WHAT IS IT ABOUT ITALIANS AND FOOD? Italians are the only culture I know whose conversation during a meal, is about what their next meal will be.
When I lived in Italy, I discovered that if I wanted to get a group of people to talk to me about their work issues, I first had to eat with them, or talk about food with them. Once we had established that food was as important to me as it was to them, that I would take time to eat, share and digest it with them, then they could relate to me, then they could trust me, and other things could be shared and digested.
In contrast, when my Italian husband started his job in Melbourne, he missed out on having lunch the first few days.
“Why aren’t you having lunch?”, I enquired.
“I can’t work out when it’s lunchtime. No one leaves their desk to eat”.
When I first arrived in Italy, I remember proudly explaining to my new Roman friends how I could eat food from a different nationality every night for a month if I wanted to, in my hometown of Melbourne. They were unimpressed.
“That’s because you’ve only been a country for 200 years. It’s not long enough to have your own cuisine”, I was told.
I remember thinking it was odd that nearly every restaurant in Rome had a similar menu, the same few dishes that only changed when the seasons changed. How could seasons dictate food I wondered, when you can get produce all year round, picked before its ripened and driven down from Queensland in a refrigerated truck, or from the frozen section in your supermarket? Then I tasted a sun ripened tomato. From a local market.
A long time later, after living for 17 years in Rome, I was no longer impressed by or chasing the latest trend in food. I was looking forward to eating what I knew would be on the menu, what had been perfected over decades (sometimes centuries) by the one family, based on local and seasonal ingredients, and what could be relied on as being better than anything I could get at home. A big challenge given that most home chefs have been perfecting similar recipes for decades too.
I learnt also that Italians do believe in ‘food miles’ but instead of expecting the food to travel to them, they travel to it. My Italian friends would think nothing of driving for two hours to get to a restaurant they particularly wanted to sample, or driving forty minutes out of their way on the way home to pick up a particular type of cheese, or when they wanted more variety driving to a another town to sample their version of Amatriciana, a type of pasta sauce made from tomatoes, pork and a hint of chilli.
Every culture loves its own food, no doubt about it, but Italians have a special relationship with their food. And they have inspired us as Australians to not only have a relationship with their food but a better one with our own food. Viva Italia!
Bronte is a Social Anthropologist, and author of “Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons” (Melbourne Books). Currently living in Melbourne she spent 17 years living and working in Rome with the United Nations.