I stood in the laboratorio of Scaturchio in one of those serpentine alleys that run off Spaccanapoli. I was watching a man painting liquid strutto – pig fat – onto a sheet of pastry thinner than the paper this article is printed on. Having finished greasing the pastry with pig fat, he rolled it up into a tight scroll and left it to one side. He took another scroll that he had made earlier, and proceeded to cut a small section off one end.
Working with extraordinary dexterity and speed, he flattened it out with the heal of his hand, rolled it quickly, plopped a spoonful of sweet ricotta with candied fruit in the middle, folded it over on itself, sealed the edges and popped it on a baking tray. In a few minutes the tray would be covered with more of these paste and be ready for the computer-controlled oven to be baked into sfogliatelle, those scrunchy-crunchy, sweetly squidgy, divinely indulgent staples of Neapolitan café life.
As I watched this glorious celebration of pig fat and pastry, sheep’s cheese and sugar, I wondered what those doctors, dieticians, food writers and chefs in Britain who extolled the virtues of the ‘Mediterranean diet’ and the healthy qualities of Italian cooking generally would make of it all. What place sfogliatelle or any of those other tempting pastries in which pig fat was such an important component, or so many other staples of the true Italian table – spleen, liver, sweetbreads, kidneys, tripe, lardo, ciccioli – had among the dishes of grilled meat, fish, vegetables swaddled in waves of extra-virgin olive oil and/or balsamic vinegar that for many British constitute ‘Italian’ cooking.
But then we have always had a very queer view of Italian food. Historically, there have been quite understandable reasons for this. The Italian restaurateurs who helped turn Britain to become a nation of restaurateurs must bear a great responsibility for this. It was they who colonised the high streets of the country and grew, well, prosperous if not rich, by providing generic ‘Italian’ food. In much the same way that Indian and Chinese cooks did, rather than represent the dizzying variety of Italian regional cooking, they developed a kind of hodge-podge of universal dishes that kept in line with the none too sophisticated expectations of the British, who liked their meat, vegetables and sauces all on the plate at the same time. (This is still largely true, by the way).
The appreciation that there isn’t such as thing as Italian food, but the cooking of Emilia-Romagna, of Bologna, of Colorno, of this valley, of this village and, sometimes, of this house, has only come about quite recently, and as a result of Britons coming across a different world of food on their holidays rather than of what they have learned from informed and intelligent articles in magazines and newspapers. You might have thought that the coming of travel, information, media coverage and, above all, television would have led to a much greater level of curiosity and understanding. It seems very odd, but the contrary seems to be the case. So much of what is written about Italy and Italian food lazily explores the same territory and perpetuates the same lazy myths.
Television, which should be the ideal medium for presenting a true image of Italian food, seems to be incapable of doing so. Part of this is the result of British television’s own obsession with certain personalities, who are released to explore various foreign cooking cultures, irrespective of whether a) they have any knowledge of the country, b) they have any knowledge of its food, or c) they speak the language. The recent Jamie Oliver series was the latest, and, dire though it was, by no means the worst. I still remember Floyd in Italy with a shudder, a series in which there was a great deal too much of pseudo-celebrity chef Keith Floyd
(at his most casual and bombastic), and not nearly enough of Italy.
These problems are compounded by the way in which television is organised. Each series will have had a battery of researchers flogging Google to a frenzy, without any experience, knowledge or critical equipment to sort out rubbish from reality. Their work will be handed on to the director, who will make a whole series of decisions based on what works in televisual terms (ie, pretty, scenic, eye-catching is prized above reality, truth or accuracy). And this will all be rendered down into six or eight 30-minute programmes. So you can see how the dynamic of the medium militates against a reasonable, accurate exploration of Italian food.
The final part of this sad process is the part that audience plays. For the British, food is still a form of escapism, and nothing should be allowed to interfere with the mythology that has become so deeply ingrained in the national psyche. It is no surprise that the one form of regional cooking that has become firmly implanted in the British consciousness is that of Tuscany, possibly the most limited and boring in the whole of the peninsula.
But, visually, Tuscany fits perfectly into the British vision of how Italy should be – perfect honey-gold farmhouses tucked away off dusty, winding roads lined by cypresses, picturesque villages garlanding pleasantly rounded hills, olive groves and vineyards, with the occasional Renaissance piazza and palazzo to lend exquisite beauty to town centres. And with this comes the approachable Tuscan dishes of beans, sausages, roasted meats and hearty vegetable soups that sit so easily with the Britons’ love of their own beans, sausages, roasted meats and hearty vegetable soups.
It is an image in which the realities of Italian food production — whether it be the toil necessary to make artisan salamis, breads, cheeses, olive oils, or any of the other props of the British metropolitan vision of Italian cooking, or the agricultural practices on which they depend — and the cultural, social and historical processes behind it have no place. The dazzling range of Piedmontese cooking, for example, of the fiercer challenges of Calabrian dishes fizzing with chilli are far too complex, too varied, too taxing to be encompassed by a public fed on a myth.
Quite rightly, Italians get irritated about the way their food is portrayed overseas, on television and in the press. I don’t think that Britain is alone in its ignorance. My experiences of eating Italian food in Germany, France and the USA show many of the same misleading simplifications. However, Italians are not above perpetuating myths of their own. A new book about the history of Italian food (Delizia, Sceptre) by John Dickie, reader in Italian Studies at University College London, challenges almost everything I have thought to be true about Italian food, having been assured it was so by Italians. We all have a lot to learn.
Matthew Fort is a British journalist, writer and broadcaster.
First published in the magazine Slowfood no. 29.