It’s all about food

Coming from Stoke on Trent in the UK I’ve discovered something that people from my town of birth have in common with the Italian people.

What can this be?

It’s food.

In Stoke people are always talking about food, you’ll often be asked what you had for breakfast, and even straight after dinner (we Stokies call lunch, dinner) you’ll be asked what you’re going to be having for your tea, (we Stokies call dinner, tea).

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The Italian people are passionate about food, mention that you’re going to the coast for a fish lunch and they’ll ask where will you be eating? What will you be having?  Talk about dinner the night before and they’ll ask how you prepared it and they are happy if you give them a step by step account of your cooking methods and ingredients.

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In Stoke the local delicacy is the oatcake, a soft savoury pancake made from oatmeal that’s served with breakfast ingredients like bacon, eggs, sausages etc. and local people are devoted to them.

In Abruzzo the local delicacy is arrosticini. Mutton skewers, more often than not, cooked out in the open and devoured with gusto with bread simply drizzled with olive oil and the local population love them.

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As summer brings in the warmer weather the one thing people from Italy and the UK have in common is eating outside. Italian’s like nothing better than meat cooked ‘sul braciere’ on the brazier, meaning over charcoal in the same way the Brits love their lamb chops and burgers cooked al fresco on the BBQ.

Maybe we’re not that different after all.

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Fare La Scarpetta

While having lunch with friends this week, Steve said, one of the things he likes about Italy is that it’s socially acceptable to dip your bread into your sauce.This reminded me of an article I wrote for Italy Magazine when I wrote for them. So I’ll share it with you all, and some images of bell’abruzzo.

Fare la scarpetta is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

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This end to a meal ritual is vastly popular all over Italy; however, where it originates is still open to debate. There’s one theory that the practice began in Venice, though bread wasn’t usually served with pasta in northern Italy, whereas it was in the south of the country, therefore it is implausible to assume it originated there.

In his book about medieval eating habits, Fabrizio Vanni proposes that the act took place following the introduction of tomatoes to the Italian diet back in the late 16th century. Before this time sauces tended to be thicker and more robust; with the introduction of the tomato, sauces became lighter and therefore required mopping up. Another suggestion regarding the origin of la scarpetta is that back in a time when wasting food was frowned upon, the bread merely became a tool to be used much like cutlery.

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A Calabrese friend of mine who tells me the phrase has its origins in Southern dialect prefers to have a more romantic notion regarding la scarpetta. He is convinced it stems from the heart of cucina povera (poor cuisine), from a time when people were literally so hungry they’d have eaten the soles of their shoes. He says when you are unsure when you’ll eat next, it made sense to mop up every last drop of sauce.

As with many Italian expressions, the reasoning behind the phrase is visual: during the practice of sweeping the bread across the plate the finger becomes the leg that pushes the bread which becomes the shoe. It’s not only an essential part of an Italian meal, but it is seen as a way to extend the pleasure of the repast.

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This said there is a time when making the little shoe is frowned upon and Giovanni Della Casa explained it in Il Galateo, his guide to the rules of polite behaviour and etiquette: it is acceptable to engage in the practice during an informal meal, however, in a formal setting and in public, when making the little shoe you must use a fork and not your finger to move it across the plate.

Time Travelling

Last night whilst watching the BBC program, Second Chance Summer, where a group of English people experience living in Tuscany: The objective of the show is to discover if any of them will choose to remain in Italy. Two did choose to stay but it was a comment one of the women made that struck a chord with me. She said that although she liked being in Italy it was like travelling back in time. At first I agreed, but then I thought saying that could actually be quite insulting, as it could infer that the country hadn’t progressed. (But I’m sure she meant it in a nice way).

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Rural Italy is very different from the urban sprawl of Milan, Turin and the other major cities; in fact the difference between southern and northern Italy is blatantly tangible. Things here in rural communities go on as they have done for decades. Today Mario is in his olive grove pruning his trees as he and his family have done for years. The centre of the tree is opened up to allow air to circulate through the branches giving it the familiar vase shape. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s like travelling back in time but it’s a very different situation. Today Mario is using an electric saw connected to a generator whereas if we went back in time it’d be a hand saw. Today the cut branches will be loaded onto a motorised trailer and taken to his wood store rather than in the past a donkey.

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I think the charm of Italy is that much has remained unchanged, towns are still mostly made up of original old buildings giving it that ancient feel. Take Rome for instance, everywhere you look there’s an old palazzo and terracotta tiled roof. This gives an impression of travelling back in time, however look closer and you’ll spot the satellite dishes and solar panels.

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Here in Abruzzo we’re reminded of the region’s history, the coastline is dotted with trabocchi; ancient fishing stations that are still used today. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a romantic notion to continue with tradition, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason why people still fish from a trabocco is that they’re effective. Olives are maintained as they have always been because it’s a fool proof method of cultivation. Backs ache after plots of land are planted up with tomato and pepper plants as they’ve been for years. At times it’s a hard life but rewarding one, but it’s not like going back in time because as time moves on it’s the tried and tested methods that survive through becoming adaptable.