An Italian Muse.
Over the last few days my ongoing obsession with authentic Italian food has been stoked by working on an ultimate spelt pizza guide, a series of recipe tests that have furnished my table with some of the nicest pizzas I’ve ever had, which although sounding incredibly smug and arrogant, is true. Soon I will share the delights of these creations with you, so that you can partake in these discs of passionate glory.
But there’s been one significant stumbling block along the way to getting these pieces written up, which is the apoplectic passion which my mind whisks itself into once I start talking about authentic Italian food. It practically numbs my ability to write a careful and considered blog post, instead wanting to decry huge swathes of Italian food as being heretic imitations of true Italian cuisine. As I write this, I’m 2000 words astray of what I sat down to originally start writing about.
Authentic Italian Food, English Man.
Which leaves me standing in what superficially seems like an awkward corner, because I’m not Italian, I’ve not spent any significant amount of time in Italy, and am not trained in Italian cooking. My suburban upbringing merely led me to encounter largely average Italian food and even when I moved to central London, a good honest Italian restaurant was hard to come by. I didn’t have any Italian friends who schooled me in authentic Italian food nor have I decided to become the foremost reader of Italian culinary literature. On paper, I have no standing as a vocal proponent of Italian food.
Which, confusingly, I think is absolutely fine. Because my understanding of Italian cuisine is exactly thus. Authentic Italian food is about feeling and about passion, not about who knows the most facts. Luckily, I know that I feel very passionately about making sure Italian food is represented authentically, so I qualify quite easily on that front. There’s a large degree of simplicity involved, or if not simplicity, elegance, the kind of elegance whereby a single, small, beautifully handcrafted piece of jewellery will always outshine a barrage of tat hanging from every outcropping of the bearer.
I don’t know where these opinions have come from, perhaps from prodding a mass of soggy garlic mushrooms around a bowl thinking “this really can’t be right” to the moment when I realised that it’s better to be able to do one Italian dish fantastically well and authentically as the Italian forebears would have deemed than to be able to run off multiple piles of soggy quasi-Italian mediocrity. It’s like pizza. Pizza is misunderstood. Although I’ll wager that if you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that pizza should be thin, crisp and cooked in a flash with relatively few toppings. The bready, thick bases slathered with herb and spice laden tomato sauce topped with mountains of mixed toppings are not created in the image of Italian pizza.
Lost in Translation.
At some point in our recent history (relatively speaking), the translation of Italian food into English was a bit patchy. Perhaps this was a product of the need to tame any newly introduced foreign foods, so that us primitives wouldn’t be too shocked by the outrageous flavours and passions paraded before us. In recent years, I noticed this trend in Thai food, having visited Thailand a few times over the last 18 years, I am well acquainted with the incredibly outspoken flavours of the Thai culinary world. But I’ve been to some shockingly beige Thai restaurants back in the UK, who serve food that’s a pale pastiche of what I remember from half way around the world. I can only presume the owners felt the need to turn the volume down slightly to adjust to the local, unaccustomed palate. Sadly, that’s the same as a drag queen coming on stage wearing a slacks and a cardigan, a wholly pointless exercise which defeats it’s original purpose.
Another hypothesis which I might pose is that we lacked the ingredients. Really good authentic Italian food relies on really good ingredients, and not necessarily lots of them. How can you have a tomato salad that’s utterly amazing unless you have utterly amazing tomatoes to start with? Posed with this kind of conundrum, you might be forgiven for propping up the dish with some non-typical ingredients, dried herbs and spices to mask the fact your tomatoes are merely a source of water, rather than flavour. In very recent times we have been granted access to all sorts of ingredients of high standards which facilitate the consumption of really good quality Italian food, because you can buy your mozzarella di bufala in Lidl, and I even had a local greengrocers that was not only open 24 hours a day, but also sold a large range of heritage tomatoes. If I ever open a food photography studio, I need to do it next door to that greengrocers.
Go Fourth and Multiply
So now we have the materials, we’ve always had the tools, we just need to polish the techniques, or not even the techniques, but the perception and the passion. It’s actually quite easy to tell what is a good Italian recipe, because it’s full of simplistic energy, which lets all of the ingredients show their flavours. If you are searching for Italian recipes and think “is that all?” when reading the ingredient list compared to another which is crammed full of dried herbs and garlic pastes, then opt for the simple one and buy the best quality ingredients you can. You’ll probably be amazed.
Because the one thing which I never say to myself when making Italian food is “that’ll do”. If “that’ll do” is as good as it gets, then it might as well go in the bin. I may not be fluent in Italian, but I can speak in superlatives, and they’re the only language that should accompany authentic Italian food.
PS. I’d love to hear from any Italians about this. I hope I’m not doing your national cuisine wrong, but I feel strongly about the way your food is portrayed sometimes.