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Italian for food lovers

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Oonagh Jaquest Oonagh Jaquest | 15:33 UK time, Friday, 23 September 2011

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:

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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.

Torta di Serretto (Serretto’s cake)


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.



  • Comment number 1.

    Eh? Why isn't this blog referred to moderators for being off topic. The tenuous link to food is as thin as it gets.
    No offence to the blogger but posters have been sanctioned for less.

  • Comment number 2.

    Ah one rule for us , And one rule for the BBC . Look at the still running F1 farce ( Oh at to keep the moderators happy Food / love thing is a load of tosh that tries to make us buy certain foods and go to certain restaurants on certain days )

  • Comment number 3.

    I was quite happy to stumble on here from the food page probably never would have discovered it otherwise.
    Anyway I don't speak much Italian but I'm pretty sure it's Grazie mille! not Mille grazie!

  • Comment number 4.

    Before my languages of food was as developed as it is nowadays (I can read menus in quite few languages, even if that IS all I know of the language!) I used to make a point of ordering a mystery dish - something I could not translate) from menus. Once, in Sicily, we ended up with a plate of boiled whelks (or soemthign very similar) in what can only be described as 'snot sauce' - they tasted superb, even though the eye appeal was limited.
    I still cannot remember the Italian for 'snot' (or 'parsley', which is what it was).

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm glad you stumbled upon the course Sean. I did check grazie mille/mille grazie with a native speaker and the answer was that you can say either.

    It's a good point as in some languages and some contexts word order can change meaning, but not in this one apparently.

    She said: "Personally, I would say 'grazie mille', but if someone, especially a non-native, came to me and said 'mille grazie' it wouldn't sound wrong."

    She also told me that in this particular case you might change the order for emphasis or poetic effect.

    Geoff, good to hear about an adventurous foodie/linguist. I don't think I know the Italian for 'snot sauce' either!

    Egg on a Stilt, I think the post itself explains why we think this programme and this subject is of interest to people who like Italian food. It's certainly the first time I've had the pleasure of commissioning a recipe for a piece of drama. We hope some food fans will be tempted to try learning some Italian and also try their hand at making the Torta di Serretto. I've made it three times now, and like it a lot.

  • Comment number 6.

    Just a plain old grazie does these days in Italy as I rarely hear the full mille grazie just as you don't hear the Brits giong around saying a thousand thank-yous. Just as it is mainly caio and not bon giorno or the Germans have their tchuss (a form of greeting like cheers) in place of guten tag.

    Their ciabatta bread sounds much nicer in their tongue than it's meaning in English - slipper as does orecchiette -litttle ears. It is a beautiful phrenetic launguage as it is so easy to learn unlike English which is a nightmare. The lover's claim -I love you or t'amo or in French je t'adore sounds so more appealing than in ghastly German - ich liebe dich!

    My Tuscan Nonna made wonderfull pancakes with the chestnut flour mentioned and filled with homemade ricotta and honey and she just called them Castagnaccio too. That cake is so much near the Tuscan Torta di Nonna (I have eaten it in Florence) but a little shallower and not as dense with more pinenuts on the top.

    Regarding taking left overs home I have to admit that when courses are served the portions are not of such gargantuan nature but so flavoursome that most plates are are easily cleared. Main courses would not be piled with two vegetables and two types of potatoes as in this country. A scallopini al limone will be enjoyed simply with some spinachi. In Italy I have never asked for a sacco di carne yet!

    A colleague of mine was amazed that he could not get a spaghetti bolognese in Turin. The waiter and chef had never heard of the dish. Just goes to show how truely regional and wonderful Italian food is. Pasta e fagioli in the North of Italy but pasta fazool (as in the song 'That' s Amore') in the South, oh and New Jersey too!

  • Comment number 7.

    I need an Italian course for vegetarians and vegans.


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