lies, damn lies and italian cuisine

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I’ll never watch another Stanley Tucci film ever again. And as for his TV series, ‘Searching for Italy’, well, don’t get me started as I enjoyed it so much I even bought and read the book ‘Taste. My Life Through Food’. I was genuinely captivated by this second-generation Italian-American’s telling of tasty tales extolling the virtues of his ancestral homeland. And it now transpires it’s a load of bunkum. From panettone to carbonara, the vast majority of Italian classics are recent inventions and Italian cuisine, a foodie scene where cappuccino must not be had after midday and tagliatelle must have the exact width of 7mm, is based on nothing more substantial than lies and half-truths.

Italy’s mighty food and drink sector, which by some estimates accounts for a quarter of the nation’s GDP, is all about identity, and this identity is almost entirely based-upon an invented tradition. Somewhat surprisingly, British Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, first identified this societal development: “When a community finds itself deprived of its sense of identity, because of whatever historical shock or fracture with its past, it invents traditions to act as founding myths.” In short, post-war Italy needed to reinvent itself and wanted to forget its recent past and struggles. The relative prosperity of the late 50s/early 60s provided the ideal opportunity to do so.

Tiramisu is a case in point as it first appeared in cookbooks in only the 1970s and its star ingredient, mascarpone, was rarely found outside Milan before the 1960s. Panettone is another example and before the middle of last century it was a dry, thin, rather unappealing flatbread largely eaten by the poor and certainly with no connection to Christmas whatsoever. Parmesan, whilst admittedly an ancient product, existed in only small, locally produced circles, not the giant 40kg wheels we know today. My personal favourite, the lovely carbonara is an American wartime dish born in Italy. Chef, Renato Gualandi, first made it at a dinner in northeast Italy, where Harold Macmillan was a guest. Thereafter, the GIs had bacon, cream, cheese and powdered egg yolks and the universal dish was born (though, as Stanley warns us, pasta water now replaces cream, obvs!).

Legend has it that the first margherita pizza was served to Italy’s Queen Margherita when she visited Naples in 1889. Its toppings – tomato, mozzarella and basil – supposedly representing the colours of the Italian flag. In fact, no such royal pizza-tasting ever took place and we had to wait more than a century before Prince Andrew’s infamous Woking Pizza Express trip confirmed the royal seal of approval.  in 1943 American soldiers wrote home in disbelief that there were no pizzerias to be found in the country. Apparently, the first fully-fledged restaurant serving ‘discs of dough topped with various ingredients’ opened not in Italy but in New York, in 1911.

So where does this leave us? Well, with a great set of recipes and a culinary life dominated by any number of Jamies, Ginos, Carlos, Antonios and Genarros and, I for one, am happy with that. I don’t blame the Italian nation for a level of invention and creative license as, after all, the post-war tradition of each and every country was trying not to starve and to survive. Who can blame them for retreating to the comfort of their own ‘traditions’ and I’m sure we all love and hate the caricature of the obsessively purist Italian chef in equal measure. Cin cin!