November 14 to November 20 is the seventh annual Week of Italian Cuisine in the World. This year’s theme is Conviviality, Sustainability, and Innovation: The Ingredients of Italian Cuisine for the Health of Individuals and the Protection of the Planet.
Numerous events will take place throughout the world, including conferences, presentations, food tastings, and language classes. But what do we mean by Italian cuisine? Is there such a thing? We’re hitting some slippery territory here; keep reading to find out more!
Italy, Italians, and Italian food throughout history and geography
Italy has a long history, but is a relatively young nation, officially born in 1861. Before that date, the Italian territory was split into many states. Italians didn’t even speak the same language, as dialects were spoken in daily life.
No wonder, then, that Italians did not have the same food, either in terms of ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques, or in terms of food-related traditions and habits.
In addition to politics, linguistics, and history, Italy—despite being a very small country—has a geographically diverse territory.
There are mountains, hills, plains, and 4,900 miles of coastline; the climate can subsequently be very different from north to south and from region to region. This translates into different farming, crops, and again, different practices related to food.
How Italians (used to) eat: common traits, relevant differences
For all the reasons above, the day-to-day Italian cuisine has always been—and to a certain extent still is—local more than national. There have always been, of course, some common traits: Italian recipes tend to be simple, with few ingredients.
Rather than relying on the complexity and precision of their execution and presentation, most Italian dishes rely on the quality and freshness of their ingredients.
But until recently, those ingredients were the ones people harvested, fished, or hunted locally. Even one of the most iconic Italian staples, olive oil, is not as universal as you might think; in Northern Italy, its daily use is fairly recent.
Butter has historically been, and sometimes still is, favored over oil. On the other hand, the use of butter in Southern Italy is still uncommon. Preserving butter in warmer temperatures used to be an issue, so olive oil was used instead.
The whole idea of cucina italiana—paired with dieta mediterranea—is very new. It all started in the 1950s, with improved economic conditions and with the essential contribution of chef Gualtiero Marchesi, unanimously considered the founder of Italian cuisine as we mean it today.
Italians now much more similarly to each other than they did 100 years ago, and the same ingredients may now be found all over the country.
For your own safety, however, you shouldn’t tell someone from Puglia that the burrata you eat in Milano is the same you would have in Lecce!—and endless examples of similar local products and/or recipes might be inserted here.
The real essence of the Italian cuisine
The Mediterranean diet is nowadays the common ground of many Italian dishes, with its prevalence of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and cereals, combined with lots of fish and a moderate use of dairy products and meat.
You won’t probably be served polenta in a restaurant in Sicily, or caponata in Valle d’Aosta, but everywhere in Italy you’ll easily find all the ingredients to make them at home. And big cities overflow with restaurants offering specialties from different areas of the country.
The whole concept of cucina italiana is linked, however, more to culture than to the food itself. It’s the idea of homemade food, of eating at home, of reserving some space and time to have food, of loving food.
Even more importantly, for people like the Italians, who at times struggle to find a sense of community, food —and everything related to preparing and having food— strongly defines the national identity.
To quote chef Alessandro Borghese, siamo gli unici capaci di chiedere cosa ci sia per cena durante il pranzo—we are the only ones who ask what’s for dinner while having lunch.
The future (of Italian cuisine)
Where is Italian cuisine going? The last years have been all about rediscovering and re-evaluating local specialties that were forgotten or “watered down” in the process of becoming more popular all over the country.
This trend has some cultural basis, but is also related to the environment, and to the concepts of buying local, loving and respecting the territory, and reducing waste.
And this brings us to this year’s theme of the Week of Italian Cuisine in the World—sustainability in particular. To be sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly, all without losing sight of love and conviviality—isn’t this our overall challenge as humanity, after all? Let’s bring this on—and don’t forget to eat some pasta along the way.
By Claudia Quesito
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