Italian for food lovers
Whenever someone tells me that they’re no good at learning languages, a hair-raising adventure on the motorways of Naples springs to mind. We were lost, we were rattled and the only way we were going to get to the airport was if some young locals could point out our location on a map. They did. “Mille grazie!” (a thousand thank-yous!). Suddenly my companion, who had spent a week in Italy without attempting a word of the language, was expressing effusive thanks in the Italian way. There’s nothing like an emergency to motivate even the most nervous linguist to try communicating.
But what about when the emergency is more millefoglie (millefeuille) than motorway-related? You might be able to avoid going hungry on holiday with some pointing and miming, but learning just a little of the language reaps some tasty rewards for anyone who loves their food.
Nowhere is this truer than in Italy, where the link between local produce and cuisine is still strong and each region can boast its own specialities. The ability to ask a local for advice and the confidence to explore a menu could take your taste buds far.
We made La Mappa Misteriosa, a new online drama from BBC Languages that guides you to learn Italian from scratch, with this in mind. The adventure begins with the discovery of a treasure map that will lead you to the lost recipe of a famous, fictional 1960s Italian chef, Giovanni Serretto. You play one of the characters in the story and along the way there are other characters to meet and culinary puzzles to solve. Watch this short clip to get a taster:
But where to set the drama when each region’s food has a very different story to tell? We plumped for the Emilia Romagna region which surrounds Bologna, nicknamed “La Grassa”, or “the fat one”. The nickname hints at the local penchant for all things porcine and its status as the self-styled foodie capital of Italy, but might also be related to its particularly wealthy history. We had no doubt that our fictional chef would have wanted to create a beautiful cake that reflected the produce of his beloved Emilia Romagna, and so, la torta di Serretto was born.
The cake is loosely based on Bologna’s Certosino, a rich, dense fruit cake, and the Castagnaccio, a firm cake made from chestnut flour and often containing pine nuts and rosemary. The torta di Serretto is a lighter and sweeter alternative and all its ingredients, with the exception of some fennel seeds are produced in Emilia Romagna. There is no pork in the recipe, though if you ever find yourself in Ravenna or Rimini, you might want to try a piadina, a moreish and not at all greasy flatbread that is a revelation in cooking with lard.
The relationship between languages, food and culture is fascinating. For example, I am told there is no Italian equivalent of the British ‘doggy bag’ because taking leftovers home is just not part of Italian culture. Luckily, being willing to have a go and risk a small mistake is the hallmark of a successful language learner. After all, if you ask for pesce (fish) ice cream instead of gelato di pesche (peach ice cream) like one of the contributors to BBC Languages’ humorous Don’t Try This Abroad feature, the worst you risk is that the vendor holds their nose.
If you’re a food lover, you probably know quite a bit of Italian already. You probably know the words for milk (latte), fickle or capricious (capricciosa), seashells (conchiglie), butterflies (farfalle), to cut (tagliare, think of tagliatelle). Beware false-friends though: in Italian crudo is not crude, merely uncooked, like the cured ham prosciutto crudo. Something that’s cooked is “cotto”, like panna cotta, literally “cooked cream”.
To really whet your appetite and learn some Italian along the way, try setting off on your own Italian adventure with La Mappa Misteriosa. You’ll discover the landscapes that cultivate each ingredient, from an elegant apicoltura (honey farm) to an eerie salina, where salt is harvested from the sea.
We can’t promise that you won’t get lost as you follow our ‘mysterious map’, but you definitely won’t go hungry. Next time you visit Italy or an Italian restaurant you’ll be able to start some culinary adventures all of your own.
Do you find your desire to learn a language is motivated by food? Have you been to Italy recently? How did you get by ordering food in restaurants?
Oonagh Jaquest is the Editor of BBC Languages.