Italian cuisine is one hell of a beaten up cuisine, distorted, both in Italy and abroad (not just in the US, of course), for the sake of meeting foreign consumers’ tastes and expectations. Distortions are in place everywhere –even the best food blogger or critique could use names or ingredients improperly while describing an Italian dish. Tourists who come to Italy rarely get the real taste of the place, because too many times they take a touristy restaurant for a traditional one. Once back, they visit Italian restaurants, eat spaghetti bolognese and linguini Alfredo served with garlic bread and are happy with that (cheering “Oh, I love Italian food!). Us, Italians, play a crucial, negative role in this process –offering commodity food and selling it for traditional for the sake of business. Not good.
Together with a group of friends, we started to discuss this feeling of uneasiness in front of the continuous series of distortions and misconceptions about Italian food. We wanted to express our opposition and build something constructive at the same time, in order to spread the word about Italian food culture, recipes, traditions. Italian Table Talk started just like that –with an exchange of emails between fellow food bloggers, Italian or simply in love with authentic Italian food. We worked on this project with in mind the idea of communicating Italian food outside of Italy, sharing stories and recipes in a coral yet personal way. Every month, we will pick a topic and write about it from our own, unique point of view, sharing our different experiences and knowledge. In this way, we hope to give more of an idea of the complexity and beauty of Italian food.
Who are the people behind Italian Table Talk? A group of friends with a common passion for cooking and Italian food. We met for the first time at a photography workshop in Tuscany last fall, and we felt a connection ever since. Giulia, Tuscan-based and raised, has a deep passion for all things English (including Jamie Oliver). She enchants her readers with heart-felt writing on family and local traditions, mouth-watering recipes and stunning pictures of food and landscapes from her Tuscan cuisine. Jasmine lives and cooks in Milan. She writes charming stories about Jewish Italian cuisine, festivities, traditions and recipes. Her blog is full of bright vegetarian dishes and delightful sweets, from traditional Jewish to modern American. Emiko, lives in Melbourne but has left her heart in Tuscany. She has been named Renaissance Woman for a reason: her philological passion for old Italian recipes, all-things Artusi, and local cuisines comes out of each and every post she writes, digging into folklore and ancient traditions as her readers dig into her beautifully shot food. Finally, there is yours truly, who will possibly bring a few anecdotes from my Venetian family as well as the international perspective of an Italian expat with a healthy obsession for local foods and cultures.
As a first topic, we chose to start from the basics talking about bread. As a matter of facts, few things represent the diversity and complexity of the different Italian cuisines better than bread, being the staple food of most Italians all over the Centuries. Every region, every town has dozens and dozens of types and shapes, all made with different flours and rising methods, and all giving dramatically different results. Veneto, my region of origin, has always had a complex relationship with bread. Until modern times (after World War II), white wheat flour has always been considered a luxury good, so much so that the social hierarchy of the region could be divided into who had no white flour at all, who had some, and who had it all –aka the rich landlords. In fact, the staple in the daily diet wasn’t wheat, but corn flour or polenta. Polenta was the food of the poor as well as of the rich. The difference was that the poor had just that, the rich had meat to go with it. Veneto was indeed a poor region until recently, and the majority of the population was working as peasants in the fields, having little food to share among many people, suffering often from malnutrition diseases due to lack of minerals or proteins (such as pellagra).
My dad’s and mum’s family were among the fairly lucky ones. My grandparents had always had the luck to work for big landlords who were giving them work and food. The base of their daily diet was also polenta, but they were eating a fair amount of bean soups –both in summer and winter– dried figs, apples, persimmons and some eggs. Besides that, they had the chance to take part to the yearly harvest of the wheat fields and take home 1/3 of the yield, as regulated by law during fascism. They were then taking the wheat to the local mill to turn it into flour, and from that into bread. Soft white bread was sometimes made at home in the kitchen ovens. However, the most common way to use white flour was taking it to the village bakery and turning it into something that would last longer, without getting hard or worse, moldy.
The most traditional bread you can find all over Veneto, in different yet similar forms, is panbiscotto. Panbiscotto is a dried, crunchy bread that people were used to make at local bakeries every two-three weeks, and take home to eat for breakfast, with milk and sugar, and for dinner with soup. On rare occasions, it was eaten with home-made pork salumi, which is the way you’ll still find it served now if you visit the region. Nowadays, panbiscotto is largely available in supermarkets and is mainly made at an industrial level. However, you still find artisan bakeries that make it the old way. Although soft white bread has largely substituted panbiscotto in the daily diet of many Venetians, the latter is still (surprisingly) successful and made its way to modern tables. I remember, as a kid, liking panbiscotto much more than soft bread, which I was finding flavorless and not so interesting. Even now, whenever I go back to my home town, I find myself snacking on a piece. Its crunchiness and uncomplicated flavor is deeply comforting.
I have no recipe to share with you to make panbiscotto at home. My grandma doesn’t remember very well how to make it anymore –let’s forgive her, she’s 92! Plus, it really needs to be made in a wood fire oven to taste good. Instead, I would like to share a good way to eat it –a favorite of mine since childhood. Believe it or not, this is what people in my family were having for breakfast before going to work or to school. At times, whenever my mum feels lazy, she has it for dinner, while my grandpa still has it every night as a meal. Whenever I visit him, this is what I have for dinner, too. This dish, called supe de cafelate (caffelatte soup) in Venetian dialect, doesn’t really have a recipe –it has no rules, measurements and specific order of ingredients. Rather, it has a soul –it is true comfort food. It also makes for a nourishing and filling breakfast or for something to eat when you have no wish to cook and you are on your own, with a good book or a movie –kind of like breakfast for dinner. It is truly delicious, sweet and unfussy. It brings back a series of memories that I enjoy nursing, one bite after the other.