Another year! The good news is that this blog is still active and luckily keeps being found by those searching for Italian specialties like pizzoccheri or canederli or Italian misconceptions like my 6 Italian myths. The bad news of course is that I haven’t posted any new articles or recipes this year. I know, it’s terrible – but it’s also okay, given that social media has taken the place of blogging in many ways.
But I did resume podcasting (yay!) and produced 16 new episodes with as many guests and collaborations this past year! This continues to be a lot of fun for me and I’ve already started to work on a new round of episodes to hopefully reach my dream milestone of 100 episodes very soon!
Here is a list of the episodes this year. Thanks again to all of my wonderful guests!
On a personal level, we keep well here in southern England, still working from home and enjoying plenty of homecooked food. We pretty much spend our time planning meals, cooking, cleaning the kitchen, and being grateful for having a dishwasher. As the government lifted all social distancing measures exactly two weeks ago, we are far from back to normal, unfortunately. Traveling is still not really possible, including to and from Italy which of course breaks our hearts. But we enjoy our area, which is wonderfully green after a very wet summer, and spending time with our cat Rascal, who just turned 19, overall doing great and still a great source of comfort and inspiration to us both.
I hope you’re all well, wherever you are, and please get in touch for collaborations, to be on the podcast, or just to say hi – I’d love that 🙂
A classic Christmas special, featuring two very special guests: my wife Candace and our dear friend Miriam. Join us to hear us compare our different childhood traditions between a farm in Saskatchewan (Canada), an apartment in Palermo (Sicily), and one near Milan.
During the episode, we talk about how Nativity scenes can take on a local flavor, Miriam’s riveting performance in her childhood Christmas play, stockings, the presents-opening ceremony (between candlelight and spotlight!), and of course and at length about the food of the holidays!
Battered deep-fried cauliflower (‘cavolfiore in pastella,’ in Italian) is an appetizing side dish which originates in Sicily but can be found in many variations all around Italy.
Out of the various kinds of batter, this recipe describes one that is quite opaque—without being too thick—especially suitable for vegetables (including zucchini flowers, which are fantastic, by-the-way!)
Deep-fried batter has a bad reputation for being heavy. However, if the oil is at the proper temperature, it sears immediately and any excess hot oil (with its lower viscosity) drips right off with draining. Still, the resulting dish is relatively high in calories and generally served in small amounts as a side, or as a vegetarian entrée.
The use of olive oil for deep-frying is somewhat controversial due to its relatively low smoke point. However, if you can control the temperature, olive oil is suitable for frying vegetables (which don’t need to reach extremely high temperatures) and brings an amazing extra flavor to the dish. Out of the different kinds of olive oil, non-extra virgin (or even non-vergin) olive oils are preferred for frying since they have a relatively higher smoke point at a lower price point!
Battered Deep Fried Cauliflower
Yield: 4-6 servings
Total Time: 45 minutes
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
1 medium cauliflower (about 800 g), divided in florets
75 g (2/3 cup) all-purpose flour
30 g (2 Tbsp) butter, melted
100 ml (scant 1/2 cup) milk
1 egg white
1 l olive oil (use a non-extra virgin oil for a higher smoke point)
In a mixing bowl, combine the flour and the melted butter obtaining a crumbly texture.
Incorporate just enough milk to create a thick cream, then gradually whisk in the rest of the milk.
Whip the egg white until firm (for best results, use an egg at room temperature).
Gently incorporate the whipped egg white, a tablespoon at a time, mixing from the bottom to the top. Season with a pinch of table salt.
Boil the cauliflower florets for 10 minutes until cooked but still firm.
Bring olive oil to frying temperature (if you have a thermometer, reach 150 °C; if you don't, wait 3-4 minutes at medium heat then test the oil with a drop of batter.) Dip a few florets at a time in the batter, shaking off any excess. Then deep-fry the battered florets until golden brown.
Allow the fried florets to dry for 5 minutes on a sheet of paper towel before serving them.
For the first time in this blog, I have the pleasure to feature a guest post. This article is by enologist, writer, and photographer Melinda King. To know more about Melinda, check out The Premise of Italian Cuisine podcast.
Italian culture is special in ways that are delicately combined, tangible and intangible. It would be impossible to disconnect Italian culture from the topic of Italian food, and the entire nation is formed by connections of things grown and eaten. Eating evokes emotional, memory, sensory, spiritual, and gustatory reactions, which are born from chemistry and imagination. This is a proud food system made from thousands of years of place-specific combinations; exceptional raw ingredients, combined and shared at tables, are traded in markets and perfected with love. Italian flavors are a stunning collection of colorful stories that grow from field to city, within regions—after all, the country was a collection of nation-states until unification in 1861. The subject of authenticity is constant to hungry Italians, who does it best, according to the way it is supposed to be done. Although they are talented innovators, tradition is the mark of excellence and respect. Thus, we are left to wonder: what is Italian food? What is Italian? Now, the country that has been a historical crossroads is asking serious questions about identity. Thoughts on the Table is the brilliant work of a worldly Italian (Paolo Rigiroli) who is brave enough to explore these themes. What Italians eat (and how), he reminds us, is every bit who they are.
And it is the Italians who have the hardest time answering these queries. The food is a source of incredible comfort and passion, and it is very difficult to reach conclusions. In an effort to distill one singular definition for the entirety of “Italian food,” one might say it is agriculture. This reminds us that the cuisine is an honorable and humble form of hard work. It is the superlative expression of microclimate, microbiology, and sunshine. It is the Italian people, respecting the gifts of their land, who proceed to turn wheat fields into toothsome vermicelli, lemons to acrid limoncello, winter cabbage into soothing ribollita, and 140-kg pigs into rose-leather prosciutto. Wine is further example of Italian agricultural genius.
How is it possible to organize such an enormous, magnificent topic? Taking into consideration so many places, dialects, seasons, and details, what is Italian food, and where does it come from? Are we being too precious about what we eat? Does place truly matter? And how can an entire nation be world-known such a thing as flavor?
Recently, a friend of mine traveled to Rome, and wanted to buy a bottle of “authentic” Italian olive oil, to take with him back to Sweden. He found a large store, and assumed it would be a simple purchase. He tells me that it took forty minutes for him to decide on a single bottle, after asking three employees for help and making various searches on his cell phone. “There were so many bottles!” he exclaimed. “So many oils, from so many places, and so many different prices! Why do they do this?” In the end, he bought the smallest one, and left. Italy is very proud of its products, and olive oil is an incredibly critical topic. I imagine my friend saw bottles from Puglia, Veneto, Sicilia, Toscana, and Umbria, at the least, as each claims its olives to be the best. There are then the categories of oils (virgin, extra virgin, cold press, organic, biodynamic, gold label, etc.) and sizes (1 oz. flavored with pepperoncini or truffle) to 5 kg. The oils are sacred to the places they come from, and one would use local oil for local dishes. Moreover, every Italian olive has different compounds (peppery, golden, green, honey, smoky, juniper), that is tied to the environment it was grown and processed in. Hundreds of such compounds have been identified which contribute to the distinctive organoleptic characteristics that make Italian olive oil so exceptional.
Added to that, there are currently some issues in the worldwide olive oil industry, as origin is not easy to certify. Olives may be grown in Tunisia, and bottled in Spain. California olive oils companies used to quietly fly their products to southern Italy, where the plane would touch down and fill with gas, only to return to California for sale. This meant the oil bottles could be labeled with the words “From Italy.” Confusion is rampant in the marketplace, considering the brand of Italian foods.
How can Italian food protect and promote itself, and guarantee quality? This is important, more than ever, with the increasing global economy—and with new technologies (it is easier to mass produce foods, or copy ones already existing). What about Italian traditions? The individual state governments of Europe have, for the past few decades, been dealing with these issues within their own cultures. How to protect the integrity of Bulgarian cheeses, Greek wine, or German blood sausage? Italy was the second country, after France, to take action on certifying its natural food products. It was both a post-war reaction to economic and land issues, as well as a way to acknowledge the most important pieces of lifestyle. European states have since cooperated under the umbrella of the European Union, recognizing one another’s specialized products. Italy has been a tremendous example in this movement, to certify traditions in and out of its borders.
This does not mean that Italy published a list of official foods. Protected status does not cover lasagna and tiramisu. The topic is Geographical Indications (GI), and means that certain food products are trademarked as Italian, and cannot be impersonated or misrepresented. To be certified, the item must have a specific place of origin, a historically documented meaning, and production methods that adhere to exact steps and standards. They are the ingredients (animal products, herbs, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products) that make Italian food “Italian,” that they are raised in Italy, by Italians, where taste represents what cannot be verbalized. It is also a way to maintain identity, while earning a decent income. This applies to small-time producers, as well as the entire industries.
Geographical indications (GIs) is a legal status, represented with a visual package or label symbol, that identify a food as having originated from a specific place where a given attribute, reputation, or other characteristic of that good is attributable to its geographical home. GIs act like a trademark–once established, they confer certain exclusive rights to the owner. Unlike other intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, copyrights), GIs are owned collectively by all producers in a region, rather than by an individual or a single company.
Note: there are Geographical indications are over the world (China, India, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, etc.). The United States is currently trying to garner support for their own system of GI (Georgia peaches, Idaho potatoes, California avocados), but the reputations of such products, and a strong system of capitalism, prevents the need for place/product protection. This article seeks to concentrate on the Italian context.
France was the first to certify national butter, cheese, and wine products (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC). Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree in the year 1411; the modern system was reinstated in France in 1919. Italians followed with their own GI organization, post-war, as a way of naming and protecting cultural property within a delicate economic structure. Geographical indications were created by the European Union with Regulation 2081/921, seeking to solve communication problems between and within countries, for consumers and producers, while promoting rural development. Italian GI goods earned €15.2 million in production value in 2018, contributing 18% of the national agricultural economy.
There are 550 Sicilian growers certified for Sicilian arancia rossa (blood red oranges, IGP); each farm cultivates the same three arancia rossa varieties (there are three) according to the same rules, and is overseen and organized by a central ruling body called a consorzio. Each consorzio reports to the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole Alimentari, Forestali e del Turismo (MIPAAF), (Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies). These fruits are monitored by the Italian government, and have protection within the European Union.
The GI system has broad and precise stated objectives:
To promote foods, beverages, and wines with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-known or rural areas;
To improve the income of farmers who make “genuine effort to improve quality”;
Sustaining populations in rural areas;
Providing clear and “not-misleading” information to consumers regarding product origin;
Preserving cultural and historical identity.
Place-defined products connect value between food and territory, thus guaranteeing the quality for which a consumer pays a premium. The idea is to further prevent unwanted third parties from using terms, tactics, and marketing that mislead and misrepresent. Italian pride and livelihoods remain in the balance.
There are currently three European Union schemes for geographic preservation:
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, red symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced) within the specific region.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI, blue symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and at least partially manufactured (prepared, processed or produced) within the specific region.
Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG): food must be of “specific character” and either the raw materials, production method, or processing must be done in exact area (consistent for a minimum of 30 years).
Protected Italian Foods
Many of the GI items are known to anyone interested in Italian eating. The names of these items are synonymous with the places they come from, and the name alone acts as an Italian ambassador. Some of the expected items on the list: PDO Chianti Classico olive oil, PDO Lago di Garda olive oil, PDO Mortadella, Asiago cheese, PDO Basilico Genovese (think pesto), PDO Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, IGP Nocciola Piemonte (hazelnuts famed for chocolates).
Still, most of the items may be called peculiar or even uninteresting to those outside the places they are made. Some unexpected items: IGP Acciughe sotto sale del Mar Ligure (anchovies), IGP Carota dell’Altopiano del Fucino (“A carrot? That’s not sexy!”), Pane di Matera (specialized bread loaves from the Sassi cave town), three kinds of saffron, IGP Bresaola della Valtellina (dried horse meat is highly esteemed), four kinds of asparagus (Bassano, especially), five kinds of lemons, eight kinds of chestnuts, Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria essential oil, Kiwi Latina (an Italian kiwi? Yes, and it is magnificent!). Of course, this country is always surprising.
It is quite common to see the PDO or IGP acronym in a restaurant or gelateria, where the pride of place ingredients is translated to the consumer, as a promise of something real and delicious to be had. And with the force of 0 KM eating, Slow Foods, Bio, Organic, and artisanal products, GI label status is not only economic, but “cool.”
Italian wines have an exceptional portion of Geographical Indications to endorsement. GI wines are a vital element, though controversial, in the business and character of Italian winemaking. Autochthonous (native) grapes represent distinctive zones and methods of viticulture, each with unique climactic features. Nerello Mascaelese is a grape that only grows on Mount Etna, in Sicily; this grape is authorized as one of the grapes to be used in the Etna DOC red wine. Nerello Mascalese has been growing in this place for centuries. Popular international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah need no protection–nor do they have such a significant history, cultivation, or sensory connection to Italian soil.
In 1964, Italy established a series of laws to safeguard the brilliance and authenticity of their wines. The directives define wines by characteristics such as: type of grape(s) used, alcohol content, bottling, labeling, how long the wine is aged, how and when to harvest, who can work the fields, machinery and tools, irrigation, naming, and sales promotions. In the last decades, several modifications and changes have been made to original legislation, as the numbers of wines and regions grow to the list. The last addition, made in 2010, established four basic categories that read consistent with concurrent European Union wine regulations (2008-2009) — Italian wines GIs are categorized as:
Vini (also known as ‘generic/table wines’): wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU, label includes no certain indication of place origin (of grape varieties used or vintage); only the wine color is required to be listed on the bottle label (“Tavernello” often ‘house wine’). In some cases, however, table wines can have very high quality and be sought by connoisseurs that don’t need any official certifications (‘Super Tuscans’).
Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines): generic wines that derive mostly (at least 85%) from one kind of certified ‘international (grown in many places)’ grape variety (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) or entirely from two or more of them; grape used or vintage may be shown on the label (e.g. “Merlot-Raboso” blend from Veneto).
IGP (‘Protected Geographical Indication’ also known as IGT: ‘Typical Geographical Indication’): wines produced in a specific territory within Italy that follow precise regulations on allowed varieties, growing and vinification practices, organoleptic and chemical/physical characteristics, labeling instructions, among others (e.g. “Toscana IGT”).
DOP (‘Protected Designation of Origin’) which includes two classes:
DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) These wines must have been IGP wines for at least 5 years, and generally come from smaller regions within a certain IGP territory; far stricter regulations and focus on territorial personalities; a DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG after 10 years.
DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) In addition to fulfilling DOC requisites, DOCG wines meet tighter analyses before going to market; they must also demonstrate a superior commercial value, and are linked with historical development.
Currently, there exist 332 DOCs (e.g. “Aleatico di Gradoli DOC”) and 73 DOCGs (e.g. “Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG”) bringing total to 405 DOPs. The financial aspects of the wine GI are momentous; a single bottle of DOCG Brunello di Montalcino can sell for up to $550. A scandal shook the Brunello consorzio in 2008 (known as “Brunellopoli”), where select winemakers were suspect for mixing lower quality wine grapes from other regions with local Sangiovese. Vineyards were quarantined and hundreds of thousands of bottles seized by authorities, facing millions of dollars in fines and years in prison. The issue was potential violation of GI purity rules, written by the Brunello Consorzio ruling body, and approved by the Italian Agricultural Ministry. Charges were ultimately dropped, and agreements to reinforce production principles were made between the Consorzio and winemakers.
I spent a number of years working in a wine business in California. When customers asked about Italian wines, they asked for wines by company or grape. Furthermore, their purchase decisions were generally based on price; customers were fascinated anytime I gave them a back story to the makers of the wine, the place it was made, or the types of grapes used. A wine was Chianti or Prosecco, but they did not know why. I would point to the labeling below the cork, when appropriate—if the bottle had the DOC or DOCG certification. “So the government says this wine is the best?” they would ask. No, I would shake my head and give a brief description of what GI represents. “Oh,” they would continue, “so the Italian government says this wine is the best?” they would repeat. Every time.
No, the government has no sensory opinion on the wines being made. This is a label that a company pays for, in a group with other companies in the same place, in order to show you, the consumer, that they mean business. The bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano comes from vineyard lands that were budding vines hundreds of years before the pilgrims even built their boat. That is what the GI system would like us to remember. Currently, I am working in a vineyard/winery on Mount Etna, in Sicily. The DOC here is exceedingly proud of its work, and place (terra) is the language spoken in every glass. The soil changes from sandy to limestone, then lava rock, within a few meters, and vines stand fierce tests of weather and volcano. Add the salt of the sea and the shine of the sun, and it makes for an extraordinary natural beverage. The GI labels struggle to describe these things to an American wine shopper: philosophy of terra in an island borough founded by Greek settlers in 734 B.C.E.
Although GIs may promote a food or wine’s reputation, the level of quality is not guaranteed above similar food items. The perception of GIs is a matter of personal consumer taste and company/brand marketing, and this is an important concept to understand. For example, there may be six options of lemons at the local market. Two are certified GI status, from Siracusa (Sicilia) and Sorrento (Campania), and one from Spain. The other three, local fruits, do not list variety, but are stamped with the farm and city of origin. The GI status lemons cost twice as many Euros per kilo. Would you choose a locally made lemon, a higher priced GI, or the least expensive Spanish one?
How much sway does GI play, in the eyes of a shopper? Does it shift our priorities–taste preference, price, or place of being picked? Would you scrimp on lemons but splurge on cheese? How is this any different from brand name luxury Italian Gucci, Ferrari, or Armani? Normal people buy according to experience and reputation. If it works, they buy again. Italy, itself, has become a brand. The Italian GI is represented on the food or drink label with a small circular symbol (red and yellow or blue and yellow, depending on legal status), so we see as we buy. But these certifications are very expensive, and they require a long and thorough vetting process.
The symbol on the food (package, container, box, fruit seal, or wine label) will tell the buyer that it was made in according to the tradition of the area, by people who live there, with local or regional resources, in Italy by Italians. It will taste the way it is supposed to taste, according to history of the place, made flavorful by unique environmental conditions that only that place can provide. Terra, confirms that balsamic vinegar from Modena can only come from Modena. In this case, the Balsamic Vinegar Consorzio is a nearly secret society of older gentlemen who speak very little and carry out regular chemical “alchemical” analysis with small glass pipets and sensorial tastings. They meet in quiet rooms, and keep careful records. But they are extremely exclusive, and there is worry that the Modena vinegar community will soon disappear. It is not easy to pass on the legacy, or attract much excitement, as the work is difficult and unattractive to outsiders. This kind of work must be psychologically understood. But this is a common problem today, in Italy, with gentrification, separating family structures, and move towards tech jobs and city life.
The taste of Sicilian Pachinotomatoes cannot be reproduced. Heart-shaped Marostica cherries, from Veneto, are blessed by cool mountain breeze and warm sunshine. There is a cherry festival to honor the local fruits, as well as a famous chess game played with real-life human pawns in the Piazza degli Scacchi. The game dates back to 1454 when it was organized to settle a courtly duel between two noble lords competing for the hand of a lady. The history, the climate, and the science of place convene to create, in legal status, a true Italian flavor. Travelers can go to the game, enjoy the festival, and feel the life behind the GI, every September.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a prime example of a Geographical Indication, demonstrating food as an art form. Outside Italy, “Parmesan” (originally a term from France to refer to Italian hard cheeses) is used as a generic name to identify a product (cheese-like, but not always cheese), that has a flavor reminiscent of the famed nutty bite that we know from true Parmigiano Reggiano. However, this copy food lacks the origin, and artisan producers. Parmigiano Reggiano has a singular history, taste, and identity that is unmistakably Italian. The Consorzio for Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese was formed in 1934; in 1996, Parmigiano Reggiano earned complete legal status in the EU. The Consorzio states that “the secret of its goodness originates in the place of origin, in the natural feed, our types of milk cows, the wind, the incline of our hills and goodness of grass, and in the high-quality milk with no additives.” The term “Parmesan” comes from geographical origin and means “of or from Parma.”
Parmigiano Reggiano is not only a good cheese, but also healthy and nutritious (named the official food of the International Space Station). After creation, the cheese wheels are subjected to a maturation period of at least twelve months (twenty-four for the most common version, thirty-six months and more for finer stravecchio), allowing Parmigiano Reggiano to gain its characteristic granular structure. It is made from raw cow’s milk (not pasteurized; there are 245,000 cows in the production area registered to make Parmigiano Reggiano) only grass and hay, not silage. After primary creation, the cheese is put into a brine bath of Mediterranean sea salt for about 22 days and then aged. At twelve months, each cheese is inspected by an expert grader who uses a hammer to tap the cheese and by sound detect undesirable cracks and voids. Cheeses that pass inspection are branded on the rind with an inspector logo. To guarantee each cheese and catalogue quality, each cheese wheel (40 kg) is stenciled by hand with:
The Parmigiano Reggiano DOP acronym and consorzio seal;
Identification number of dairy (there are 363 certified Parmigiano Reggiano dairies);
Production month and year;
An alphanumeric code identifying every single wheel.
Every cheese is inspected by the consorzio, to verify if they are worthy of the Parmigiano Reggiano title, then fire branded when PDO standards are satisfied. There is a well-documented 800-year history of production, as it was first made by Benedictine monks in the same hilly areas. The processes are fiercely controlled by the consorzio, and every cheese is crafted with care, for excellence.
The cultural meaning for this cheese is also economic: in 2018, 149,000 tons (3.65 million wheels) of it was made by 50,000 Italians in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua (to the right of the Po river), and Bologna to the left of the Reno river). In the same year, the cheese had a €2.2 billion estimated turnover at consumption (51,900 tons of it being exported). This is a meaningful cheese! It is easy to understand how such powerful food would have imitators. The name, alone, is sacred to the Italian people.
In 2003, the EU responded to a complaint filed by the Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio concerning the improper use by certain German companies of the name “Parmesan” as a generic name, on cheeses that neither exhibited the peculiarities of Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO, nor came from the area of origin—thus manipulating consumers and damaging reputation. German authorities refused to intervene, and thus the case was taken before the European Court of Justice. However, the case was ultimately dismissed, as the EU court did not have enough evidence to demonstrate German misuse of the generic name.
However, problems arise when deciding which phrases to protect as GIs. For example, although “Parmigiano Reggiano” is a protected GI under U.S. law (in an agreement made with Italian authorities and the cheese consorzio), the name “parmesan” is not protected—and this term is ubiquitous in American grocery markets on products that Italians would find abhorrent and embarrassing. Shoppers might even see Parmesan Reggianito, a hard Argentinean cheese invented by Italian immigrants who left Italy for South America after the Wars. They wanted to make something that would remind them of their native Parmigiano Reggiano.
Every few years, the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio tries to file legal action against a company in North America, regarding “Parmesan,” but an outright purge of all such cheese products would be impossible, and expensive. The issue comes down to labeling, but mostly, quality.
In 2012, American FDA agents investigated a cheese factory in Pennsylvania, called “Castle Cheese.” They were making goods sold as “100% real Parmesan” across the country; the cheese was found to contain cut-rate substitutes, chemicals, and fillers, such as wood pulp and cellulose. The Castle Cheese president pled guilty and was spent one year in prison, with a fine of one hundred thousand dollars, but the case was made on health standards—not Parmigiano Reggiano GI name protection. Kraft, America’s well-known mass pasteurized cheese mass brand, has argued that their parmesan cheeses actually promote and encourage the Parmigiano Reggiano product, rather than compete with or mock it.
This is why a podcast like “Thoughts on the Table” is so important: there is a tremendous need for a cross-cultural conversation about Italian food, by Italians and non-Italians, in the name of taste, access, affordability, and integrity. I can only imagine what it was like for Paolo, experiencing his first visit to a Canadian grocery store. It would be like showing him a roller skate and trying to convince him it was a car. Food is passionate and evocative; what happens when it is reduced to a transaction? We want to talk about grandmother’s soothing pasta dishes, not packaging standards.
Food is grown, traded, prepared, and shared according to geographical context. What you eat, for most of human history, depends on where you live. This is a field of study known as the GEOGRAPHY OF FOOD, which includes complex patterns and relationships between “space” and “place.” Taste transforms during stages of preparation. Quality means safe and wholesome ingredients, and consistency. This is where Italy excels. It has a vast range of topography, proximity to water, varieties of microclimates, and brilliant, creative farmers and chefs. As one of my friends reminds me, “our government is terrible, jobs are hard to get, and our soccer team fails in the World Cup, but we have the best eating in the entire world to console these pains.” The Mediterranean hits the Alpine ranges, and leave centuries of collaboration, giving this nation gastronomical and agricultural superiority. Science proves this, as well as our own opinions. And while so many things did not “originate” in this country, they are respected and perfected here: tomatoes, wines, pastas, coffee, and chocolate.
Place does matter—very much. In terms of food and wine, terra is the philosophical combination of physical and spiritual “place” that gives flavor. By flavor, I mean “memory,” the kind of meal we remember years after the dishes have been washed.
Geographic Indication is a legally recognized certification of quality for place-driven taste. It happens by tradition–meaning what is produced, how, and by whom. The Italian government is very serious about protection and recognition. History is, in my opinion, based in agriculture, and agriculture reveals identity. GI status strives to keep identity, while preserving the taste of memory.
In the name of authenticity, GI hopes to maintain marketplace clarity. Every protected food is traced, tracked, and guaranteed. There are major efforts by law enforcement agencies to uphold the legitimacy of food products. Olive oil, wine, balsamic vinegar, cheese, and prosciutto are some of the Italian products that are most copied and sold by fraud, or produced in sub-standard ways. Livestock are RFID tagged, and documented from conception to market shelf, and full records of genetic breeding are kept by the consorzio. A vegetable, a cheese, or a grape can be tracked by DNA testing, to assure the place it has come from. Italy has 822 registered GI products, more than any other nation, of the worldwide total 3,036 (2018 ISMEA). “Made in Italy” is very big business.
Of course, the Geographical Indications are quite general, and work with ideals. It is basically a package of economic safeguards—copyright schemes made in a non-capitalistic system. The European Union oversees each country’s regulations, and promotes communication across the board. Italy does not always enjoy being a part of the Union, though it gains considerably from the Geographical Indication projects. Aside from the spiritual and cultural lauds from economic protection, the PDO and PGI symbols are basically there to pay people to make good raw materials (beans, sardines, and kiwis). Italy must also realize that certification means Italians competing with Italians, long before the rest of the world. As Italians are hungry for creative and economic innovation, they are, more than ever, hungry to strengthen the core of their traditions.
Nostalgia is everything to an Italian palate. So are relationships. Although larger food chains and grocery stores are trending, there is still a strong and regular desire to shop locally. How do GI products interact with everyday eating? How can we trust that the story behind the label is true? Some Italians do not support the GI system; there are many barriers to entry (certification costs, registration, legal oversight, documentation, North versus South quarrels) that prevent many from participating. Others detest the European Union. In a conversation with my elderly neighbors, Don Donato and his wife, Luciana, I asked their view on Italian Geographical Indications. Don Donato was quick to answer: “We do it because France did it, and we always have to compete with France. We have Italian food in a French system. Even the supermarkets are from France (Carrefour, Auchan in Veneto)… the problem is that Italians are very bad organizers. We have the good food, and the government doesn’t trust us with it.”
His wife does the food shopping, and said she never really noticed the food labels until last year, when she read about it in the paper. She generally keeps to the butcher, bakery, and produce shop in our small village, but goes to the shopping centers once or twice every month with her children’s families. Two things regularly astonish her: the amounts of products in the aisles, and the prices. Having choices, she told me, is very expensive. “If I want lentils from Umbria, we will go there. I am not about to pay so much for a bag of lentils. These are things that are made very well in my own area.” She told me that food is only as good as the person making it, and she can make any lentil taste Italian.
Can you taste the difference between a GI product and a non-GI product When it is late in the evening, and someone has prepared a beautiful Italian meal, simple and warm—what is the role of Geographical Indications for regional foods?
If my Swedish friend had known, at the least, to look for red and blue symbols on olive oil labels, his search would have been much simplified. He was looking for the best representation of an Italian olive oil, and those certification marks would have spoken for the people, processes, and places that make the oil authentic—as so the label would ideally have us believe. Later, I curiously asked which bottle he had selected from the large Roman grocery store. He laughed when he told me, “I don’t remember the name, but I bought an expensive one.” He continued, “But when I got home, I went to use it and saw, written right there on the backside: 100% California Olives.”
These contradictions make Italian food fascinating. The conversation continues…
Top 15 highest value (by production numbers) Italian Geographical Indications, 2018 (source: ISMEA—Qualivita)
http://www.aicig.it/ – Aicig (Associazione Italiana Consorzi Indicazioni Geografiche, Italian Association Geographic Indication Consortia) is a non-profit association between the various Consorzi that are recognized by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies. It represents 95% of Italian GI producers.
“Brunellopoli: A wine scandal under the Tuscan sun” – Tourism Review International 15(3):253-267 · July 2012 by Alessio Cavicchi (University of Macerata) and Cristina Santini (University San Raffaele, Roma).
NOTE: This article’s featured image is a view of Govone, Cuneo, from its castle. [Photo by Paolo Rigiroli].
Nick Zingale is an American of Italian descent who lived and traveled in Italy and Europe for seven months last year. He joins me in this episode for a fascinating overview of his experience abroad, which he documented on his personal blog – from working as an English teaching assistant, to his discovery of his ancestors’ native towns in Sicily and Molise, to his solo travel around the Italian peninsula. Throughout the episode, Nick shares plenty of insights on Italy and the Italians from his special point of view of someone who grew up in an Italian-American family.
During the episode, Nick mentions a documentary on the massive immigration of Italians in the United States and on how difficult it was for them to amalgamate with the American culture. You can get more information on this production at http://www.pbs.org/show/italian-americans.
I’m from northern Italy – only been to Sicily once – and I only had heard about this dish before moving to Canada. Thanks to my friends food-bloggers, however, this dish tickled my attention, I starting making it, and I think it has already become part of my repertoire! What I love about Pesto alla Trapanese is how fresh it tastes, and that it can be prepared quickly (as the pasta cooks) and pretty much all year-round (unlike Pesto alla Genovese which requires large amounts of fresh basil, which is best in the summer).
Since I’m far from an authority on this dish, I’m presenting a variation over Frank Fariello‘s rendition. Similarly, it makes use of uncooked cherry tomatoes that are mixed in with other ingredients in a blender – a method quite common these days, as opposed to using mortar and pestle (which is traditional and at the origins of the name “pesto”). Aside from the blending technique, I substituted Pecorino for the milder (though geographically incorrect!) Parmigiano, and increased the amount of almonds for a grittier and drier sauce.
Pesto alla Trapanese, with almonds and fresh tomatoes
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 15 minutes
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
6-8 (140 g, 5 oz in weight) cherry or strawberry tomatoes
1 garlic clove, minced
8 basil leaves
40 g (1 ½ oz) almonds, blanched (chopped or whole)
40 g (1 ½ oz) Parmigiano, coarsely grated
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
140 g (5 oz) spaghetti, linguine, or even short pasta like farfalle or fusilli
coarse salt (1/2 Tbsp per liter, 2 Tbsp per gallon of boiling water)
Bring a big pot of water to a boil.
Toast the almonds in a pan at high heat for a couple of minutes until they get some color, but before they turn dark.
Core the tomatoes and score their skin (see illustration on the side).
Boil the tomatoes for 20 seconds, then dip them in cold water to stop the cooking. Keep the water boiling, you’re going to use it to cook the pasta.
Salt the water and cook the pasta according to the instructions on the box.
As the pasta cooks, peel the tomatoes and squeeze them to remove seeds and excessive liquid.
In a blender, mix all ingredients so that they turn creamy, but still a bit coarse. I used an immersion blender and it worked very well.
When the pasta is cooked, drain it and put it back in the pot along with the pesto. Mix gently and serve immediately.
This week, Jessica takes us through a number of known and less known Italian dishes – starting from Naples and Sicily, through Rome and Tuscany, to northern Italy. Find out what is authentic and what isn’t, and maybe even discover some dishes you still don’t know.
Pasticcini are exquisite Italian fine pastries which have been perfected over the centuries to achieve the best flavors, textures, and fragrances. In the Italian tradition, assorted pasticcini are served as a dessert, as a treat to accompany coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, or as a cake alternative for celebrations and other special occasions (in which case they are usually accompanied with ‘spumante’, the Italian sparkling wine).
The word ‘pasticcino’ is a diminutive of ‘pasticcio’, which in turn derives from Vulgar Latin pasticium, a dish made by mixing various ingredients, mostly wrapped in dough (‘pasta’).
Pasticcini can be found in two sizes: standard (2-3″ in diameter) and mignon (1-2″). The latter has become increasingly popular thanks to its sampling size, a definite plus, given the great variety of pasticcini.
Since fine pastries are difficult and time-consuming to make at home (especially if a variety of kinds is desired), Italians prefer to buy them fresh in a ‘pasticceria’ (pastry shop). Although some bakeries also sell pasticcini, most pastry shops are independent specialized stores, have extended opening hours (they’re often open on Sunday mornings, for any last minute pastry pickup), and sometimes even double as coffee bars.
Along with pasticcini, pasticcerie often also sell shortbreads and other kinds of cookies and dry pastries. Those, however, are called ‘paste da tè’ (tea pastries) and are considered a distinct product. Nevertheless, pasticcini and paste da tè are often served side-by-side to appeal to every palate.
The Italians are traditionalists when it comes to food, and pasticcini are no exception. As an interesting consequence, it’s on traditional pasticcini that most pastry chefs showcase their best techniques. Every pastry chef needs to know how to execute them flawlessly since it is on them that they are evaluated by their customers.
There are several kinds of traditional pasticcini. Some are available all throughout Italy, some are exclusively regional, and some are only made during particular times of the year. The following can be found nationwide (although some have strong regional origins).
Cannoncini (cream horns). Among the most popular pasticcini. Made with a baked horn of puff pastry (‘pasta sfoglia’), generally filled with pastry cream (‘crema pasticcera’), which may be chocolate or hazelnut flavored. They are not to be confused with ‘cannoli’ (see below), although they sound similar because both of their names derive from ‘canna’ (reed), which they resemble.
Bigné (cream puffs). Also extremely popular. Made with choux pastry filled with pastry cream (vanilla, chocolate, coffee or hazelnut flavored), with Chantilly cream (vanilla-flavored whipped cream), or with zabaione.
Sfogliatelle Napoletane. Made of a shell similar to the Greek phyllo dough and filled with ricotta and candied peel. Originally from Naples.
Crostatine alla frutta (fruit tarts). A base of baked shortbread, with a layer of custard, topped with fresh fruit, often covered with gelatin.
Babà. A spongy cake dipped in sugar water and rum. Also traditional to Naples, though with Polish origins.
Cigni (swans). Bigné which have been cut in half and filled with pastry cream (on the bottom) and whipped cream (on the top). A small squiggle of puff pastry is then applied on the bigné to form the neck and head of a swan.
Cannoli. Made of a fried shell, with a ricotta-based filling and flavored with candied citrus peel or chocolate chips. Originally from Sicily.
Fiamme (flames). Drop-shaped mousse (thick foams, generally chocolate-based), on a wafer or a shortbread base, usually covered in chocolate.
Tronchetti (small trunks). Rolls of sponge cake and mousse, which are then sliced in cylindrical sections.
Tartufi al cioccolato (chocolate trouffles). Chocolate and coffee ganache covered in cocoa powder.
Mini strudel. A small version of the Austrian/German strudel, a kind of pastry filled with apples, raisins, and pine nuts.
Cassatine Siciliane. A small version of the Cassata Siciliana cake, a dessert made with sweet ricotta, sponge cake, almond paste, and candied fruit. Originally from Sicily.
Chiavi di Violino (treble clefs). Liqueur-drizzled sponge cake layered with cream, covered in dark chocolate and decorated with a treble clef made of white chocolate.
Diplomatici. Layered puff pastry, sponge cake, and custard, which is then cut in squares and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.
Meringhe(1). Two crisp meringues enclosing a heart of whipped cream.
Limoncello (pronounced: lee-mon-chel-low) is a sweet, lemon-flavored liqueur made by soaking lemon peel in pure alcohol to extract its aromatic oils. Straight chilled limoncello is served after dinner as a digestive, or to accompany a dessert. When mixed with tonic water or sparkling white wine, limoncello can also make for a refreshing aperitif.
The origins of limoncello
Lemons made their first entrance into the Mediterranean region as early as 100 BCE. Around 1000 CE cultivated lemon trees were common in Italy, especially in the regions of Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Sardinia, and Liguria. Despite the availability of lemons and a proven Italian tradition in liqueur production, it took until the beginning of the 20th century for limoncello to be invented. The exact birthplace is unknown, with many of the areas renowned for its production claiming its paternity. These include:
The Sorrento peninsula and the island of Capri. The liqueur is officially called “Liquore di Limone Di Sorrento IGP” (though the name Limoncello is commonly used), made exclusively with Sorrento “IGP” lemons (Protected Geographical Indication).
The Amalfi Coast, e.g.: D’Amalfi Limoncello IGP Russo (also of Protected Geographical Indication).
Riviera delle Palme (western Liguria), though the liqueur generally goes under the name ‘limoncino’. ‘Arancino’ (a similar liquor made with oranges) and ‘Crema di Limoncino’ (a creamier version) are also produced.
Thanks to its unique lemon flavor (intense, but not sour), and to its relatively low alcoholic content (around 30% in volume), limoncello became very popular in Italy and gradually spread to most of Europe. The highest peak of popularity was reached between 1990 and 2005 in Italy when limoncello became fashionable as the digestive of choice, a must at the end of every restaurant meal, and of every home dinner with guests. Many Italian restaurants started to offer it free of charge after coffee, even by leaving a bottle at each table for the guests to help themselves to. While generally appreciated by the diners, the trend eventually wore out and lately limoncello, although still popular, is back to being one of the many digestive liqueurs (which are rarely complimentary in restaurants).
Part of the success of limoncello is also due to its simple and reliable production process – many Italian families produce their own using a variation of the following recipe.
1 liter of pure alcohol (95% in volume)
8 untreated (organic) lemons
½ kg white sugar
1 and ½ liters of drinking water.
Wash and peel the lemons.
Gently scrub the lemons under running water, then carefully remove the yellow part of the peel (flavedo). The white part (albedo) has a bitter flavor and needs to be discarded. After peeling, the lemons can be squeezed and their juice frozen and later used to make drinks or in cooking.
Soak the lemon peel in the alcohol
Pour the alcohol in a glass jar that can be closed tightly. Add the the lemon peel and then keep in the dark for 25 days, at room temperature, shaking occasionally. The aromatic oils will gradually dissolve in the alcohol, which will turn yellow.
After 25 days, prepare the syrup
Prepare sugar syrup by bringing water and sugar to a boil, then let it cool off.
Add the flavored alcohol to the syrup
Filter the alcohol to remove the macerated peel and any undesired residue, then add it to the syrup.
Pour the liqueur in a glass bottle
Put the mix of syrup and flavored alcohol in a glass bottle.
Store in the fridge or in the freezer
As soon as chilled, the liqueur is ready for consumption, but it will keep for over 2 years in the fridge or even longer in the freezer (the high percentage of alcohol will prevent it from freezing).
Note. When choosing the lemons, it’s extremely important to go for the highest possible quality. The best lemons are medium-large, with an elliptical shape and a thick peel. The lemons must be untreated (we are going to only need the skin!) – any pesticides or even just waxing (commonly applied to help preserve the citrus’ moisture) would end up in the finished product.
Disclaimer. In certain areas of North America, pure alcohol can only be sold to professionals who have a special license! This is the case in many American states and in all of Canada except for the province of Alberta, where it’s sold under the brand name “Everclear”.
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