Food from the Garden of Europe

Updated: Nov 20 2005, 06:35am hrs
Talking about Italian cuisine can be as misleading a generalisation as talking about a so-called Indian cuisine, or for that matter Chinese cuisine. The three countries with the oldest and most established culinary traditions have one thing in common: regionalism, based on cultural, historical, geographical and often socio-economic factors. Its only when these cuisines get transplanted out of their native environment, a cohesion is attempted to make it more approachable. Thus the dishes that travel the easiest and have the most universal appeal become very well known and disseminated. But as much as there is a universe beyond chicken tikka masala, similarly there is much beyond pizza and pasta.

One of the unique features of Italian cuisine is its incredible breadth and scope of ingredients. The subject is so important that it needs to be investigated further before we even talk about the actual cooking of Italian cuisine.

No other country has been able to translate so efficiently the basic ingredients that are used in cooking to a highly perfected mass produced industry - image driven, superbly packaged and marketed with high fashion allusions. Usually one expects mass production to mean loss of character and quality, not so in the case of Italy. The time-proven methods of artisans have been dissected and studied in great detail and enhanced with modern technology. Take, for example, the ubiquitous Parmesan cheese, without which Italian cuisine is almost impossible. Reggiano Parmesan has been made in the same way and only in certain designated districts under strict government standards for the last 800 years.

I refer to it as the Italian masala, as its flavour enhances countless dishes. Or, take that wonderfully thick and rich Balsamic vinegar from Emilia, which was so highly priced that no dowry would have been complete without it. Now we can afford a few drops of it, to turn an ordinary salad into a gourmet experience.

Though grown in the Mediterrenean region, here olive oil has become a virtual art form with superior quality control, grading and regional characteristic becoming the main differentiator. Various wine makers have even formed a consortium called Laudemio with very strict standards and are selling it at Rs 2,000 per half litre in what look like perfume bottles.

An ordinary leg of pork becomes with time and great care the highly sought after Prosciutto di Parma or the slightly sweet San Daniele from Friuli.

A hind of beef is expertly dried in the cool mountain air of Valdaosta into silky Bresaola, and a mass of curd, that at the beginning of the process looks no different from paneer, is transformed into rich and tangy Gorgonzola, and aged in the limestone caves of Piemonte.

Wine also plays a major part, both as a favourite beverage and as an ingredient in cooking. In fact wine is not considered an alcohol, but a food. Marinate some beef or lamb in red wine, vegetable and herbs, add a glass of crisp white to a fish dish or flavour a custard with sweet Marsala and you will see the wonderful transformation wine can bring to food.

All this is possible for two reasons. Italians obsession with food and the fact that Italy is an incredibly fertile land and is referred to as The Garden of Europe. So its a little wonder that the cuisine changes every few hundred kilometres, with each region proudly proclaiming superiority in all matters culinary.

Bill Marchetti is corporate executive chef for Italian cuisine at ITC Hotels.