The food in Italy

I’ve previously waxed lyrical about the food in Spain, now it’s the turn of our nearest neighbour Italy. Who doesn’t love pizza and pasta? Exactly! I’m so old I still remember eating in Birmingham’s first Italian restaurant, called Gino’s, which opened on the Smallbrook Ringway in the early 1960s. My father and I ate lunch there on Saturdays after my ballet lesson. I always had the set menu of  Minestrone, Spaghetti Bolognese and Apple Crumble. Three courses for 5/-! Of course, as we all now know there is no such Italian dish as Spag Bol.

Gino’s opened just after our first vacation in Italy where, at a family run hotel in Laigueglia, we ate a different pasta each day, all absolutely delicious and a total revelation. Don’t forget this would have been around the time that the pasta experience of many Brits was limited to tinned spaghetti hoops. Remember them? They were are truly disgusting and amazingly still around today.

Of course, there’s so much more to Italian cuisine than pizza and pasta, however it’s the Italian attitude to the latter which I think shapes their cuisine. Pasta is sacred in Italy and there are an infinite number of debates about how to make it, what sauce to serve with which type of pasta etc But why is Italian pasta soooo good?

It’s not rocket science. The bond between flour and water (and in some cases egg) is sacrosanct, and it must not be broken unnecessarily, compromised by sloppy cooking or aggressive saucing or tableware transgressions. That means cooking it properly, and relying on a system of vigilant testing to ensure it’s cooked al dente (barest thread of raw pasta remains in the centre of the pasta), no more.

Pasta should also be sauced sparingly, in the same way a French chef might dress a salad, carefully calibrating the heft and the intensity of the sauce to the pasta itself. That means refraining from unholy acts of aggression such as  adding oil to the boiling water, adding sauce to the pasta or cutting it with a knife and a fork. Above all, it means thinking about subtraction, not addition. Not what else can I add, but what can I take away?

Italian cuisine, at its very best, doesn’t seem to add up. A tangle of pasta threads, a few scraps of pork and a grating of cheese are transformed into something magical. 1 + 1 = 3: more alchemy than cooking. However, as in most things, it’s all about the quality of the ingredients.

Yes, more than genius cooks, Italians are genius shoppers intent on returning from the market with the best produce possible. Whether buying a single tomato or a kilo of sardines, be selective, demanding, relentless in your search for perfection. Let what’s best in the market guide your menu, not the other way round.

Restraint is the common bond between all great Italian regional cooking – a culture where Parmesan on many pastas (especially seafood-based pastas) is a sacrilege, and even a wedge of lemon can be seen as an assault on pristine seafood. Savour the taste and simplicity of every ingredient and remember less is almost always more. This also applies to their cooking of other dishes.

We’ve never eaten a poor meal in Italy and have often eaten lunchtime in restaurants whose offerings are targeted at the local working population. Three courses, wine, coffee and water for 11 – 15 Euros/head. It’s always delicious, home-made and we’ve never, ever been disappointed. It’s just simple, seasonal, local ingredients lovingly prepared.


Things about France that surprised me: popularity of pizza

France may be known for its fine dining, but recent studies have revealed that the French also have a taste for fast food. I’ve previously written about their growing love of Le Hamburger; now let’s talk about their love of pizzas.

Yes, unbelievably, the French regularly challenge Americans as the world’s largest consumers of pizzas. According to the latest available information, they now eat more pizza than any other country in the world, with a whopping 819 million consumed in 2015. Though, to be fair, they’re probably much smaller pizzas than those consumed in US.

It was a phenomenon that I noticed fairly early on after our move to France. Pizzas are everywhere:  pizzerias, food trucks, take away joints, home delivery services, fresh and frozen pizzas in every supermarket. They’re ubiquitous. Our own on-site clubhouse even sells pizzas on Friday and Saturday evenings.

To put the French appetite for pizzas in context, they scoff around 10kg of pizza per head every year, that’s enough to put them third in the world league table, just behind the 13kg of pizza digested by Americans and 11kg by Norwegians, putting them well ahead of the Italians, the inventors of pizza.

Some 96% of the French declare a love for pizza – their favourite being the Reine – (tomato sauce, ham, cheese and mushrooms) followed by the Margherita, and a massive 84% order takeaway pizzas at home.

Here are a few reasons why the French are so ready to grab a slice and go:-

Comfort eating

Pizza is the number one French comfort food according to a 2018 Harris Interactive survey. The study states more than 8 out of 10 French people eat to comfort themselves when they feel depressed. Of those 8 out of 10, 34% said pizza is their go-to dish to ease the blues. Hamburgers and fries come in a close second at 28%, followed by pasta at 25%.

A contrast

The French take the most time eating and drinking compared to other countries. If the norm is to sit down, en famille, and spend hours chatting and slowly eating every bite, then grabbing a pizza and throwing it in the oven might sound pretty tempting every once in a while. In other words pizza is a switch from their usual dining routine though it also fits perfectly with another French trait, because it’s a dish you can share.

It’s relatively inexpensive

While eating out in France is not necessarily overly expensive, there’s no doubt that pizza is generally a cheaper option and attractive to those on a tight budget. The average price of a pizza in France is €6.15, according to a 2017 Gira Conseil study, which takes into account the price of pizzas sold in supermarkets as well as those in restaurants.

It’s a long-term relationship

Don’t forget, parts of France, including where I live, were once part of Italy and, over time, Italian cuisine has become more popular in France though marketing has helped expand the popularity of this iconic Italian dish.

Cheese anyone?

According to the Yale Food Addiction Scale, pizza is at the very top of the addiction scale because of the cheese. Cheese has a particular ingredient called casein, a protein found in all milk products, that makes it more addictive. And who eats the most cheese in the world? The French. France has the per capita consumption of cheese.

So, there you have it. A few reasons why the French love pizza, lots of pizza!

Date nights: PT Barnum, Pentagon Papers and pizzas

Dates on two consecutive week-ends, my beloved is spoiling me, isn’t he?

Films are like buses. You wait for one that you want to watch to come along and several arrive at the same time. At our local cinema last week-end we had the choice of Paddington 2, Pentagon Papers or The Greatest Showman. The last one is a musical and regular readers will know how I feel about those!

My beloved adores musicals and so I decided  – don’t I always? – to indulge him. I was prepared to be generous only because the man playing PT Barnum was the utterly lovely Hugh Jackman. I’ve met Hugh, on a number of occasions, and can confirm that he’s a lovely (and fit) chap. Our paths crossed in the gym, early morning, while he was getting in shape for one of the many Wolverine movies. A number of well-known figures used to frequent the gym, many of whom would make their presence known, but not Hugh. He was intent on working out and minding his own business.

I never used to wear my glasses in the gym so initially he was just a blur in the distance but, in the free weights area, I was left wondering why he looked so familiar, until the penny dropped. I refrained from stalking him around the gym – it would have been so easy – instead, just allowed our paths to cross as we moved around the equipment and weights, with our respective personal trainers.

Back to the film which I note didn’t garner particularly positive reviews, but so what? It was better than anticipated, a bit light on accuracy though pleasantly diverting. My beloved loved it and that’s all that mattered.

This week-end, before flying off to Dubai, we went to watch The Pentagon Papers, a rather weightier film but which, like The Greatest Showman, also has disturbing parallels to current events. I’ve not met either Meryl or Tom though once had dinner in a London restaurant on the table next to Tom and his wife. I’ve lost count of the number of celebrities I’ve spotted in London in shops, bars and restaurants. Of course, you ignore them. It’s very uncool to even acknowledge them which is why I suspect they enjoy visiting London.

It’s different on the Cote d’Azur, where most celebrities stay well behind the high walls of their villas or out at sea, and out of sight, on their yachts. If celebrity spotting’s your thing, you need to hang out in Monte Carlo, Saint Tropez or in Cannes, during the Film Festival.

I’m kinda hoping I’ll be able to watch Paddington 2 on my up-coming long-haul flight!

Both week-ends, as we walked out of the cinema, our favourite restaurant on the Polygon Riviera site is dead ahead – pizza anyone? That’ll do nicely!

(All images courtesy of Wikipedia)