Recently, we had some Irish friends visit us. It was the first time they had visited the Langhe in Piemonte. We took them off to a local Festa, and they were blown away. Not by the music, which was ear drum breaking. Not by the location, which was on a hill-top with beautiful views all around. Not by the wonderfully entertaining dancers, who took over the cobbled make-shift dance floor with gusto. No, none of these things impressed them as much as the relish and patience shown by the locals queuing for food. Not drink but food - at 9pm at night! In fact, the free wine generously laid out on tables by a local winery was largely overlooked in favour of devouring the food.
I had to explain this cultural phenomenon as best I could. You see Italians in the countryside, barely go anywhere on a night out without the promise of food. It’s similar at Aperitivo time when all the small village bars offer free tasty morsels with the Aperol Spritz or other alcoholic beverage. When you go to the cities forget about free treats with your Aperitivo, you’ll be lucky if you get grissini! This is a countryside ritual that all who come here for the first time can’t believe.
This is why Andrew, or Andrea, his new Italian name, fondly christened by the locals, is particularly suited to life in Italy. He can’t go anywhere without thinking of having a coffee and snack within 10 minutes of arrival. Me? I could go all day without eating, if I wasn’t reminded by his growling tummy.
But back to the Italian's passion for food. We often eat with our lovely Piemontese neighbours, who come from all walks of life. But sit them down at a table and our idea of Western manners go out the window. There is no waiting until everyone has been served or has helped themselves to food from heaving platters. Italians don’t wait, they dive straight in! And because alcohol is secondary to food, they barely toast either. But as most of our female friends don’t even drink alcohol, they don’t see it as so important. This took some getting used to. It felt rude to start eating when others hadn’t been served. It was only due to our fellow diner’s encouragement with the endearing word ‘mangiare’, the Italian word for ‘eat up’, that we bravely ate before everyone was ready.
It’s said that Italians think about food and talk about food more than any other subject. And I can well believe it. Everything is timed according to when they eat. Lunch time has a break so long that they can go home, cook a meal and rest after eating. So revered is lunchtime that no work is done sometimes for 2 hours. Of course, that doesn’t apply so much in the big cities, but they mostly still take a full hour for lunch. Compared to London and Dublin, this is to be applauded for sure.
The only thing is they are not brave eaters in the countryside. We had friends over from Sydney a couple of years ago and we had a welcome dinner with all the neighbours. Some of these neighbours had been serious international corporate players before retirement. But my friend was astonished that the dish she suggested we make for lunch was not recognised by them. It was their first time trying it. The dish was Spaghetti Puttanesca, the world-famous Neapolitan dish. And guess what happened when I tried to serve innocent mint sauce to our neighbour with his lamb one Easter? He was horrified that we would want to taint the taste of the lamb with mint! He wouldn’t be convinced to even try it.
They are so proud of their Piemontese cuisine you can barely get anything else in the Ristorantes and Trattorias. You might spot a rare sighting of Lasagne al Forno if you are very fortunate. The only dish to make it this far North in great numbers is the pizza! But that hasn’t been here for long.
In the Piemonte city of Turin you can get all types of cuisine, but the most prized is Piemontese, and second is Sushi! How this came about is a bit of a mystery, but then it mostly has a base of rice, well this is risotto land and raw fish is similar to carpaccio, so it isn’t as brave as it first appears.
But, like all things in Italy, there is a weird idiosyncrasy to all this eating, they don’t really eat breakfast. This can be very hard on overseas visitors, as they face first thing in the morning a buffet of cakes and croissants (called a brioche in the courtryside) filled with oozing apricot jam. If Italians eat breakfast it tends to be sweet things so that they can burn the calories off. Even Tiramisu was traditionally eaten only in the morning. That’s why in Piemonte they are mostly whippet thin. They tend to have a break before 11am and have a café or cappuccino, and at a push a brioche, though mostly at weekends. This is a little like the on trend fasting diet of leaving a break of 16-18 hours from dinner until the first meal of the day, well I wonder where they got that idea from???
Ahh Italy - I just love it all!
Share our stories with your friends.