We Italians have a big fault. Well, of course; but I was not talking about politics. I mean, we have a big fault food-wise. We don’t do dressings. We don’t understand them. We dress salad with oil, salt, vinegar, be it balsamic, white or red wine or maybe even apple vinegar; occasionally with lemon juice instead of vinegar. This is it. I personally don’t even use vinegar, and more often than not, I leave out even the salt. And it is only five years, maybe, that I dress my salad at all (a common trauma from bad food at school). We eat salads like everyone else does – it is after all one of the best office lunch fares on offer in many bars – but I’ve never seen any other dressing being used. Our creativity stops at the ingredients – solid ingredients – level. When abroad, one of our biggest problems is eating salad. Why do people insist on those horrible dressings? Why would you want to drench your poor, delicate, innocent leaves of salad in cream, of all things?
Do you like oranges? And if you do, are you a moderate fan, or could you eat oranges until you change colour?
Here we definitely belong to the second category. I am surrounded by orange lovers. My sister once had some serious talks with her doctor about orange addiction – allegedly vitamin A toxic effects are to be considered if you eat a kilo of oranges per day, six months a year. Since when I am here in Calabria, I have been eating comparable amounts as well: the father of my partner grows oranges, mandarins and lemons, and with great trepidation we have watched the oranges get better and better as the season progresses. They will keep improving until March apparently, but trust me when I say they are already the best oranges I’ve ever eaten. They are so good I even forgot to cook with them, apart from the occasional salad. And I do love orange desserts.
One of the most distinctive features of Italian cooking is that you don’t really need recipes. You never measure, apart from the occasional pasta weight. The ingredient list is always flexible, depending on what is available and looking good. This is usually an advantage, that makes Italian food so versatile and light, in a way, but it can be sometimes a limitation. Perfection is elusive and hard to repeat, and you often just get it plain wrong. Almost all italian ‘cuochi’ will tell you that the first time they make a dish, it is typically stellar, and when they make it again, it turns out poorly – always when you have guests coming for dinner.
To me, winter was fog. When I was a child fog was thicker, especially in town. Fog has a distinctive smell; it dampens sound; it reveals architectural details that otherwise would go unnoticed, hiding the ugliness of the whole; it is beautiful on flat rice fields, where you could be in a lost, far away world, and the farmer’s house could be a witch’s den. I find fog very charming and I miss it sometimes.
On traditional items, it is the best food in the world. On anything just outside of the traditional boxes, it is totally rubbish or, most likely, it simply does not exist. Traditional food is simple, based on local ingredients, more of a mountain cooking than a sea one: long cooking times, no spices apart from chilli and occasionally fennel, no sweet-sour tastes, no mixing of sweet and savoury flavours. Sicily might be visible, actually in these clear winter days it looks almost as if you could touch it, but the Arabic influences are a world apart.
The traditional food is simple, but this does not mean that the taste itself is not extremely refined. Everything tastes just ‘right’ and the variations in a recipe are almost negligible. Why would you want to mess up with something that is just perfect as is? Among the traditional items, the best ones, according to my humble, but internationally trained, taste, are coffee and salami. They are just out of scale from anywhere else. You can find similar quality coffee in just two places in Europe: Napoli, where it was ever better, and Trieste, where it was more northern (lighter and thinner) but seriously good. Both in Italy, though somehow apart, like all proper Italian places they don’t feel as if they were Italian. In Reggio Calabria coffee is short and dense and full of aroma. The locals really love it, and the best bars are always crowded. I am endlessly fascinated by the barman’s ability to keep up with the orders and never miss a single client, always keeping cool and moving with grace, whispering among screaming people, and yet somehow always heard by the intended person. I could stare at them for hours – but the wait is never more than a few seconds even in the most crowded bar.
Sometimes we just forget how good basics are, and this is why we have holidays, that give you the opportunity to review the classics. One year ago, roughly, I took my time to cook properly for the New Year’s Eve and made ragù alla napoletana, and sartù. This year I kept it even simpler: I made gulash and classic lasagne, with ragù alla bolognese. The original take on the famed bolognese sauce, yes. I came out with a new resolution: do more of this, the next year.