When I am in Italy I defend English food. I tell people it is not what they think. Britain is an island; travel around the coast and eat the freshest fish, local variations abound, come inland and sample the hundreds of types of cheese (a survey a couple of years ago identified more than 700 types of cheese in Britain, ahead of France and Italy), cured meats and sausage. Fertile land gives the freshest vegetables and fruits.
Even seemingly mundane dishes like Shepherd’s Pie or the Sunday roast can be elevated to the tastiest, most satisfying levels with a skilful cook and the best ingredients.
However, even though I defend English food, I cannot defend English attitudes to food. To put it very simply, no one really cares about food here. I mean, really cares. Not the way an Italian does.
Go into any supermarket and try to find more than ten types of cheese. Where is the equivalent of Parma ham? Why does no one care about bread? Bread. The stuff of life. Most bread in this country is a bleached, dry, insipid slice of white, crumbly despair. Look up the Chorleywood Process.
Yes, I know. Good(ish) bread is available. Some people buy it. But if you offer decent sourdough to someone, the most common comment is something along the lines of "that's posh". As though it were some kind of pretension. Some kind of aspirational mark of one-upmanship.
No, it's just proper fucking bread. Look at the food in the high-street.
Look at what people tolerate. Shallow versions of real food. Anywhere half decent costs enough to force you into a life of crime.
My rage is at its height at the moment, because I have just returned from the southern Italian countryside. It is exactly the opposite of England. In England, you have to work very hard to find good food, in Italy you have to work equally hard to find bad food.
In two weeks, I had everyday wonders, every day. Crusty, fresh sourdough, a soft and fluffy centre with a chewy, floury crust. Mozzarella. If you think of mozzarella as a bland, rubbery nonentity, you haven't tasted one that was made that morning, from Buffalo milk taken from a herd not five kilometres away.
Within a 15 minute car ride of our town, just north of Naples, is some of the best food I have ever tasted. We arrived in the evening, hungry from our flight and went straight to a small local restaurant. My uncle ordered a course of antipasti, and our journey began. Four or five waves of simple and complex - fresh focaccia, dribbled with olive oil and rosemary, tarts of anchovy, mozzarella dripping with milk, small cups of chopped aubergine and chickpea…
In the next few days, I gorged. A simple restaurant gave me an amazing plate of rigatoni amatriciana followed by grilled quail. My aunt made pappardelle with porcini mushrooms (picked locally by her and my uncle days before) made me wonder why I live in London. At a slightly more high-toned restaurant I ordered a baccala and guanciale starter - moist salt cod, baked with a herb crust, topped with five small strips of crunchy fried pork cheek. It made me stop talking.
And so it continued, day after day. Arancini - small balls of fluffy rice with a centre of mozzarella and ham, then coated and fried. Spit roasted chicken. Spicy mushrooms in olive oil.
And then, on the last evening, the final note of grace. We have a pizzeria that is regularly voted in the top two or three of the world. It's impossible to get a table at short notice, so my cousin, who works for the owner, ordered fifteen to take away and the family gathered around.
I understand that ‘proper’ Neapolitan pizza is increasingly available in this country, but it is still of a different order to what we had. Pillowy, slightly charred crusts, with a thin sloppy base. The basic margarita is covered in sauce made from local tomatoes, small sticky patches of mozzarella and a leaf of basil finish everything off. That's the basic. But the man is an artist, so we also get to taste the maiallino nero - a variation of the margarita drizzled with the clarified lard of the local pig breed. And then a creation and I had never even thought of, carbonara on a pizza. Parmesan cheese, ham and egg. Finally it was the scarpetta - a thicker tomato sauce and a stronger cheese. (In Italy, if you make a scarpetta - literally, little shoe - it is the act of scooping up the remnants of the sauce from your plate with a little piece of bread after you have finished your pasta.)
The person I was travelling with said it was the best and he had ever tasted, and could now never order pizza in London again.
My cousin has a pizza oven in his garden and occasionally he makes pizza. It is better than most anything you can find in this country. My cousin is a nurse.
The next day, at the airport for our departure, I bought five sfogliatelle at one of the outlets. These are little triangles of pastry shaped into ribbons to enclose a light creamy lemony interior. Italians don't even tolerate bad food at airports.
I know there are compensations living in London; food from all over the world, and quality is available if you search hard and are willing to pay. Italy is the place for Italian food, especially in country regions, it is not the place to look for crispy duck, or tasty Indian food. But if you want variation, just travel. Northern Italy is a different cuisine. Sicily is a different world again, with its own wonders. But everywhere, people care.
13 Seprember 2019
=== Antony Buonomo Art &
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