From a very early age, I understood the basic principles of Italian food. That it should respect the seasons in terms of the ingredients used, that food should be sourced as locally as possible, and that ultimately the less you mess around with it all the better! I grew up celebrating the great love affair of my parents in a huge house in Tuscany filled with friends and family. Everything seemed to circulate around the activities of the dining room and kitchen. As a little girl and the youngest of a large brood, I would gravitate towards the kitchen, where my mother was often found discussing menus and recipes with various other members of the household. Over intense conversations about the quality of ingredients or the quantities required for the next lunch or dinner, the seeds of my growing passion for cooking and for food were deeply sown. And my understanding of the subtleties, which underlie something so apparently simple, was possibly the most valuable lesson of all.
When the house was first given to my parents as a wedding gift by my grandfather in the late 1940s, it was a wreck. Living among the ruins of this great, happy house were various individuals who had ended up homeless and displaced as a result of the war. The house, although bombed beyond recognition, still had a clean water well, a working fireplace, and offered a certain degree of shelter. One of those biding his time was a young man who had been a chef in a famous Milanese restaurant before the war. My parents, in a flash of brilliance, kept him on and he became much more than our cook. Beppino developed our vines, kept chickens, pigs, and rabbits for the table, established a wonderfully lush vegetable garden, several fruit trees, and rebuilt the house with the help of other local craftsmen.
Growing up with Beppino around me meant that I learned the most fundamental aspect of food preparation. He taught me the most basic principle—where the food actually comes from in the first place. Long, long before organic food became fashionable, Beppino would lecture me on the evils of pesticides, additives, and artificial fertilizers. I absorbed his words like a sponge, always secure in the absolute knowledge that his food always tasted better than anything I was ever likely to eat anywhere, and that somehow the two were linked. It still does, many years on, when I return to cook and eat with him from time to time and we reminisce, always about food we have eaten and cooked together.
His repertoire was always linked to the seasonal availability of the ingredients. As soon as the first whiff of fall was in the air, with bonfires smoldering in the dampness, he would set off on his bicycle for the nearest corn mill where the new season polenta flour would be freshly ground. Pedaling frantically behind him on my own bicycle, I would then kneel beside him and let the bright yellow flour run through my fingers as he explained to me why this would taste so much better than the polenta flour that had dried out and lost its natural moisture.
A few hours later, after much arm straining stirring, the proof would be there on the plate—a huge slab of fragrant polenta, with some amazing stew piled over and beside it. As we tucked in, Beppino would look at me gravely and explain how polenta is actually not as nutritious as I might imagine, “you’re hungry again all too soon,” he’d say “there is little or no substance to it, it doesn’t have what it takes, not really.” Much later I read about how people in northern Italy, before, during, and after the Second World War, suffered terribly from malnutrition as a result of their basic polenta diet, and I learned that the tiny stature of so many older Italians living in those areas where polenta was the only real staple was not merely coincidental. Beppino came from the Vicenza area of the Veneto. His mother, who throughout her 96 years must have eaten polenta in some form almost daily, was the tiniest, scrawniest looking woman—just like countless others of her generation.
By the time I was eight years old I had opened my first restaurant—in the sandbox in the garden of our house. I only served sand pies and various leaves and flowers, but I did it all properly, with borrowed tablecloths, china, sparkling glasses, and cutlery, presenting each and every member of the household who was kind enough to indulge me with a handwritten bill at the end! A year or so later I began to spend every lira of my pocket money on real ingredients and my parents bought me several small camping stoves, something that would be gravely frowned upon in this day and age! But finally I was able to cook for my customers and the die was cast as far as my destiny was concerned.
Much later, I made the decision to go to chef school in Rome and was fortunate enough to be taught by one of Italy’s, greatest master chefs, a man called Carnacina. Although very old at the time, he was another mine of information and taught me so much about the principles of classical Italian cuisine. It was around this time that the concept of there being no such thing as Italian food as such began to take shape for me.
To understand this principle you have to go a little way back into history. The unification of Italy took place about 150 years ago, in the 1860s. Prior to this, the country was a collection of papal states, foreign states, principalities, and dukedoms, with constant fighting and ever changing boundary lines. Since the unification, and the creation of the Italy we know and love so much now, 20 separate regions have been created. Each one of these 20 regions carries some vestige of its past, something which history has left behind in terms of the local dialect, the art and architecture, music, and so on. To my mind, it is also the food, the ingredients, and the cooking methods of each region that reflect certain aspects of the history of that area with a clarity that is impossible to ignore. It is this, added to the geography and climate, that gives each region of Italy its own culinary identity, which gives us not one but 20 different cuisines to choose from, through which it is possible, in many cases, to make a direct link to the regions’ pasts. It is out of these 20 regional cuisines that the great classic dishes of Italy are derived.
In the north, for example, there is more rain, given the mountainous terrain, than in the south. This results in their being sufficient fodder to support both dairy cattle and beef cattle—resulting in most of the best loved Italian cheeses being produced here, as well as many veal and beef recipes. To the west, the recipes are reminiscent of the region’s historical links with the southeastern corner of France, while to the far east, the influence of the Austro Hungarian Empire is still there to taste quite plainly in the choice of local ingredients which include such things as horseradish, paprika, beer, and beet, to name but a few.
All over the north, in the marshy flat plains between Lombardy and Piedmont and in the Po delta are the paddy fields. They have expanded since the time of my ancestor Francesco Sforza Duke of Milan, who was responsible for overseeing the intricate drainage system that exists on the plain, using the Alpine snow melt to create the right conditions for growing this valuable crop. This is the rice used to make Italy’s great rice dish— risotto, which along with cornmeal to make polenta, form the starch basis of the traditional diet of the northern areas, with butter or lard being the choice for cooking fats. Olive trees cannot survive the cold northern winters in order to yield a crop for olive oil.
Traveling further south into the central area of Italy, comprising, by and large, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, the Marche, Lazio, and Umbria, fresh pasta made with eggs and flour replaces the starch staples of risotto and polenta, alongside legumes, thick soups, and roasted meats.
Still further south, the now famously healthy Mediterranean diet is standard fare. Fresh pasta is replaced by dried durum wheat pasta and bread as staple starches, and then olive oil, olives, tomatoes, salted anchovies, capers, dried chiles, garlic bread, very little meat or animal fats to speak of, but fish and seafood for protein and luscious vegetables for flavor and color.
Within these three basic areas of Italy, each and every region has its own culinary identity, recipes, and culinary traditions that link the history of the region to the food on the plate. They say: dimmi cosa mangi e ti diro di dove sei—tell me what you eat and I’ll know where you’re from. The food of Italy is so varied that you can eat a selection of local dishes in one part of this amazing, small country, jump on a train and be in a different part of the country within hours, eating a completely different range of dishes. No other country can boast such differences and it is a very clear testament of how rich the gastronomy of Italy really is.
Naturally, the unstoppable march of progress means that traveling and the exchange of everything, including traditional regional recipes, within Italy is getting ever quicker and easier. Be it by autostrada, the railway system, or via an internal flight. The boundaries between one region and another are becoming more blurred all the time, and it becomes more difficult, with the passage of time, to distinguish one region’s traditional culinary customs from another. Yet the differences are all still very clearly visible. This enormous collection of regional recipes, for good or for bad, must be considered to be classical Italian cuisine.
To find the purest Italian regional cuisine, one must look to Tuscany. This region is the only one in the whole of the country that has never been invaded or ruled by a foreign power, and as such it is generally considered to be the most authentically Italian region of the country.
The Italian spoken in Tuscany is also considered to be the purest Italian language. Tuscany’s culinary repertoire contains many of the most important great classic dishes, based mostly around thick, rich bean soups, plenty of roasted meats, and the all pervading scent of rosemary, not forgetting the rich sweetmeats and pastries of cities such as Siena.
I admit to being a bit of a purist when it comes to Italian food. I believe that it is important to uphold the culinary customs and traditions of this beautiful country, lest we should lose an essential part of the country’s cultural background. While I am the first to applaud the ever-changing evolution of food and understand that it is important to experiment with flavors and textures, I still firmly uphold the principles of traditional Italian dishes. How could it be any other way for me, after the training I received at such a very early age? So here is this collection of recipes containing the best of Italy’s classic recipes, all of which have lasted the test of time and are just as wonderful today as they were when they were first created. But eating is believing!
© 2008 Valentina Harris. All rights reserved.