the fact that good food cannot be prepared in a hurry, but above all else, an understanding that a well-prepared meal is a thing of joy; a celebration of being alive.