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Eating Together

FOOD & COOKING ARTICLE

We have all been told how important it is to eat together, how nobody does it any more, that we all just graze the fridge or snack on unhealthy junk food. It is implied, or stated that the absence of required communal feeding times will lead to the breakdown of the family, atomization of society and the resultant fall of western civilisation. Rapacious heathen hoards, now massed at our gates, are about to invade our depraved and decadent cities, no doubt strengthened by a proper breakfast where they all talk to one another in a civilized manner and finish their porridge.

We will probably also have learnt that “on the continent” families still eat their meals together, a continuing ritual, still treasured and enjoyed. Well I can confirm that yes, families in Italy still eat together, often three generations at the same table and that it is very enjoyable indeed. Also because what is on offer at the table tends to be rather good. It hasn’t however stopped Italy having many of the same problems as most other developed nations such as Britain, these include the scourges of drugs, divorce and dental bills. We have similar doomsayers here, with slightly different scare stories predicting how badly things will end for us all.

Part of the reason that families still eat together, at least in rural areas, is due to the way they live and its economic survival system. A typical Tuscan house is home to three generations, the grandparents will have retired quite young with good pensions, enough to pay the bills and leave a little over, the property will have been inherited or bought for cash, so no mortgage or rent to pay. The vegetable plot is looked after by granddad who also tends the olives and vineyard, grandma is responsible for looking after the rabbits, chickens and ducks (all for the pot) plus bottling the tomatoes. So the household is fairly self-sufficient for food. This is possibly why even the supermarkets here have good quality produce at a reasonable cost, they have formidable local competition. The next generation down goes out to work, both husband and wife, their earnings can be spent on the sporty cars and designer clothes so loved by Italians, leaving enough aside to save up for the kids to start up in their own home if necessary. Schools though running six days a week close at one thirty, so the youngsters need a grandmother to take charge of them for the afternoon.

This economic unit works very well, even in hard times. Members of the family have no reason to look elsewhere for food as it is all there within the bounds of their own property, free, served and sumptuously prepared by the matriarch who learned the art from her own granny. In her day she probably didn’t spend many years at school, her place of learning was the kitchen, in preparation for the time she too would prepare meals for the extended family, more numerous back then and with a great deal of expertise necessary, if Sunday lunch was to be seen as any kind of celebration given the meagre resources of the time.

Much of the tradition remains. In most large cities around the world a whole range of restaurants exist, if you think of a country you can be almost sure to find a restaurant serving it’s cuisine in New York, Melbourne and London. In Italy, with a few exceptions, if you eat out, you eat Italian. However what you eat in Bologna differs greatly from what is on offer say in Naples. This regionalism comes partly from using only local produce, the peninsula was a patchwork of small states until about 150 years ago, with taxes imposed on the transport and sale of goods between them, so people tended to avoid “imports”. If you are bored with the same old menu, take a trip 50km down the road and there you will find restaurants serving a whole different taste.

The seasons also provide variety. Shops and super markets too tend to sell only what is around at the time, so in the late spring they are full fresh cherries whilst in winter there are none to be found. What is served at home or in restaurants tends to change as the year progresses, autumn has mushrooms and truffles, when spring returns it’s the fresh tomatoes and salads, summer is for zucchini flowers, winter it’s bean or meat stews.

Tradition also maintains the peculiarities of the past, bread is still the staple food, with Italians eating 2.7 times more wheat baked into various sorts of breads than made into pasta. The Tuscan variety has no salt, is quite tasteless and becomes hard as a brick after 24 hours, but it’s still loved in the area. A throw back to a time when people took their grain to the mill each week to have it washed and ground into flour which when mixed with a little of last weeks dough made a slightly malted, sourer dough loaf. Now the sort made in local bakeries is much blander with industrial flour and fast acting, pure yeasts, but it’s still delivered in little white vans throughout the countryside and there are hundreds of recipes for using up the dried out stale remains.

Italy does of course have some fast food outlets, mostly bars where fresh sandwiches are made on the premises. But it is the only European country without a Starbucks, has half the number of McDonald’s per head of population compared to France and even these don’t do much business. So the Italians don’t tend to complain about a Big Mac invasion and to be honest I think any country which finds its national cuisine threatened by McDonald’s, can’t have a great deal on offer to start with.

Article written by Chef Jonathan Arthur
www.italywithrelish.it

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