By John Hooper,
Award-winning author of ‘The Italians’ and The Economist’s correspondent for Italy
Tyson was trouble on four legs.
A huge-jawed brute, his forebears had been bred to fight in the pits of old. Unfortunately, no one ever managed to get across to Tyson that those days were over. He was ready to take on any dog in the neighbourhood. His owners assured us he was perfectly friendly with human beings. But that verità wore thin on the day my wife tried to stroke him and only just managed to pull back her hand in time.
Others might have had difficulty in seeing Tyson’s good qualities. But his owners adored him. And as he grew old and infirm they lavished progressively greater attention on him. It is hard to overstate their selfless devotion to their pet.
As time passed, it became equally hard to resist the thought that they might have been doing Tyson a favour if they put him out of his misery. Night after night, he was taken out and – barely able to stand, let alone walk – he was encouraged with infinite patience to drag himself, paw over shaky paw, into the street to relieve himself. In the end, even that became impossible and Tyson was finally put to rest.
His case was by no means exceptional. A foreign vet I knew said that Italian owners were noticeably more reluctant than, say, Britons or Americans, to have their pets euthanized. They extend to animals, in other words, a belief that has immense weight in Italy: that life is so precious it must be prolonged and protected in all circumstances and to the very last.
The view that life is infinitely precious goes hand in hand with Italians’ determination to live it to the full. As much as possible is done to improve on mundane reality, minimize what is dull, maximize what is agreeable, and generally file off the rough edges of existence.
Flattery is all-pervasive. Imagine you have just got into a taxi in Rome and are going to a street that not everyone has heard of. You give the name of the street to the driver and he says something like ‘I know it: it’s the one that runs between Via Settembrini and Via Ferrari.’ A Londoner in the same situation might answer ‘Exactly.’ A New Yorker might say ‘Right.’ But in Italy it would be positively curmudgeonly not to exclaim ‘Bravo!’, the term for ‘Well done’, which literally means ‘Clever’. The driver has been flattered and it is now incumbent upon him to make the rest of the journey as pleasant an experience as possible. In the same way, all women are automatically belle and the genuinely pretty ones are bellissime.
This very Italian talent for dusting life with a thick layer of stardust is deployed liberally throughout the year. But perhaps it comes to the fore with greatest effect during Lent. In the Catholic tradition, this is meant to be the grimmest forty days in the calendar – a time of repentance and self-denial leading up to the commemoration of Jesus’s trial and agonizingly painful death. But in Italy it never seems to be quite that bad.
First of all, as in many other countries, there is Carnival – a brief spell of self-indulgence before the long weeks of abstinence. This is when, in Italy, you see small children on the streets dressed up in a range of bizarre outfits: some as princesses, others as ghouls, super-heroes, pirates, and so on. Depending on the calendar, Carnival falls sometime in the period from early February to early March, and the children’s costumes introduce a touch of colour to one of the more doleful phases of the year.
Carnivale, like every other festival in the Italian calendar, also brings with it a range of seasonal delicacies, such as sfrappole (thin strips of pastry that are fried and sugared) and castagnole or frittelle (little doughnuts sprinkled with sugar and filled with crème pâtissière). These hyper-calorific delights are meant to be swept from the shops once Lent begins, yet somehow they remain temptingly available for weeks after Ash Wednesday, starting to disappear only once St Joseph’s Day is firmly within sight.
The feast day of Mary’s husband always falls in Lent and is marked by Catholics as a day of abstinence on which meat is kept from the table. But – at least in the south, from Rome downwards – the deprivation is alleviated more than a little by the appearance of zeppole: baked cream puffs, often topped with candied fruits. By the time the last zeppole have been consumed, the end of Lent is nigh.
Before it is reached, however, there is the bleakest day in the Christian calendar to be got through – Good Friday, when altars are stripped of their adornments, priests officiate in black and no bells are rung. This most sorrowful of festivals is a public holiday in many countries that Italians regard as semi-heathen, including Britain, Denmark and Sweden. It is also a national festival in several others that do not even have majority Christian populations, including Indonesia. But in Italy, it is just another day. The shops are open, as are the banks and theatres. And you cannot help but wonder whether this it not because Good Friday is the day of the year Italians consider most brutto.
At all events, once it has been got through, the nation is ready for Easter Sunday and the celebration of the Resurrection, the joys of chocolate eggs and a whole new range of seasonal delicacies, including the colomba, an Easter cake shaped like a dove, Neapolitan pastiera and pizza pasquale, a cheese-flavoured sponge enjoyed in Umbria and other parts of central Italy.
Life, in other words, is returning pleasantly to normal. And, in many respects, normal life in Italy – at least in the way it has evolved in recent decades – is decidedly pleasant. There is the beauty of the cities and the countryside; the elegance of the clothes; and, of course, the sunshine.
‘Più tosto che arricchir, voglio quiete,’ wrote the poet Ariosto: ‘Rather than riches, I want tranquillity.’ And for the most part his compatriots have taken the same view. Italians are certainly not lazy. A lot work extremely hard, particularly in family businesses. But it is rare for them to view work as anything but a necessary evil. It is all of a piece with the razor-sharp line which most Italians draw between work and leisure. I sometimes like to take a report or other document with me to lunch so I can read it at leisure over my food. But on more than one occasion, I have been approached by Italian workmates in a state of dismay mingled with disapproval.
‘That’s a very bad habit, you know,’ said a senior newspaper executive when he saw me leafing through some papers over a bite to eat in a café-restaurant near the office. Lunches, like other meals, are sacred occasions on which those sitting at the table should be concentrating only on the food and wine set before them or enjoying the conversation.
But then, if leisure is prized by Italians, the everyday pleasure of eating is hallowed. ‘I once overheard a conversation in an Italian train between two businessmen who were strangers to each other,’ the British cookery writer Elizabeth Romer wrote. ‘For the entire two-hour journey they discussed with passion their particular way of making spaghetti alla carbonara and other pasta sauces.’ Anyone who has lived in Italy will have had a similar experience. At one level, cuisine for Italians is what the weather is for Britons – a suitable topic for conversation between strangers that avoids the risks associated with politics, religion and football. But not entirely. Sometimes you hear impassioned arguments which, as the disputants draw close enough to be understood, turn out to be about, say, the use of pancetta dolce (unsmoked bacon) as opposed to pancetta affumicata (the smoked variety). If the issue at stake is the use, in place of pancetta, of guanciale, which is made with pig’s cheeks, then things can become really quite acerbic. In central Italy, there are those who, one feels, would rather lose a month’s wages than admit that bucatini all’amatriciana can be made with anything other than pork jowl.
This is partly because of the identification between cuisine and family. Recipes are passed on from mother to daughter and become part of a family’s sense of identity. Food also plays a crucial role in strengthening family bonds. Whatever their other commitments, children are expected to be at table for dinner. It is where the affairs of the day are discussed, problems addressed and complaints aired. When they grow up, those same children will be expected to be at their mother’s lunch table on Sunday. In the cities, you can set your watch by the traffic jams that build on Sundays before lunch, as families return to the home of the previous generation, usually stopping along the way to buy a cake or tart for the last course.
The role of the table in Italian life is relentlessly emphasized in advertising of all kinds and even reflected in the grammar of the language. Il tavolo is the word for the physical object, whereas la tavola, the same word but in the feminine, is untranslatable into English. Its connotations encompass the meal and its preparation, quality and consumption, and – most importantly – the enjoyment of it. Il tavolo is a piece of furniture on which to rest plates and cutlery. La tavola signifies an experience in which china and glass, knives and forks, play only a very small and functional part. When, for example, Italians want to describe the joys of good eating and drinking, they talk of ‘i piaceri della tavola’.
Some Italian foods and dishes have been around for centuries. Writing in 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, the chef of Pope Pius V, declared that the best cheeses in Italy were Parmesan and Marzolino, both of which can be found today in any Italian grocery store. He also mentioned ‘Casci Cavalli’, an obvious reference to the cheese now known as Caciocavallo which is produced throughout the south.
In much the same way, pasta has long been a part of Italian cuisine. [But it has] only quite recently acquired the dominant, pervasive role it plays now. The oldest form is thought to be lasagne, which is known to have been cooked in ancient Rome, though not quite in the way it is today. Dried pasta seems to have been invented quite separately, in North Africa, as expedition food for desert caravans. It was probably brought to Sicily by the island’s Muslim conquerors. In a codex published in 1154, a Moroccan geographer and botanist known as al-Idrisi described a thriving pasta manufacturing industry near Palermo, which exported its products to Muslim and Christian countries alike. Among them was a string-like pasta then known by the name itrija. Dried pasta had the same advantages for seafarers as it did for camel drivers, so it is hardly surprising that it next appears in Genoa; it is mentioned in a document written in 1279. Production of vermicelli, which was to remain a Genoese speciality, had begun by the fourteenth century. The consumption of pasta continued nevertheless to be associated with Sicilians until, in the eighteenth century, the nickname mangiamaccheroni gradually came to be bestowed on the Neapolitans. By 1785 Naples had 280 pasta shops.
Grated cheese was used for flavouring from an early stage, but sugar and cinnamon were also thought to make tasty accompaniments. Pasta was often prepared in quite different ways, boiled in broth or milk rather than plain water. In their study of the history of Italian cuisine, Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari quote an early cookery writer who was adamant that ‘macaroni must be boiled for a period of two hours’.
Nor was tomato sauce added until comparatively recently. The tomato, which almost certainly reached Italy through Spain, had acquired its name – the pomo d’oro, or ‘golden apple’ – at least as early as 1568. But it was treated by Italians – as indeed by many other people, including Americans – with immense suspicion, and entered Italian cuisine only very slowly. The first mention of tomatoes in a written recipe comes at the end of the seventeenth century. Over the next hundred years, tomatoes seem to have won a firm place in Neapolitan cooking. But right up until the end of the nineteenth century it was more usual in central Italy to use agresto, a concoction made of sour grapes, to give ‘bite’ to a dish.
The New World food that caught on most rapidly was maize, which was soon being planted in the Veneto and used as the basis for an existing dish, polenta, which had previously been made exclusively with buckwheat.
In view of the unceasing evolution of Italian cuisine, it is ironic that today’s Italians should be so deeply suspicious of any kind of culinary innovation. Chefs in the luxury restaurants and five-star hotels of the bigger cities may improvise and experiment, but at home, in the corner bar and the neighbourhood trattoria or osteria what wins approval is doing things in exactly the same way as last week and the month before and the year before that.
I always find it striking that if you go into a sandwich bar run by Italian immigrants or their descendants in London or New York you will often encounter a dazzling array of inventive fillings. Yet back in Italy, with the exception of a few self-consciously trendy establishments, they are wholly predictable: ham and mozzarella, mozzarella and tomato, tomato and tuna, tuna and artichoke, and so on. They are all delicious. But they are always exactly the same.
Ethnic cuisines are still viewed by many Italians with deep mistrust, and to the extent that a lot of ethnic restaurants exist largely to cater to immigrants. Chinese food is thought acceptable in the sort of ‘Where can we go that is cheap and informal?’ way that many Britons still think of Indian food. But then Chinese cuisine bears some resemblance to the Italians’ own: dumplings are very much like ravioli, just as noodles resemble fettuccine or linguine. Surprisingly, perhaps, the one kind of imported food that has become fashionable in Italy is the altogether more exotic sushi.
The majority of shoppers remain deeply suspicious of imported foods, and their sensitivities are recognized by manufacturers who, whenever possible, stress that a product has been prepared or grown in Italy. The daughter of an Anglo-Italian marriage once told me how, when she was a girl, she was sent to spend the summer with her grandmother in Italy. Shortly after she arrived, her nonna discovered that she had brought with her a jar of peanut butter. Holding it up, she turned to her granddaughter with an expression of bottomless pity.
‘Figliola mia,’ she said. ‘Ma come ti sei ridotta’: impossible to translate, but roughly, ‘My darling girl, have you been reduced to this?’
Thank you very much to John Hooper for providing britishinitaly.com with this edited extract from his book, “The Italians”, published by Penguin.
A must read for any British national living in Italy or about to make the move.
You can buy the book here: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/183/183517/the-italians/9780241957622.html