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Authors: Elena Kostioukovitch

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Specialists tell us that current criteria of appraisal are different from those used in ancient times. Experts today have perfected their faculties to such a point and reached such a degree of sensitivity that they can recognize the flaws in the oil produced by their parents and grandparents. At the time when these generations were involved in production, they were more concerned with quantity than with quality. People were worried about making a living and could live with a lower overall quality.

The excessive preoccupation with quality and authenticity in olive oil production is a sign of our own times. Each and every consumer aspires to have Italian olive oil from
Liguria, Tuscany, or the lake region on the table. A very rich literature on the subject tells us that Italian olive oil is not 0.5 percent but a good 1 percent polyphenols, substances that protect against cancer and heart attack. High-quality Italian oil prevents gallstones. It protects against atherosclerosis (with unsaturated fats). It helps prevent rickets, since it contains olein, palmitin, and myristostearin, as well as vitamins A and E (antioxidants).

Many objections could be raised, however, regarding the
(Italianness) of the oil consumed by the masses. There is only enough Ligurian oil for the elite: to procure some, you must be a friend of a farmer. There is only enough Tuscan oil for the elite: to get some, you must be a friend of a count.

Veronese oil from Lake Garda is not even plentiful enough for the locals. Sometimes it is sold in shops, but its authenticity depends exclusively on the reliability of the merchant.

In Umbria, local oil can be bought in small towns.

In Puglia it is easier to buy unblended local oil (nearly 40 percent of all Italian oil is produced here!). Authentic Pugliese oil, probably by virtue of its modest quality, is also sold outside of Puglia.

Italians eagerly discuss the terminological nuances that designate the various types and subtypes of olive oil. The classifications, as one might duly expect, change both geographically and historically. Distinctions used in the last century, for example, are generally inapplicable to today's reality, which imposes different expressions and categories due to changes in ingredients and production methods.

But what do we find today on the labels of olive oil in the supermarkets?

There are a few principal categories:

Virgin olive oil, obtained mechanically without preheating. It has several subspecies: extra-virgin olive oil (acidity no higher than 1 percent); virgin olive oil (acidity no higher than 2 percent), ordinary olive oil (acidity no higher than 3.3 percent), lamp-grade virgin olive oil (acidity higher than 3.3 percent).

In addition there are refined olive oil (acidity no higher than 0.5 percent) and olive oil that is a blend of refined oil and other virgin olive oil, except lamp grade (acidity no higher than 1.5 percent).

The poorer qualities include oil obtained from olive residues with the aid of a solvent (crude olive pomace oil) and oil obtained from olive residues using a refining method and a solvent (refined olive pomace oil; acidity no higher than 0.5 percent).

Legislation prescribes the norms, and regulatory bodies pursue those who violate them. But rather than considering adulterations and spurious substances, let's talk about crystalline purity.

Italian recipes and cookbooks always demand extra-virgin olive oil. It is understood that this oil goes back to the sacred Roman culinary tradition, bestows longevity and health, and protects against disasters.

Some bottles contain the written inscription “This oil may be assumed to diminish the probability of vascular pathologies.” This increases the bottle's fascination to buyers. And there is some truth in it: from many scientific studies we learn that extra-virgin olive oil falls into the category of functional food, that is, food that lowers the risk of illness, and “nutriceutical” food, or medicinal food.

One can of course suggest to those who sing the praises of “extra-virgin oil obtained directly from the olives and only through mechanical processes” and of the “oil of the first cold pressing” that for fifty years now only one pressing has been used, since current olive presses are powerful enough to immediately press everything there is to be pressed out of the olives; a second pressing simply does not exist. “Cold pressing” merely indicates that the oil is heated to a maximum of 27 degrees C. The most inferior ingredients are heated to 60 degrees C now, as oil once was.

Though we search for the words “Produced in Italy” on labels, what we find most of the time is, alas, “Bottled in Italy.” That means that the oil, coming from Morocco, from Tunisia, from Turkey, and, more and more often now, Spain, is unloaded from enormous tankers in the ports of Genoa, Imperia, and Bari, great centers of olive oil processing and bottling. Poor-quality oils also arrive in abundance in these ports: lamp-grade, pomace oil, and sometimes even the pressing obtained from discarded olive residues: the product obtained from the “dregs of the dregs” goes into air conditioner filters. The imported oil is ennobled, diluted, cut, sometimes refined. And bottled with the label “Bottled in Italy.”

Where then is the oil sung about in myths, so exalted and celebrated: the ideal, authentic, precious oil?

It lies in the collective imagination. Throughout our considerations of the typical products of sixteen out of the twenty Italian regions, we celebrate a higher reality, which also reigns in the consciousness of those who consume the “nectar of olives”: the idea of a genuine, life-giving oil, a natural lymph that has nourished a people, tied to the spiritual foundation of life. The ritual use of oil is closely bound to the religious sacraments, and olive oil and holy oil are one and the same. At dinnertime on every table in Italy, leaving aside the label that appears on the bottle, there is a bit of ceremonial liquid, a source of immortality.

Trentino Alto Adige

Goethe, arriving in these outlying regions of Italy, exulted: “From Bolzano to Trento one travels for nine miles through a country which grows ever more fertile. Everything which, higher up in the mountains, must struggle to grow, flourishes here in vigour and health, the sun is bright and hot, and one can believe again in a God.”

Nevertheless, a traveler coming to these parts from the south or west may feel more as though he is in Austria-Hungary than in Italy. Although it can be unbearably hot in Trento and Bolzano in July and August, the Trentino has the reputation of being almost polar. It is here that inhabitants of the coastal zones (Liguria, Tuscany) escape to refresh themselves on the hills and mountains in the summer, when sultriness reigns throughout the Apennine Peninsula. The cuisine of Trento and of the Alto Adige (or South Tyrol) is characterized by the slogan “Withstand the rigors of winter!” The popular culture is permeated by the dramatic struggle against cold. Here the most joyous festival is the one that marks the end of winter, when a monstrous puppet is solemnly set ablaze.

The Trentino and the South Tyrol are more distinct than alike. While the first has a more typically Italian appearance, the South Tyrol is more akin to Austria. In the Trentino, white and yellow bread are eaten; in the South Tyrol, black bread.

By Alexey Pivovarov

These two halves of the same region even differ in terms of law. While land property in the Trentino is divided among legitimate heirs with no complications, the Alto Adige adheres to the medieval norm of
, the right of primogeniture, here referred to as
maso chiuso
(literally, closed holding): plots of land cannot be subdivided, so property holdings remain vast. The government of half the region encourages the priorities of traditional agriculture and preserves this institution, a legacy of Venetian dominion. Goethe, who had attended the trial of a civil case in Venice, at the Doge's Palace, wrote on October 3, 1786:


Fideicommissums enjoy a high legal status in the Republic. Once an estate is stamped with this character, it keeps it permanently, even though, for some special reason or other, it may have been sold several centuries ago and passed through many hands. If the question of ownership is ever raised, the descendants of the original family can claim their rights and the estate must be restored to them.


Indeed, Goethe was astonished by the vitality of that ancient law, which strangely continues to be in practice even in the twenty-first century, though with a fundamental innovation: since 2002, firstborn daughters may also inherit.

The principal foods of the Trentino and South Tyrol are mostly Austrian: cabbage and potatoes; head cabbage fermented with salt, saffron, cumin, and other spices (sauerkraut); shredded pancakes in broth (
); flour dumplings (
); sausage (
); ham (
); polenta; and the most exquisite apples of the Mediterranean area, not to mention the strudel made from these apples. In addition to the Austrians, to whom the local inhabitants are linked not only by geography but also by history (for five and a half centuries, from 1363 to 1918, the Trentino and South Tyrol were under Hapsburg dominion), the region was once dominated by another elite, which controlled the local population in a somewhat different, though no less active, way than the foreign conquerors. This was the Catholic clergy: Trento was a stronghold of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, site of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent.

One of the reasons the Holy See settled upon Trento for its conference to halt the spread of Lutheranism was the population's familiarity with receiving numerous foreign guests and its ability to offer hospitality and guarantee provisions for the visitors. Trento stands at the crossroads of important trade routes. The only mountain pass leading from Italy to Austria, the Brenner Pass, is accessible from here. The city is the perfect place for planning large commercial fairs. Even today there are markets each year dedicated to the exquisite salt pork, to seedlings, and obviously to its apples.

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