Mr M and I enjoyed a pleasant week in Northern Italy earlier this month. It had been a while since we last visited the country but as with previous trips, it was an absolute delight. The days were filled with strolling leisurely around Milan, Verona and Vicenza; soaking up the architecture, parks and quiet stillness of early churches; marvelling at the abundance of balcony gardens; and, of course, enjoying the local food.
If I were I more of a photographer or food blogger, I would have a string of photos of delicious meals. Mr M and I, however, both enjoy the tantalising smell and flavour of food so much that I rarely remember to get my camera out till after we’ve eaten half of the tasty dish before us and tried each other’s course too. So, instead of returning from my holiday with lots of pictures, I have a head full of insights and inspiration to explore and develop at home.
Local, quality produce
There is no such thing as Italian food; rather Italy has many regional cuisines, all subtly different depending on the local produce. With Britain’s highly centralised food distribution system it is easy to forget about the vast variety of food we have on this island. I am fortunate to have good access to independent food shops so I can and should explore and celebrate subtle local variety more, from Kentish fruit and vegetables to Romney Marsh lamb and Whitstable seafood.
Italian cooking is all about the produce. Most dishes we enjoyed consisted of no more than three or four ingredients. Ragus were simple: protein or vegetables, oil, wine and herbs. Pasta wasn’t drenched in creamy sauces or gloopy tomato pulp. And plates weren’t decorated with a jus of this or a mousse of that. Instead, each plate involved intense, clean flavours and enjoyable textures: tomatoes that still smelt of the vine; seafood that had the gritty taste of salt water; luscious moist pasta ribbons… Quality ingredients and simple dishes will continue to rule my cooking at home!
Portions and courses
Italian food culture may be known for its many courses but portion control is also a key feature. Antipasti, starters and secondi all come in small but delicious packages. Both starters and mains are served in modestly sized plates or bowls. A pasta starter may be half a dozen tortellini and a main course typically consists of a mere two to three ounces of minced meat or fish served with vegetables, pasta or potatoes. Such modest servings of protein are not only in line with health guidelines but are also more environmentally sustainable.
Most days Mr M and I enjoyed a starter and a main but the overall meal was hardly gluttonous. In Italy portion sizes are not only smaller; a meal also seem to be deconstructed into courses. Whilst in Britain we traditionally serve “meat, potato and two veg”, the same elements are spread over two courses in Italy. There are sound physiological reasons for this approach. Multiple courses slow the speed of eating, which allows satiety signals to reach the brain. And eating vegetables with a little starch first gives the stomach some fibre to work on, which adds to the sense of being replete. Although Mr M and I are already big fans of vegetables, I am experimenting with deconstructed meals at home, not least of all because vegetables deserved to be celebrated as the main feature of a course rather than an afterthought!
And not forgetting the mushrooms
An autumn trip to Italy invariably means mushrooms! Italians, like the French and many East Europeans, have a great respect for mushrooms and enjoy them in greater variety than we do in Britain. In Italy mushrooms are not bland wizen white buttons or the occasional portabella. They come in many shapes and sizes. They are also procured fresh, often picked by a relative who is “in the know”, and are so intense that you can still smell the woodland floor.
One of my projects for the coming year is to explore mushrooms more in my own cooking. I plan to grow some of my own and even find a local mushroom foraging workshop so I can develop my first-hand knowledge of fresh local produce!
If this blog post whets your appetite for pasta, why not try your hand at making your own with this simple recipe.