“Parla Come Mangi!” – Speak the language of your food.
Before I get started, I want to first point out that I find it humorous that I have just put an Italian phrase in Italics.
Talk to any world traveler and they will tell you, if you want to know the culture of any people, share a meal with them, talk to them about their cuisine, and observe the customs and traditions they hold around food. Here in the states we don’t have much to call “American Cuisine” besides perhaps BBQ, which again, changes depending on the region of the country you are in which have all been influenced by the out of towners who settled there years ago. In Texas its all about the beef. In St. Louis they dry rub, smoke, then grill. In Louisiana, its whole hog, low and slow, with some sort of secret vinegar and pepper brine that gets mopped over the tasty sow to drip down into the burning hot coals and effervesce back up into the meat through the smoke.
I love BBQ, but if you were to ask me what my favorite cuisine is, it wouldn’t be American, or Chinese, or Japanese, it would be Italian all the way.
Why you ask? The country of Italy is like an entire world contained in one boot shaped land mass. Here in the states, Penne ala vodka will taste about the same in any restaurant you go to. In Italy you can order the same dish in any village eatery and no two will taste the same. The geography of Italy is so diverse that from one neighboring village to the next, the fields grow different weeds and shrubs. The elevation and humidity differs and so do the molds and fungi that thrive in it. The livestock eat the different weeds, shrubs, berries, and nuts and so they too in return taste different. The cheese which ages in cellars, minding its own business, ages at different rates and with different climates taste distinctly different everywhere you go., The Adriatic coastal towns fish different tasting seafood than those on the Mediterranean, and don’t even get me started about the islands. Because of this, the locals in each town/village/city will fiercely commit to you that their food is what Italian food should be.
Another fantastic result of the geographic variation of the country is the specialty dishes of each region. These dishes have also been shaped by the different histories of the land and its occupants.
In the Fruili Venezia Guilia region up in the right hand corner, the food has influences of its neighbors, Slovenia and Austria. What does this mean? Well you can expect to find a lot of pickled root vegetables such as turnips, as well as courses containing sauerkraut. Their specialty dishes almost all involve fish, mostly river fish, and mostly fish that a lot of people consider inedible. The ancestry in this region is that refugees who found this area to be a safe haven from bandits and thieves that paroled the main roads and water ways. When they arrived in the area, they found perch, angler fish, and monk-fish (a particularly frightening looking creature), and found that when cooked or cured with the regional olive oil, some garlic and vinegar, they were quite edible, and so the meals stuck around. Goulash is another specialty of this region, a stew like dish make with lots of paprika and pork (how could you go wrong?). The cheeses of note, Montasio and Tabor. Oh yeah, and don’t forget about the Grappa. A word of caution for those of you who have not had Grappa before and are considering trying it. Its like drinking pure grape alcohol, and I dont mean grape flavor. I mean it is strong stuff made from grapes and is not for the feint of heart.
I have this really fantastic book from the library right now, entitled Why Italians Love To Talk About Food by Elena Kostioukovitch. (I was skeptical of a book on Italian food written by a Russian, but it turns out she spent many years there, and spoke fluent Italian.) Anyway, I will be posting more about regional food of Italy in the future, but I think this post is long enough already.
Food is fun. 🙂