Oct 17 2014

Food as Culture: The Romantic Realities of Food in Italy

Talking about food is best on a full stomach, as the resulting discourse, often fraught and conflicted, flows best when not hindered by hunger-induced crankiness. Not only is eating a political and agricultural act, it’s also a cultural one. What, when, and how you eat – even how you digest – begins with a history and tradition much greater than you, the individual. Even more than parental preferences, monetary limitations, or family philosophy, your country’s food identity shapes your own. In The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin argues that food production and consumption are tied to national identity and culture. Brillat-Savarin’s book, published in 1825 and strongly influential in the philosophy of Italy’s Slow Food movement, argues that gastronomy ( the practice of choosing, cooking, and eating food) is the science of “all that relates to man as a feeding animal”.

Taken this way, understanding food and eating is akin to merging multiple academic disciplines, from anthropology to philosophy to economics, with each discipline playing a vital role in understanding food choices and relationships. Yet after a recent visit to Italy, it seems that “tradition” – old, new, manufactured, and genuine – exerts an equally strong influence on gastronomy, one that can cross borders, oceans, and generations.

Before I visited Italy, I let its culturally-ingrained vivid imagery color my predictions for the trip. I dreamed of perfectly ripe tomatoes, freshly foraged mushrooms, rolling hills covered in grapevines, and a gastronomic culture that celebrates the concepts of slow and pleasurable. Italy is the country many Americans pin their idealized, intimate food dreams onto, kind of like a teenage girl pining over an attractive musician, mesmerized by the surface details (those cheekbones! those eyelashes!) without necessarily wanting to know anything more complicated (a drug arrest, you say?). (I’m showing my age with this analogy, I recognize.) Ask anyone what they think of when they hear the word Italy and inevitably the responses group into predictable patterns. Cheese, wine, prosciutto, olive oil, pizza, pasta, gelato. As an American, Italy holds the mantle as a food destination, a food journey worth taking. And in fact, since I returned from my trip to Italy’s Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont regions, I’ve wistfully remembered and recounted delicate pastas, perfectly caramelized eggplant appetizers, table-side olive oil better than any I can buy here, and that first sip of a “local” wine.

In recent years, I’ve viewed Italian food culture as enviable, desirable, and slightly out of reach in my native American life, just like that soulful guitarist tacked in poster-form on a teenager’s wall. Intrinsic to my beliefs was the idea that Italians simply have a healthier, more passionate relationship to food than we could ever have.

The openings of my conversation with Mario Gala, the shepherd, cheese-maker, and farmer of Finocchio Verde Farm (Green Fennel), did little to challenge this viewpoint.

In describing his life as a farmer in the Piedmont region of Italy, his property tucked near vineyards producing some of the best wine in the world, his farm tasks brightened by views of the Maritime Alps, he mused that “it’s nice: we don’t need a lot of money, but we live life like we’re rich, very rich. Truffles, good wine, cheese, salami, bread.” As we sat in his farm kitchen, drinking coffee and snacking on cookies, he continued, “Close to me, I want beauty. Beauty and food,” clasping his hands together to signify their interconnectedness. I nodded and thought: see? This is a cultural element that just doesn’t translate to American food culture.

But as I sat across from this man, reveling in his philosophy of slow and beautiful, I was a week into my trip to Italy and had already begun to recognize that Italian food culture, like ours, exists in a modern, global food system and seems to still be navigating its 19th century ideals within 21st century realities. Is Italian food best illustrated by these small, interconnected farms, run by dedicated farmers like Mario, a farmer who bakes bread, creates cheese in small batches, and takes pleasure in feeding his community his house cured goat prosciutto? Or is Italy more like “Eataly”, a brand that markets a certain concept of Italian food culture in its 26 worldwide stores, not to mention a future theme park in Bologna?

And one can’t speak of Italy without mentioning the Slow Food movement. Slow Food was founded in Italy in the late 1980s as a direct response to the dulling of food traditions and the rising mass production of food, its initial impetus the impending construction of a McDonalds near Rome’s Spanish Steps. Do Italians care about this movement in the same passionate, hungry way that some Americans do, some of whom design their lifestyles around local and ethical products? Or do movements like Slow Food carry the same tinge of elitism and eye-rolling that such labels often elicit in this country? Mario himself has ties to Slow Food. One of the cheeses he makes at Green Fennel, a raw milk, rindless tuma style, is part of a Slow Food presidium, a project that groups specific artisan producers in an effort to stabilize techniques and unify production standards. Mario acts as that presidium’s coordinator, and yet this role never came up in conversation or felt like a driving force in his cheese-making style.

Before and after I met Mario, I absorbed numerous insights into Italian food culture through “fun” research: dining on regional, seasonal products such as melanzana (eggplant) and freshly foraged porcinis, and eating 36 month old Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with 12 year old balsamic vinegar. But just as reading a menu in Portland offers little insight into the farmers who grew the food on which I’m noshing, I knew I’d be missing a key link if I didn’t visit a farm in Italy, assumption free, and learn how agriculture translates into the larger food culture. This is where Mario’s Green Fennel Farm entered, and his farm served as a valuable link between these restaurant meals, grocery store browsings, and cultural observations.

If I were an Italian visiting America, I’d have found a farm almost immediately, either by clicking through a farmers’ market website, browsing an agricultural focused blog, or reading a restaurant menu. From there, I’d examine the farm’s online presence and photos. Naively, I initially took the same approach when looking for an Italian farm, only to reach an immediate dead end. I couldn’t find any mention of farmers on menus, on Instagram searches, even in articles in the New York Times.

These dead ends in my research served to pique my curiosity: if farmers aren’t directly marketing themselves, how do consumers receive and learn about the food? Is farming such an integrated part of Italian culture that there’s no need to elevate farmers into rockstar status or turn markets into festivals with music and children’s activities? In small towns, perhaps farmers markets aren’t even necessary, because Italians trust the store manager and the culture of the store.

In fact, farmers’ markets are a relatively new phenomenon in Italy, only chartered since 2001. There’s no regulation or standardization of the characteristics for farmers markets, and according to one study, price is cited as the highest reason to shop at a farmers’ market, rather than a desire to purchase locally produced food. The end of the study mentioned that it didn’t bother to examine rural farmers’ markets, as there are still strong existing links between farmers and residents, precisely like the connection between Green Fennel Farm and its community.

I was a full week into my Italian trip before I visited Mario at Green Fennel Farm. Along with absorbing basic Italian phrases and navigating Italian roads (most stop signs are replaced with freeing, smoothly moving traffic circles!), I’d spent seven days interacting with and observing Italians in grocery stores, restaurants, and cafes, each interaction deepening my feelings of the cultural divides between American and Italian relationships to food.

At each dining opportunity, whether street-side or tablecloth-lined, I witnessed Italians eating with a great gusto, their body language and interactions so uninhibited that I felt my own inherent Americanness each time I dined. Breakfast is admittedly subpar (by my standards of an American raised on pancakes, waffles, french toast, omelettes, and other breakfast indulgences), but after that, an Italian day revolves around food: the procurement, the taste, and the experience. Local is important, but local is a flexible term: local to Italy, local to the region, local to the town. Each town had their own way of preparing regional dishes. A zucchini flan, a vegetarian feature on many menus, was prepared and presented differently at each restaurant. Many restaurants also had a version of roasted or baked eggplant, but again, each dish tasted unique to that place: in a more modern restaurant, the eggplant was caramelized and topped with a tomato sorbet; in a traditional Parma restaurant, it was baked with tomatoes and loaded with Parmesan.

The main activity in the region of Italy I visited, apart from soccer and smoking (always smoking), is anything related to eating. I entered crowded salumeria shops full of residents buying hunks of cheese, ravioli-lined baking sheets tucked in every corner. I walked by numerous outdoor tables ringed with people clustered around plates of pre-dinner snacks of prosciutto and cheese. Every time I ordered a one course lunch – sometimes even wine-less – I was surrounded by Italians tucking in for four courses, a bottle of wine, and espresso, all before 2pm. Most interestingly, their faces and actions completely morphed when food was presented. Many of us will do lip service when a plate is brought to the table, something along the lines of “oh this looks good; thank you“ or “this is delicious” (or increasingly, adopting the language of television shows like Top Chef and playing the role of food critic). Americans, myself included, tend to say more than show. Italians do the opposite. They eat with their entire bodies, broadcasting their pleasure physically, and with a noticeable lack of words.

As I waited for my own plates to exit the kitchen, I’d watch the transformation that took place when waiters delivered food to dining tables. A plate of salumi would quiet an entire table, not unlike a rapt audience watching a match point at a tennis match, each member joyfully leaning forward, savoring. Conversation would only resume when the plate was cleared. I witnessed this again and again, most notably at a restaurant outside of Parma, where we dined near a giant communal table holding about 25 middle aged men. Their conversation was deafening until food was in front of them. Then, each tucked a napkin onto his lap and ate, concentrating fully on the food, their boisterous conversation put aside for total concentration on the course. I never once witnessed Italians pushing food around on their plates out of a sense of duty. The only anxiety related to dining was curiosity with how incredible the food would taste, neither anxious about calories nor time. (Italian dinners are three to four hour affairs.)

I had my first indication of these vast cultural differences when I coordinated visiting Green Fennel Farm. Mario responded to my email very promptly, immediately offering his agriturismo (an inn located at a farm or winery; these are common throughout Italy) as a place I could stay. As my visit approached, I reached out to coordinate a time and received a ‘we’ll be here all day’ response. The flexibility took me aback because with most of my interviews, each party secures a very specific date and time, as any intrusion requires excessive planning and modifying. But Mario, though he’s a farmer and could conceivably be anywhere on the property when I drove in, had no interest in securing a specific time. I arbitrarily picked mid afternoon and drove out in the general direction of the farm, about 50 minutes outside of Alba and near the small town of Murazzano. Several wrong turns later, including backing out of an ongoing hazelnut harvest, I arrived at Green Fennel Farm to complete silence.

Twenty minutes later, I first saw Mario, riding past me on the back of a tractor, waving hello, but not stopping. In the interim, I talked to Mario’s partner, Isa, about her own farm tasks, and compared notes (through broken English and nonexistent Italian) on the meaning of food in our lives.

Mario entered the kitchen during our conversation, with a tired appearance and a friendly face. As he sat heavily into his chair, he took a sip of espresso before he shared his farming history. Mario has been a shepherd for decades, including during a time when a profession in agriculture, even in Italy, was looked down upon (Mario signaled this with a scrunched up face and a ”pooh” expression). When he showed me around the property, a landscape home to 20 goats, 50 sheep, terraced gardens, donkeys, and his newly built and highly prized earthen cheese aging cave, he did it like a proud parent shows off baby pictures: joy emanating from his features, contentment on his face as he gazed around the land. He walked through his property with a sense of purpose, of course, but in a more relaxed way than one might expect. His unencumbered walk affirmed the sense of liberation he feels in his profession. Before we walked the land, he’d explained, in eloquent terms for a man who speaks limited English that,

“If you are the producer of food, you are more free. Your choice of life doesn’t depend on the decision from [a] government or bank. It depends on the sky, rain, sun.... If you aren’t free, you’re not happy.”

Despite his stilted English – “I speak English but slow food...slow speak” – I couldn’t help but listen to our conversation through the lens of American agriculture. As we talked, he spoke a universal language of farming and seasons, discussing food in ways an Oregon vegetable farmer might. Yet, his tone spoke to an overwavering philosophy – just like the pace of an Italian dinner is much slower and thus more pleasurable, Mario’s approach to farming is slower and more contemplative than our Western system. When we talked about scale and labeling, he didn’t indicate a concern about needing to grow, or worries about finding a market for his food, or if he should label his cheese in a specific way to garner more recognition. The farm’s 50 sheep and 20 goats are the “perfect number” for his farm. “I want to grow not in quantity, but in more quality," he stated.

Slow Food has never seemed more aptly named than after two weeks of eating in Italy and this three hour conversation with Mario. Quality comes from contemplation, and quality is only savored by not rushing. Consider Mario’s cheese cave: he thought about creating an aging cave for four years, but only broke ground and finished it this year, doing all of the work himself, creating a naturally humid cave where he ages his goat and sheep cheese and occasionally a fontina for a friend, the cheese’s moldy coverings beautiful in the orange hued light.

Like all of us, Mario isn’t without goals, but he follows a slower process that is anathema to much of American culture. “Step by step. It takes time. Not quickly: we must think before we do. Slow, slow. One step, now the second step.” Can you imagine an American businessman saying this? Green Fennel Farm, in addition to their cheese, is now 90% self sufficient, growing wine, fruit, nuts, vegetables, wheat. In fact, the only thing they don’t grow is olive oil; he trades cheese, apples, and flour for olive oil with a friend in Liguria.

Slow Food was founded on the principles that food should be good, clean, and fair (just). Mario hasn’t modeled his farm to conform with Slow Food principles: his farm fits within Slow Food by its very nature. Mario explained that while organic is “clean” (helping to preserve rather than destroy the environment) it’s certainly not good (as in: connected to geography and climate) or fair (demonstrated by sustainable wages and worker rights). “I’m not interested if your tomato doesn’t have a pesticide but you had a slave pick the tomato,” he illustrated. To Mario, the little scale is “the real old culture of Italy”, a culture that spreads the riches around, with riches being defined as more than just money.

The majority of Mario’s cheese is sold directly to consumers (“people know the excellent cheese of Mario”), highlighting the strength of the rural agricultural connection that still exists in Italy. The remaining cheese is sold to a group of families, similar to an American CSA or animal share; he sometimes takes cheese to the market, and even more occasionally sells some to a neighboring restaurant.

While Mario, Isa, and their collection of WWOOfers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) tend to the sheep, goats, and produce, they’re surrounded by other farms, also with a collection of WWOOFers, also growing food for themselves and their community. This is the Italian food culture that’s written about in my cookbooks. But that’s not the only Italian food culture. Slow Food, with sweeping goals that include defending regional traditions, focusing on gastronomic pleasure, and encouraging a slower pace of life, has also partnered with and promoted the massive Italian food store and experience, Eataly. Slow Food has never claimed to be anti-globalization or trying to create an image of Italy that never actually existed. A partnership with Eataly offers a clear rebuttal to one writer’s challenges that Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, “offers a country without supermarkets, a country without its own fast food chains.”

Eataly houses restaurants and shopping in massive buildings throughout Italy, Japan and the US, in an attempt to market Italian products in a way that’s accessible to all. Instead of going to individual stores for cheese, salumi, and bread, one can just visit Eataly. Instead of navigating inconsistent hours, stressful parking, or the possibility that an item might be sold out, one can just visit Eataly. Called the “kinder, gentler version of Italy” by writer Elizabeth Rosenthal, I have mixed reactions to the concept as a whole, fearing the march to uniformity and the attempt to package a culture for export. Rosenthal, and all of the shoppers I saw at one location of Eataly in Turin, no doubt enjoy focusing on the food, free from the headaches that might come from shopping in a traditional Italian way. And yet, focusing on the food, in Italy and America, should involve the real focus on food: who produced it or grew it, perhaps even a conversation with the producer on the best way to prepare it. Accepting facelessness for convenience is a historically slippery slope, with clever signs and creative photos replacing messy, yet thrilling reality.

The internet is awash with commentary on Eataly, some admiring that Eataly brings together a collection of quality ingredients and is less expensive, while others argue that Oscar Farinetti, the founder of Eataly, is selling a seductive image of Italy. One writer on Chowhoud has drawn a line in the sand, writing, “The future of food and food culture in Europe is right now totally up for grabs. Personally, I hope the corporate interests lose, but I’m braced for defeat. I’d rather starve than walk into another EATALY again.”

While I see Eataly as a mixed bag and Slow Food as only one cog in Italy’s food culture, they are both united by one thing: pleasure and taste. Italy’s food culture is vastly different from America’s because it links food, enjoyment, regionalism, and seasonality. Italians know that the best tasting foods come from farms and producers who are supported by their local community; this support incentivizes the producers to create even better products. It’s a circle of taste expectations, with the community, producer, and environment reaping rewards along the way. Eataly needs to be careful that growth and branding don’t eclipse taste and quality.

Mario and Isa live a traditional farming life that’s connected to their community, not to a global food economy. You won’t find Mario’s cheese in any Eataly; unless you’re a part of Mario’s community, you won’t even get to sample his cheese. He’s not tweeting about his latest award, and the local artisan cheese shop doesn’t prominently showcase his latest creation. Green Fennel Farm cares about their relationship to their land, and, concurrently to the influence they can have on young interns, rather than a brand or image. This is their global connection: not selling at Eataly, but inspiring aspiring farmers from varied worldwide locations to learn the art of cheese-making, to absorb the intuitive nature of seasonal changes, and to translate this knowledge to their own community. Those lessons can be exported, but they can’t be turned into a massive chain or claim to touch everyone. Mario’s impact is small, but it’s great. Ultimately, that should be the expectation for farms of his scale, both in Italy and in America: a collection of principled farmers farming not for sacrifice but for “la bella vita”, never diluting quality for quantity.

In many ways the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont offer the best illustration of traditional Italian food, as uninfluenced (as possible) by outside expectations. I genuinely felt as if I were just part of a regular day when I walked around Parma and Modena and Alba – I wasn’t viewing someone else’s Italy. But when I journeyed to the coast, specifically Cinque Terre, I felt Italy transformed into an outsiders’ projection of it. Suddenly I couldn’t distinguish what was real and what was played up for tourists’ benefit. In Emilia–Romagna I hadn’t doubted the quality of the ingredients, the story behind them, and the tradition seeping into the flavor. But in Cinque Terre, a bowl of pasta delivered with “homemade pesto” was met with extreme skepticism. It’s not because I didn’t believe that Liguria has a storied food tradition, it’s because I felt like business interests had trampled part of that tradition, at least the part that visitors get to see.

So what is the line between connected and real? How can a food culture retain its roots, yet still adapt?

There must be a balance of belief in the product, a product created for intrinsic reasons that are difficult to explain (especially with a language barrier!), a banishment of the concept of operating out of a sense of sacrifice, a belief in quality. Slow Food and Eataly represent distinct belief systems of Italian food culture, but instead of one becoming victorious, there can be room for both in the global food culture, so long as a consumer doesn’t equate Mario’s farmstead cheese with the cheese you can buy at Eataly. They’re both Italian cheeses, potentially both made with milk from happy, nurtured animals, but the story is not the same. I don’t know the story of the cheese at Eataly. I do know Mario’s.