From the menus of a few of the places visited this year: sole flan with buffalo mozzarella and wild asparagus soup; breast of guinea fowl stuffed with bacon and broccoli in red wine and black truffle sauce; soft goat’s cheese wrapped in Colonnata lard with bilberry salsa; marinated fig-fed chicken fillets with quails’ eggs, fresh figs, arugola and star anise. Very creative dishes, without a doubt, but will they make our taste buds soar as well?
That remains to be seen. Let’s be brief, and take the last two dishes as an example.
A good critic arrives armed with sensory tools (sight, smell, taste) and knife and fork, and gets tasting. Sight serves the purpose of ascertaining that the two lines required to describe the dish on the menu correspond to two thin slices of chicken, with a quail’s egg rolling dismally on one side, arugola crumpled from the marinade and pieces of fig which would be better off in the company of some prosciutto crudo, not to mention the star anise with hard, hostile peel, on the edge of the plate. The sense of smell appreciates the odor of vinegar of the marinade, that overpowers the arugola, figs, and egg and gives the star anise a run for its money. The sense of taste confirms this, wondering what the difference is between a fig-fed chicken and one from the supermarket, which it closely resembles (pale and thin with an undefined flavor). Moving on to the soft goat’s cheese with etc etc: the cheese itself is good. The Colonnata lard – if that is indeed what it is – is also good. The bilberry salsa is strongly reminiscent of a handful of frozen berries, liquidized, which we often use to decorate ice-cream or when we need to throw together a dessert for unexpected guests. All these elements put together – cheese, lard, bilberries – produce an organoleptic disaster.
A good writer, meanwhile, should be armed with a dictionary, regional recipes, the meretricious Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gastronomia (thanks to Marco Guarnaschelli Gotti) and sift through all the Slow Food publications regarding the Ark, presidia and much more. Pollo ficato; Fig-fed chicken. Discarding the meaning shown in two ordinary Italian dictionaries (“ficato” – a sweet bread made from flour mixed with figs), the editor resorts to personal knowledge of gastronomical matters: ficatum, for the ancient Romans, was the liver of geese fed on figs, an ancestor of foie gras. The good critic theorizes that the chicken (of the doleful marinated fillet) was fed on figs. But the good writer is assailed by reasonable doubts.
Now: the editor of this guide (who has carried out the task for twelve years) has rarely expatiated from this or any other position the details of any food combination and its organoleptic result. Others do so, with the greatest of satisfaction. The reason we have gone into detail this time is to explain in concrete and not simply programmatic terms (naturally through juxtaposition) what is meant by simple, clean, plausible, local cuisine. The type of cuisine this guide has tried to make known, or have rediscovered. Do you know where we found the dishes mentioned above (and many others of the same kind)? In places hoping to join the great family of Osterie d’Italia. We are not shocked, of course, nor do we consider ourselves to be integralists, nostalgic or misoneists. So much so that we try to point out types of cuisine that are constantly new, we acknowledge the owners of osterie that have not become fossilized, but strive to improve their quality and service. But please: new inventions, fancy pairings, “creations” – leave them to those who do them well, and avoid bad taste or even ridicule.
Here at Slow Food we have repeated ad nauseam: we are nostalgic for “grandma’s home cooking”, but we are also well aware that only blinkered reactionaries imagine they can hold on to customs and habits forever. This applies to cooking as well as music, language, clothing; what we appreciate is the renewal of traditions, which begins with a known and consolidated repertoire and skillfully updates it without distorting it: through different cooking methods, the addition or removal of an ingredient, or care over a new style of presentation. What frightens us is indiscriminate (and more or less conscious) kowtowing to fashions and trends. These may be the legendary destructured or crossover cuisine, the cult of enological and gastronomical status symbols, the multiplication of menus (for cigars, mineral water, coffees, oils, bread, liqueurs), the use of pretentious and absurd language, fashions, ephemeral phenomena by definition – they will never be reconciled with a model of cuisine that we would like to see: solid and in touch with its roots. Following fashions and trends is indicative of provincialism and a lack of education, short memory and scanty awareness of our own history; an inferiority complex that prevents us from recognizing the cultural value of our popular gastronomical heritage.
Our research enables us to clearly decipher the outlines of a “hard core” of simple, genuine osterie, unaffectedly linked to local cuisine. This is why we continue to maintain that the work we have carried out for over ten years has meaning and we hope that it will also serve as a stimulus to keep our extensive “Italian food and drink” heritage alive.
The growing success of Osterie d’Italia and the countless encouraging messages we receive every day from readers and users, are tangible evidence of the importance and (why not?) affection for this valuable guide which we work to provide in an increasingly rich and reliable form.
Paola Gho is the editor of Osterie d’Italia
Translated by Ailsa Wood