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COOKING HOLIDAYS IN ITALY? LA DOLCE VITA FOOD & COOKING ARTICLE

For over twenty years I have struggled through the erratic and infuriating muddle that is daily life in Rome, cursing the traffic, the banks, the post office and the inertia of the state system. Yet I love living in Italy. When sanity seems threatened by an overwhelming sense of frustration, the day is saved by the good humour, tolerance and gentle irony of the Italians themselves.

They survive and even flourish in the midst of this confusion, and their passion for life remains undiminished. Romans love good food and spend a large part of their time shopping, cooking, eating and talking about the pleasures of the table.

In England, I love to whizz round the supermarket; in Rome, shopping becomes a sacred ritual, satisfying, time consuming, involving the entire congregation. At the local street market, shoppers are absorbed into its colourful life. Although everyone is busy, they enjoy their work, and take the same pleasure in selling a perfect bunch of rughetta, rocket, as a fine sea bass. Human warmth is palpable. There is always time to joke, commiserate or discuss the best way to prepare a particular vegetable or fish.

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The choice is bewildering and there is something to suit every pocket. One stall sells exotic fruit, fine mushrooms and out of season vegetables. Another sells only one homely crop, but freshly picked, carefully washed and lovingly arranged. Fish sellers display their glistening catch with panache, and exhort passers by to buy with the fervour of evangelist preachers. Herb ladies make up fragrant bunches of odori to leaven the most humdrum cooking.

I like to walk around the market getting an overall impression of what is available, then make my selections from the various stalls. This causes no bad feeling since most of the stall holders are related or family friends, and happily borrow goods and change from each other.

I shop in the market for vegetables, fruit and fish because of the wide choice, but for meat I prefer to go to the butcher, who has known me for years and become used to my idiosyncrasies. There is no great tradition of skilled butchery in Roman cooking and the average housewife regards any prepared cut with deep suspicion.

Most butchers keep their meat in large hunks, cutting thin slices to order; even hamburgers are made on demand. Meat to roast is deprived of all its fat and encased in an elastic net to keep it in shape. The first time I tried to buy a large piece of sirloin to roast, the other shoppers regarded my 'fatty' choice with contemptuous disbelief and the butcher suffered an identity crisis as I tried to convince him to take the plunge and cut a single piece weighing about two kilos. Years later, having swapped recipes, cooking lore and family anecdotes, we are great friends and he assures his customers that it takes an English lady really to understand meat.

As a nation, Italy eats a large amount of bread but until recently regional differences provide the only variety. Today bakers show great flair in their use of coloured vegetables and seed glazings.

Italian food varies greatly from region to region and many families would never dream of attempting dishes from another part of the country. It would almost seem a betrayal. As an Englishwoman, in my choice of menu I fell free to roam all over Italy and am sure this is an advantage. Although my home is in Rome, I am not a great lover of the rather heavy style of cooking that makes use of animal fats, offal and cheaper cuts of meat. My personal style of Italian cooking is based on vegetables in season, fresh herbs, fish and shellfish.

For dinner parties and special meals, I like to serve several small portions rather than an intimidating heaped plate; but for impromptu entertaining, a late night snack or instant comfort food, I love to cook huge bowls of pasta. I never cook pasta with a meat sauce, and I have noticed this is a growing tendency throughout Italy.

Diane Seed
Article first published in Country Homes and Interiors - October 1990

This article was written a few years ago by Diane Seed. Diane is the author of many cook books. Her first book, Top one Hundred Pasta Sauces, has sold well over a million copies and been translated into twelve languages. She now writes for various magazines, as well as traveling the world giving lectures, lessons and demonstrations, spreading the knowledge she has acquired over the years from farms, palazzi, markets, restaurants and family friends - she also runs her cooking courses in several regions of Italy.

If you would like to learn more about Diane's cooking holidays visit www.italiangourmet.com

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