When I told people that I was moving to southern Italy, usually the response was something along the lines of, ‘oh, the food’s WONDERFUL there!’ This would closely be followed by something about endless sunshine. The sunshine bit is holding up pretty well today – it’s nearly 4pm on a late-November afternoon and my flatmates and I all have clothes hung out on the balcony to dry, and most of the doors and windows are open. On the food front, however, I’m a little disappointed. Yes, the pizzas are far better than even the best UK versions, and there is fresh veg aplenty. However, Italians are desperately provincial about their food. If it doesn’t originate in Italy, you are unlikely to find it here. Curry spices? Not a hope. Peanut butter? Well, you can get it, but only the Skippy stuff, at hugely overinflated prices. In the UK it’s very easy to evangelise about food being local (I’m a big proponent), but it’s also a doddle to cheat and pop down to the local corner shop and pick up some bananas, or tomatoes in the middle of December, when you’re sick of eating turnip for the third week running.
Italians are, however, exceptionally good at bottling seasonal fruits and veg. If it can be shoved in a jar with some herbs, salt and/or olive oil, it will be. Pomodori alla contadina, carciofini, acciugi (which become alici when bottled, for some reason), peperone piccante, capperi, passata – the list goes on. This is a saving grace when cooking, and means that pasta sauce can be easily spiced up with something a bit more interesting. That does bring me onto my next point, though – pasta. There are entire aisles dedicated to the stuff in the supermarket, in every possible shape and size. Doesn’t really matter, though – it’s still JUST PASTA. I know that Italians will evangelise about it, and say that you can only eat certain sauces with certain shapes of pasta, but ultimately it’s just a starchy carb, which is a vehicle for some sort of sauce. It’s dull. Variety, for me, has become eating penne rigato instead of fusilli. I long for Thai, Indian or Mexican food, and I am SO looking forward to going to England at Christmas for a proper roast meal. *drools*
Cooking here is taken very seriously. The three-hour lunch break is not just because of the heat in the summer; it’s because it takes that long to cook, eat and digest a decent meal. I approve of this mentality, it must be said, and, bizarrely, am losing weight despite eating pasta twice a day. Hooray! However, there are times when the last thing you want to do is slave over a hot stove. On hungover mornings, an English fry-up is a mammoth undertaking, involving substituting pancetta for bacon and marinading cannellini beans in passata, salt and pepper, boiling water on the stove and dry-frying bread in a pan, as baked beans are impossible to buy and Italians don’t do small kitchen appliances. Finishing work at 9pm (as I do) and then having to cook a proper meal isn’t much fun, either. However, on the occasions when I just can’t face it, there is always the local delicacy, taralli, to tide me over. These are similar in texture to breadsticks, but are flavoured with stuff like peperoncini, cipolli or oregano, and are formed into little twists, looking a bit like bready kisses. Usually combined with one of the local Salentino wines, they’re known in our flat as scooby snacks, due to being impossible to put down. Pringles have nothing on the addictiveness of these things. Yum.
Photo by Sebastian Mary on Flickr