How do the Italians eat? I was very curious to find out. Well, differently than here, that's for sure.
From what I saw, the country wasn't actually the "slow food", devoid of modern junk haven I naively assumed it was. Our first observation was that processed food is definitely present there, and both supermarkets and even breakfast buffets at hotels were loaded with puzzling items -who would actually choose individually-wrapped, industrial Nutella-filled croissants when real, fresh, flaky, delicious ones were available? Fruit juice was always cloyingly sweet and vaguely chemical-tasting, which did not go too well with our palate (I buy it as natural as possible). Everywhere but in the smallest towns, big grocery stores proudly announced that they were "open on Sunday, on a continuous schedule" (meaning that it did not close for a few hours in the afternoon as is the traditional way)... All this reflects a society currently experiencing big changes... From the old ladies carrying their groceries home after a run to the fishmonger, bakery or the like, probably also making it a social occasion by perhaps stopping for a tiny cup of espresso and spending time chatting with their friends on the village main piazza, to the younger families one-stop, once-weekly shopping at the supermarket, a whole way of life is probably on the way out.
Or is it? Because even if these signs were present, we still discovered a country that simply loved good food, and valued it accordingly. Everywhere possible, people had vegetable patches, including at least tomato plants, some grape vine and a few olive trees. Making your own oil, wine, pomodoro sauce, pesto, and even pasta, seemed relatively standard, at least outside the cities. At our first, very small hotel in Montepulciano, Tuscany, several cooks were working all-day long in the tiny kitchen, baking delicious, simple, not-too-sweet cakes we would enjoy the next morning, and preparing the evening meal, focused on local and seasonal ingredients. One time, I saw a man carrying a huge crate of fresh, dewy lettuces walk down the street, whistling. He abruptly turned the corner to use the hotel kitchen door and delivered his precious load, and I thought, yeah, this would never have been seen at home, but that's kind of the way it should be...
Food was a revelation. Nothing was very elaborate or fancy, but (almost) everything was mouth-watering and perfect. Capers did not merely taste like vinegar, but had a very pleasant earthy pungent quality to them. Anchovies did not taste like salt, but had an almost melting fresh-from-the-sea texture... Olives were fresher than we had ever tasted them. Pesto was not sort of dry and bland, but really rich and creamy, the taste of fresh basil exploding in your mouth at each bite. Pizze had an addictive crackling thin crust, pasta plates were pitch-on all the time -with only a few ingredients of the best quality, cheese, prosciutto, cream... Gelato was unbelievable, and choosing among the sometimes 50 flavors (green apple, white nectarine, cantaloupe, etc...) was a very hard decision, please don't laugh. Even small, casual eateries served great quality wine -not that I could actually taste it (OK, I did have a couple of sips a few times).
We loved visiting the small markets above all, the ones occurring on the main square once a week, or the ones that looked like what grocery stores probably were before the big supermarkets, with cramped shelves, a small meat/cheese counter in the back and beautiful produce offerings displayed directly in wooden boxes outside on their doorsteps, reminding me of some of my childhood books. Cherries, strawberries, melons, several kinds of peaches and plums, oranges and huge lemons, heirloom tomatoes big and small, shiny striped eggplants, dainty zucchinis with their blossoms attached; everything appeared to be local. As someone who hates that our climate does not even permit such cultures, I thought this was such a blessing and a privilege...
We stopped a few times on the road to
steal pick some fruit, including cherries and lemons, which we had never seen hanging from trees. A lot of producers and even towns were proudly saying that they were "bio" (organic) or even "GMO-free," and of course for them this was not some kind of a fad or part of a "return to the Earth" trend, but just the way things have always been. We visited places where the vines were located on very steep hills, planted among stone-wall terraces created without any mortar by farmers of the 14th century... This made us feel so humble. Time has shaped the landscape and created an experience and culinary wisdom that I don't think we can really grasp here, with our such young history.
We had a few amazing meals to add to our best-in-life repertoire, one including truffle-and-walnut ravioli, and one where I had pollo a la diavolo, a half-chicken roasted with herbs and chilies, simply heavenly and absolutely perfect in crispiness, texture, moistness and taste. It was served with just a few tender roasted potatoes and spinach sauteed in olive oil and garlic that tasted so good, LP had mouthfuls.
Needless to say, we never wanted to come back.