Since moving to Rome, I’ve been thinking a lot about food. Of course, even back in Victoria I thought about food frequently enough, but here it’s different: Food is so firmly ingrained into the culture that it’s almost impossible not to think about it on, say, an hourly basis. There are markets scattered throughout the city. Every time you turn a corner there’s a new string of restaurants and a different smell floating in the breeze – pizza, bread, desserts, something deep and richly meaty, something else soft and smoky. Get a group of Italians together and the conversation turns, almost inevitably, to food.
In fact, food is one of the reasons why I chose to move to this city. I get a huge amount of enjoyment out of the act of cooking, and I love to eat – and pasta, pizza, and parmesan cheese have been some of my favourite things since I was a kid. For someone who loves to spend as much time in the kitchen as possible, living in a country with such an expansive catalogue of regional specialties is incredibly inspiring. There’s history lurking behind each dish; there’s a reason for its initial existence as well as its continued popularity. So many of the dishes that we consider to be Italian “classics” were borne out of extreme poverty, where keeping the list of ingredients simple and seasonal wasn’t some kind of advanced food philosophy, it was a necessity. Transforming the less desirable, rougher cuts of meat into something delicious wasn’t just the experimental whim of a chef – it was the only way that much of the population could afford to eat meat, considering that the “best” cuts went to the wealthy. And then there’s the fierce regionalism of it all – the idea that there’s not one unified Italian cuisine, but rather cucina romana, milanese, pugliese, and so on, each with its own time-honoured favourites and classic ingredients.
In Canada or the USA, this way of thinking about food doesn’t really exist – there’s no overwhelmingly strong sense of true regional or national identity in the cooking. There, whether you’re dining out or cooking yourself, you generally start off by asking yourself: What type of food do I want to eat tonight? Italian? Chinese? French, Indian, or Mexican? Recipes tend to be imported from the far corners of the globe and then altered liberally; made more convenient, or more fun, or easier to cook with the ingredients that you can find in the aisles of your average suburban grocery store. Cooking has become, for a large segment of the North American population, a chore; a mundane everyday necessity that constantly needs to be spiced up and powered through. Walk into the cookbook section of an average bookstore, and you’ll see reams of titles promising “No Repeats – A Year of Deliciously Different Dinners”, “Taste of Home: The Busy Family Cookbook”, or even the ridiculous “Skinny Bitch: Crazy Delicious Recipes that are Good to the Earth and Great for Your Bod”. There’s no tradition in there. None whatsoever. This is cooking at its most bland and uninspiring.
Even in regions with a fairly strong appreciation for good, well-sourced food (Victoria fits into this category, along with cities like Vancouver, San Francisco and New York), the dishes popping up on trendy restaurant menus are centred around local ingredients but incredibly diverse cultural influences. To be clear, this particular trend (as opposed to the “convenience-rules-all” approach) isn’t a bad thing at all. I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely love cooking and eating food that’s a well-thought-out but wild mix of flavours from around the globe or food that’s been concocted entirely on a whim of the chef’s imagination; innovation is important in society, and this is true in the kitchen too. And it’s through innovation and experimentation like this that regions will come to develop, over time, their own strong culinary traditions.
But the thing that’s missing from this way of thinking about food is the simplicity, the restraint, and the moderation that goes hand-in-hand with a long-standing culinary tradition. When new dishes are invented, they’re not really limited by anything. There’s no sense of right and wrong, and you can walk into nearly any grocery store, at any time of the day, and waltz right out holding a bag filled up with ingredients from the far corners of the earth, both in season and out, that you can then use to craft almost any flavour combination you can possibly dream up.
In Italian cooking, regardless of the region, there is a proper, correct way to prepare each dish. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been instructed not to put cheese on seafood pasta (which made my inner parmesan-addict cringe, but ended up highlighting the incredibly subtle flavours of the fish in a way the cheese would have completely masked), not to mix red pepper and mushrooms in the same dish (the red pepper is a strong, dominating flavour; mushrooms would be lost to it), and not to add onion to pasta all’amatriciana. And when I look at the lists of ingredients for the classic dishes, I’m always surprised at how short they are. This strict, ingredient-sparse style of cooking is difficult for North Americans (for whom the phrases “a little of this, a dash of that”, or “I’ll just add…” are regular parts of cooking) to wrap their heads around at first.
And then you taste the final product, prepared just as intended, and you realize something: You can actually, truly taste every single ingredient that goes into the dish. Nothing is swimming in glue-like, cream-intensive sauces or drowning in overly-flavoured dressings or tasting only like the combination of seasonings layered on top of it. When you eat seafood, you taste the ocean. Tomatoes explode with flavour. Meat tastes like meat, rich and comforting, with only a hint of herbs or a dash of white wine thrown into the pan to complement, not smother, it. Suddenly, the fact that these recipes have been guarded and preserved and then carefully handed down from generation to generation with minimal changes from outside influences makes perfect sense, because it’s good, really good, and something that special is worth preserving.
Serves one hungry person as a main (two as a second course)
I wanted to cook Saltimbocca alla Romana ever since I spotted it on a restaurant menu and googled it to see what it was. The combination of thinly-pounded veal and salty prosciutto sounded amazing (it’s no wonder the dish’s name translates to “jumps in the mouth”), but I was thrown off by the immense variety in the ingredients that various recipes online were listing. One recipe would advise dipping each piece of meat in flour before cooking, another insisted that chicken tasted better than veal, and yet another advocated drenching the whole thing in copious amounts of lemon juice.
Thankfully, I have a friend here in Rome who’s every bit as passionate about food and cooking as I am, and he’s an endless wealth of resources on authentic Roman recipes, techniques, and ingredients. One quick email later and I had the true recipe for Saltimbocca alla Romana; one trip to the market later and I was ready to cook it for myself.
As expected, the final product was delicious. The hint of sage and the light butter and white wine sauce (which gets its depth of flavour from scraping up those delicious crispy bits of meat that get stuck to the pan) offset the veal and the prosciutto perfectly. I prepared a side of potatoes roasted with rosemary and garlic to go with the saltimbocca; the combination was wonderful.
Pound the veal slices (with a meat mallet, or, as I used, the side of a large knife) until they’re thin, then lightly salt them and lay a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf on top of each. Use a toothpick to secure these to the veal. Heat a pan over medium heat (note: Don’t use a non-stick pan! You want to make sure there are delicious crispy bits to scrape up into the sauce), add the butter, and once it’s melted add the veal and cook on both sides until nicely browned. Pour in the wine, and allow it to cook down until it’s reached a nice, saucy consistency. Buon appetito!
There’s some really good discussion going on MetaFliter over this post – most of the comments point out that I’ve completely neglected to consider regional cuisines like tex mex, cajun, BBQ, etc. Fair point – the southern US does seem to have a fairly strong food culture of its own, and although much of it has been adapted from the cuisines of immigrants that have settled there, I should have given it more consideration. But looking at the rest of the US, and certainly at Canada (remember, I’m Canadian), and I just don’t see the same level of strongly regional divisions in cuisines that I’m seeing here in Italy. In Italy, the divisions are to the point where the cuisine of Northern Italy is almost totally different from the cuisine of the south, because it is – and always has been – so solidly centred around fresh, seasonal food that’s actually produced locally.
If you look hard enough at any area in Canada or the USA, you can certainly pick out area-specific specialties that a region is well known for. You’ve got clam chowder in the Eastern US states, maple syrup in Quebec, and, I’m sure, a whole bunch of other dishes with firm roots in one small area. But in this post I’m talking about a much bigger picture – not just one or two regional dishes, but entirely regional styles of cooking.
Consider this: While I was travelling in Italy in September, I was astounded by the fact that the food in Siena, Tuscany was completely different than the food in Rome – and the two areas are only three hours apart by train. Hop over to the Cinque Terre, and again there’s a whole new array of regional dishes to consider.
So, in short, although I shouldn’t have made my statements sound so dramatic and sweeping, as if all of North America is eating homogenous mush, I think the broad points I was making in this post definitely still stand. Also, keep in mind that I’ve only just moved to Italy. I’ll be the very first to admit that I’ve only experienced a tiny bit of its culture so far, and that my perceptions are very much rose-tinted at this point. This isn’t intended to be the final say on international food culture – just the musings of someone who is pretty food-obsessed and has been struck with some interesting thoughts on the topic since moving to Rome.