Food Culture and Tradition

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Italian Food and Culture


The profoundly civilizing influences of Italian kitchens and table manners touch almost everyone. Even a brief examination of Italian cuisine offers convincing evidence that Italy’s mission of civilizing the world may have had its deepest impact on gastronomy. All of this seemed to have been predicted in 100 C.E., when Pliny the Elder claimed Italy “mother of all nations with a mission to civilize mankind” and 1,200 years later, Dante, too, spoke of a politically united Italy that would have a “special place as the sacred garden of Christendom.” The universalism of Imperial Rome was one thing, but the sense of unity and mission collapsed with the Western Empire in the late 400s C.E.

When the Romans conquered the Greeks in 197 C.E., they enlarged their empire and profoundly enriched their culture in the form of arts and architecture, literature and philosophy. Greek became more than ever before the language of the literate and the language of international trade. Therefore, educated Romans, unlike the Greeks and unlike most early peoples, had to learn to use a second language. Early Romans had learned to evaporate seawater to provide salt for their sheep and this skill became a profitable export to the Greeks in the South and the Etruscans in the North. In fact, the valuable salt exports increased with the expansion of the Roman Empire, but the language of trade was Greek.

Despite the many tales of exotic, gargantuan Roman feasts, all classes of early Romans valued frugality and simplicity and nowhere were these values more evident than in their food customs. Wheat, the staple food, was served at jentaculum (the early light meal) in the form of wheat pancakes, biscuits or breads, then served again at cena (the main meal) in the form of a boiled gruel or porridge. Milk, honey olives, and dates would accompany the main dish at either meal. Sometimes the wealthy would add gustato or promulsio – hors d’oeuvres of salads, radishes, mushrooms, eggs, oysters, or sardines – to the basic typical meal, and desserts of honeyed cakes and fruits would complete the special meal.

While puls or pulmentum was the staple porridge-like dish for all, early Romans also enjoyed cottage cheese, the use of iron kettles to boil their mutton, types of dumplings called gnocchi, even omelets and cheesecakes. Some of the earliest Roman kitchens made knowing use of bakery molds, cutting knives and round chopping knives, cooking spoons and measuring spoons, mortar and pestle. Small portable brick ovens were used for keeping foods hot in the dining area. An arrangement of one pot inside another and set in hot water
was used to keep other foods warm but not cooking. There can be little doubt that this latter technique was the forerunner of the French bain-marie and the western double boiler.

Dishes chilled with snow, vessels treated with pitch to keep foods cool, inspectors to check the freshness of meats in butcher shops, commercial bakers, and even commercially prepared seasonings were all familiar. Garum or liquamen was one such seasoning prepared from fish and salt; defrutum was a syrup made from wine and honey or grapes and honey; agrodolce (said to have been developed by Apicius) was a sweet-sour sauce prepared in many ways. Honey and vinegar were widely used but so was silphium or laserpitium, a prized flavoring prepared from asafetida (a sour-tasting spice with a strong aroma used in Indian cookery).

By 200 C.E. all these foods, seasonings, and techniques were commonplace for the Romans. Gradually the commercial bakeries became so widespread and dependable that all but the very poor relied on them for fresh daily baked goods. Those who could not afford to buy breads relied on the old gruels and porridges. Small stones pressed into larger concave stones probably represent the earliest forms of grinding, to be followed by mortar and pestle, but it was about 200 C.E. that a small hand mill called a mola versatilis or quern became a prized item in Roman kitchens.

Apples were plentiful and popular but it took later conquests to bring the taste (and the plants) for cherry trees home from Asia. Apricots and peaches were brought from Armenia and Persia, melons from both Persia and areas of North Africa, and dates from Africa. Rome’s returning Asiatic armies also brought back sophisticated ideas of seasoning and tales of Oriental dishes. By the 800s C.E., Islamic conquests began to influence European foods. The Saracens are reputed to have introduced spinach (the special ingredient in so many Florentine dishes) to Italy from its native Persia. Many unusual desserts were also introduced at this time, most notably gelati, the whole range of ice creams and sherbets that the Muslims had learned from the Persians and East Indians. There is evidence that the earliest record of frozen desserts and ice- or snow-chilled foods accrue to the Chinese. Although the Arabs knew about sugar cultivation, they found it difficult to introduce it successfully.

The Romans also introduced culinary ideas to other lands. From earliest times, the Greeks thought of the Romans as a wine-producing nation and learned from them wine fermentation and processing techniques as well as the drinking of wine diluted with water and often sweetened with honey. Most of the world had been content to dine on spit-roasted meats, but the Romans seem to have introduced the notion of boiling and stewing in kettles. Various boiled greens (many considered weeds today) were commonly used in many lands, but the Romans brought with them the conviction that cabbage was worth cultivating since it contained medicinal properties. (Yet cabbage prepared in many ways – even fermented like Germany’s sauerkraut and Korea’s kimchi – predates Roman times as it was known and used in early China.) In fact, Europe took the Romans word that oysters were delicious and even set about cultivating them in many lands. Similarly, edible snails were introduced to European palates by the Romans and remain a French favorite today.

The Roman belief in the efficacy of almonds as an aid to sobriety may have been the forerunner of salted almonds as a cocktail snack in many parts of the world, especially Spain. Central Europe’s penchant for sausages in endless variety may have derived from the many types of spiced sausages, stuffed meats and fish that were common at the time of Apicius, a gastronome of the 1st century C.E., who wrote the first non-Asian cookbook.

At the time of the Crusades (around 1000 C.E.) some new culinary touches were introduced to Italy and some old ones revived. Indian salt was the name given to sugar, used at first as a condiment and later as a base for desserts and confections. Believed to have originated near Jerusalem and named for the Saracens, buckwheat (called sarracin in French, sarraceno in Spanish, and saraceno in Italian) was brought back by the Crusaders. Use of many spices was revived and the use of the tangy lemon was reintroduced to replace the green grapes and other fruits that had been used both to flavor and to tenderize meats. The present-day carciofi alla Giudia (literally “artichokes in the Jewish way”) may have dated from the Crusades or from even earlier times when the Jews were brought back to Rome as slaves. In any case, the Italian enjoyment of carciofo remains.

Encouraged by the meal styles they had enjoyed abroad, the Crusaders are also responsible for the return of the meal pattern including appetizer, main course, and dessert. The prevailing custom in the Middle East of serving foods on large heaped platters also found a place on many Italian tables. The question of the origin of pasta seems to have no ready answer. Once again some of the earliest references to types of noodles come from Chinese sources (wheat is the North China staple and noodles are the most popular form of preparation). Some believe that it was the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who brought dried noodles to Italy Others believe that Italians were eating forms of pasta before Marco Polo but its importance and use were limited. What cannot be argued is that the varieties of pasta today are nowhere greater than in Italy.

The next most significant period in Italy’s culinary history occurred in the late 1400s and 1500s when the country’s great cities were the merchant centers of the world and her gastronomic achievements had no competitors. The gluttony accredited to ancient Roman leaders had long given way to a general inclination for simplicity and frugality, so much so that in many areas, traditional favorites would have been lost to succeeding generations were it not for the monasteries that preserved the great recipes and encouraged their monks to interpret them with taste. Sugar, coffee, and ice cream were introduced to the rest of Europe via Venice, together with many of the culinary details that had long been commonplace in Italian kitchens (stewing, frying, elaborate breads and baked goods and efficient utensils).

At the same time, growing world explorations were bringing back to Europe New World products such as corn, red and green peppers, varieties of beans, turkeys, and potatoes (of limited popularity in Italy). Most significantly, the pomo d’oro (golden apple) – the name given to the early tomato which was of a yellow variety – was lifted to gastronomic heights in Southern Italy’s ubiquitous tomato sauces. But there is also some evidence that original Italian tomatoes were started from seeds brought back from a missionary trip to China by Monk Serenio in the Middle Ages.

While it may seem from the foregoing that food and food customs in Italy are the same throughout the country, this is not true. Nor are the Italians themselves homogeneous. Unfortunately, however, the predominating western view of Italy, Italian food, and Italians has been a blur of dark hair, emotional personalities, and pasta, tomato sauce, garlic, and wine. In fact, the peoples of Italy developed from early migrations of tribes throughout Europe and even Asia and North Africa. Italians, like other people, have red hair (from the northern region), may have gentle personalities, and enjoy a far greater variety of food than just pasta! And while geography played some part in isolating areas from each other, much more important was the part played by the battles between the popes and the emperors, each courting towns and eventually favoring development of northern and central Italy as almost independent states.

The fragmentation of the states left Italy vulnerable to powerful outside influences: French, Spanish and, later, Austrian. Most especially, Southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia fell under Spanish control and exploitation for 250 years (from 1559 to the early 1800s), which resulted in great part in the poverty, pestilence, disease, and famine relieved only by the great charities and hospitals run by religious orders.

The Spanish oppression of Southern Italy had many other effects as well. The debt-crushed peasants rebelled by forming secret societies and strongly emphasizing the power of the family unit, both of which exist to this day As recently as 1958, Edwin Banfield’s study of Southern Italy confirmed the prevalent attitudes of “family first and family against everything else,” and Luigi Barzini takes care to explain this same phenomenon by stating that mafioso (with a small “m”) means “… a subtle art of promoting one’s own interests without killing anyone,” while Mafioso (with a capital “M”) includes everything else.

Probably from the influence of the Saracens and their Muslim ideals of womanhood, as well as the later influence of the Spanish, Southern Italians are possessively proud of their women, and consider honor a matter of life and death. Also in keeping with Mediterranean influence, the people of the South take a leisurely view of time in general and punctuality in particular, enjoy afternoon siestas, and spell happiness with the conviviality of boisterous friends and an open bottle of wine.

In 1713, Italy came under Austrian influence but was not isolated from the effects of the French Revolution. These events bound the Northern Italians in a risorgimento of culture, stressing the commonality of all of Italy’s great cultural heritage and hoping for political unity. Even the proclamation of King Victor Emanuel of Piedmont as King of Italy in 1861 could neither allay the South’s economic distress nor cement the cleavage between North and South.

Northern Italy remained strongly influenced culturally economically, and politically by Europe, and later construction of railway tunnels in the mountains increased this influence. The peoples themselves became diffused with Germans, French, Austrians, and Slays, gave their women considerable freedom, were too busy to consider siestas (nor did the climate warrant the rest periods), and cultivated conservative but elegant taste in everything from manners and clothing to food and wine.

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