Wonderful Italy is home to some of the world’s finest architecture and artistic masterpieces. It is also where the land yields the simplest and finest ingredients – and where cuisine is the hearty embodiment of a brilliantly vivacious and passionate nation, says Adele Evans
A feast of sensory delights awaits in markets such as the Campo dei Fiori, where stalls are piled high with a kaleidoscope of foods – deep purple aubergines, bright peppers, earthy oyster mushrooms…
Perhaps more so than in any other country in the world, in Italy the pleasures of the table are a culinary celebration of life itself. Although it was finally unified politically in 1870, the country is still divided into 20 distinct regions, each of them with its own unique landscapes and history that are reflected to this day in its culinary masterpieces.
Often called ‘Chianti-shire’ by British tourists, Tuscany’s fabled countryside is bordered by the Apennine mountains and the sea and is the heartland for some of the world’s very finest food. Cypress-lined roads meander lazily through vineyards, sunflower fields, orchards, silvery olive groves and meadows where prized alabaster-coloured Chianina cattle graze lazily among fragrant fields of chamomile, rosemary and chestnut trees.
Tuscany is known for its solid peasant traditions and the cuisine here is simplicity itself. Meat is smothered with local herbs and the region’s fruity extra virgin olive oil and spit roasted, or else marinated in ruby-red chianti wine and slow roasted. As self-professed Toscani mangiafagioli (that is, Tuscan bean eaters) the locals’ platters tend to be piled up high with white cannellini beans, allowing just a little space for salamis and cured meats, and locally hunted game such as cinghiale (wild boar), pheasant and hare.
While the countryside prides itself on its peasant roots, the region’s main city is famed instead for its incredibly rich cultural heritage. The beautiful and historic centre of Florence was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 and it has the greatest collection of Renaissance jewels of anywhere in the world, many of which are housed in the city’s dazzling constellation of galleries.
Outside the region’s capital, past little time-capsule villages that dot the rustic landscape, lies Pisa. Set in the Campo dei Miracoli (or ‘field of miracles’), the famous Leaning Tower is not alone in its tilt; the neighbouring Duomo and Baptistery are also both slightly out of kilter, and they are perhaps all the more beautiful for it. A stroll around here with crostini alla Toscana (toasted bread smothered with olive oil and chicken livers) or a delectable slice of zuccotto (a light Tuscan dolce of nut-filled sponge cake that oozes with chocolate and cream) is an indescribable delight.
When in Rome
In the ultimate city of la dolce vita, enjoying a gelato (ice cream) in a fountain-splashed piazza, taking in the incredible surroundings, is one of the greatest pleasures. But while Rome’s skyline is punctuated by thousands of years of extraordinary architecture, the view of your dinner plate is also a sight to behold. It may no longer contain the ‘delicacies’ of swans’ hearts and nightingales’ tongues, so beloved in the Ancient Roman banquets, but it will instead be full of just-picked glossy vegetables, including the pungent garlic and onions that grow in the sun-drenched Lazio countryside that surrounds Rome.
A feast of sensory delights awaits in markets such as the Campo dei Fiori, where stalls are piled high with a kaleidoscope of foods – deep purple aubergines, bright peppers, earthy oyster mushrooms… The shiny globe artichokes and sunny yellow courgette flowers that begin their day here might end it being fried whole in olive oil and served in all their crispy perfection by the Romans.
In every Italian region, pasta forms the mainstay of most meals. While spaghetti alla carbonara is perhaps the most famous Roman pasta dish, further south, under the somewhat dominating and potentially fiery presence of Mount Vesuvius, macaroni is the variety of pasta that is favoured in the Bay of Naples. In this exciting Italian city, the narrow streets are festooned with washing that flaps in the breeze like bunting and, everywhere you turn, your gaze will be met with superb squares and impressive buildings.
But it can be hard to take in all the outstanding museums and bustling markets when, from every street corner, your nostrils are met with the delicious aroma of pizza Neapolitana being fired in wood ovens. For this is the home of the classic pizza (paper-thin crispy dough, topped with oregano, tomato, garlic, fresh basil, anchovies and virgin olive oil), the fertile volcanic soil of Vesuvius providing the ideal growing conditions for the key ingredients.
Bounty of the sea
What Italy does so well is make the most of what is locally available, and in Venice, as you would expect from a city surrounded by water, the locals feast on a bounty of fresh seafood from the Adriatic.
Fishing traditions remain at the heart of the region here – every morning, the pescheria (fish market) hums with fishermen hauling their catches of blue-black sea salmon, plump soft-shelled crabs, sparkling silver sardines and mountains of huge, heart-shaped mussels. A signature dish here is the spicy yet sweet sarde in saor – sardines in a sweet and sour onion marinade with pine nuts.
In the late afternoons, in Piazza San Marco – or St Mark’s Square – glasses chink, lights twinkle and waiters in white glide across Europe’s finest alfresco dining room, while St Mark’s Basilica glows gold like an exotic pavilion. Once the gateway to the Orient, Venice’s former trading links have not only given the city its appearance, but also its gastronomy, lasting reminders of the Arabian influence of the past.
As well as seafood, rice is a most popular and versatile aspect of Venetian cuisine. Introduced by Arabian traders, it tends to pop up on every menu in Venice, in dishes such as risi e bisi – a moist risotto of rice and peas – or in the delicately flavoured risotto nero, prepared with cuttlefish ink to lend it a striking black colour.
Surprisingly enough, in the coastal region of the Italian Riviera, the gastronomic specialities are not especially seafood based – but then the Ligurians were traditionally great tradesmen and sailors, not fishermen. Cradled between mountains and the sea lies the city of Genoa, the birthplace of explorer Christopher Columbus and the capital of Liguria. On either side stretches the fabulous 200-mile coastline overlooked by vine-cloaked hillsides.
Although you may stumble across the excellent buridda alla Genovese (a bounteous fish stew that is filled with shrimps, mussels, squid, clams, anchovies, onions and pine nuts), the biggest culinary presence in this fabulously fragrant region comes in the form of the abundant herbs that flourish in the mild Ligurian climate.
The most frequently enjoyed of these is basil, best known as the staple ingredient of pesto (that exquisite sauce made with basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan). Try the traditional fresh version with the quintessentially Ligurian gnocchi or with trenette (ribbon-shaped pasta). Culinary perfection.
Wherever you go in Italy, its diverse culinary traditions are sure to capture your attention. And if such heavenly flavours, along with the fragrant aromas of the Italian countryside and the stunning historical sights, fail to truly enchant you then you’ll be among very few for whom Italy is not a seductress of the senses.
This feature was first published in The Portunus Club Magazine and all information was checked at the time of its original publication.
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