Saturday, November 08, 2003

Digging into another bowl of pasta con pesto this afternoon I realised that I was desperate for a curry.

I’ve politely probed the lack of culinary variety in Italy with a few locals but to no avail; in fact, they deny there is such a thing: “But Italian food is so diverse” they say. No it’s not: however well it’s done there are only a finite number of ways you can cook tomatoes, garlic and pasta.

Sorry, that last remark was rather facetious. (I’m trying very hard here not to use the obvious follow-up line: something along the lines of “Well, they use chillies as well”.) But the sentiment is true: no matter what the locals say, Italian food isn’t diverse, not when compared to the British diet. Ok: invariably it’s cooked exceedingly well here and all too frequently it isn’t at home, but stereotypes are never 100% true and, more pointedly, there’s real variety in Britain: tikka masala, sushi, fish ‘n’ chips and fajitas represent far more diversity than lasagna, pizza and pasta.

Ok: here the Italian aficianados will butt in and say “Ah, you know nothing!” (pronounced with a generous sprinkling of vowels) and point out that there’s so much more to Italian food than the exported cliches. Well, yeah, that’s true – there are regional specialities that don’t involve any of the above – but that’s like saying there’s variety in Indian food: of course there is, but diversity isn’t a list of dishes, it’s about entirely different styles of cooking. For every spada a ghiotta (A Sicilian dish - swordfish with pine nuts, sultanas, capers and green olives) there’s a new Chinese dish to be savoured, an African peasant food to be discovered and a Spanish tapa to be experienced.

I’ve been truly surprised at the paucity of culinary alternatives available. Yes, small tratorrias lovingly preparing local dishes are as common – and as essential – as the British pub, but outside of Italian food I’ve only seen a couple of Chinese restaurants (and the Italians are positively sneering about Chinese food) and nothing else. Really: that’s no exaggaration.

It’s also worth noting that imported food is exceedinly expensive. Whilst rocket and other local produce is almost given away, bananas cost much more than they do back home and cereals are positively extortianate (imported presumably because the Italians aren’t big on anything more than industrial-strength cappucinos for breakfast). I guess this is because of import taxes or local subsidies. Whatever: it makes cooking anything really different prohibitively expensive. In fact, there plenty of things we take for granted back home – spices, vegetarian substitutes and donuts, to pick the first three that spring to mind – that aren’t even available except in the very large out-of-town supermarkets. And certainly not in Billa. (Christ, I hate the place; they’ve now blocked off the first turning after the vegetables – the one that leads straight to the check-outs – so you have to go all the way to the other end of the aisle to get anywhere. This makes the “Oh-fuck-I’ve-forgotten-to-price-my-vegetables-again” moment even worse, as you now have a long walk to contend with in addition to the usual embarrassment. And they’ve blocked it off with tacky sodding Christmas presents.)

The few books I read about Italy and the Italians before I came out here (notably The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones – which I highly recommend – and Italian Neighbours by Tim Parks) left me, amongst other things, with an impression of the Italians as insular people with an almost fierce local pride. A dual-national English/Italian friend in the UK agreed with this; she thinks the Italians insecure people unsure about their place in the world. Although I know the realities I’m still surprised – and, I’ll admit, confused – by every 27-year-old who tells me they still live with their parents and that they’ve never left Italy or even, in some cases, their own region; “Why would I want to?” they ask.

It’s easy when you’re there to be critical of England (or, more generally, of your home, wherever that may be). And flicking through a copy of the Daily Hell on the train will always exacabate that and make one angry at the little-Englishness of it all. But being here is helping me realise how open to other cultures and habits the place is – despite the bland Weatherspoons-drinking, Tory-voting, keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ Surrey residents. Not, for me, open enough, but, it seems, at least on culinary matters, a damn site more than here. I don’t know enough to comment on the Italian version of the small-minded stereotype I’ve painted above but the orthodox attitude here seems, relatively speaking, firmly insular. (Please, nobody try and read between the lines and think I’m suggesting that all Italians fit said stereotype – I’m not and if you did read that then you’re jumping to conclusions; go back and read it again). Whilst I don’t want nor am able to change my instincts, maybe I should reassess what I think is easy and natural for us humans on matters of cross-cultural exploration.

Ok: I’ve made a bit of a leap from a (rightly) proud food culture to a more general attitude to alien cultures and, it’s true, in non-culinary matters that’s driven at least as much by my own reading as my own experience: there’s much more for me to see. But food-wise? Please guys: look elsewhere, just for a change. And somebody cook me a curry.

Comments: Post a Comment