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Has Italian food lost its 'authenticity'?

Nigella Lawson's plum and Amaretti crumble

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Nigella Lawson is the latest chef to showcase an interpretation of Italian food. It's a cuisine heralded for its traditional tastes and style, but has its authenticity been lost along the way?

Move over tiramisu, there's a new Italian dessert in town.

Il crumble.

You'd be forgiven for thinking fruit crumble was a British dish, but in her BBC Two cooking programme Nigellissima Nigella Lawson shares her new ruby-red plum and Amaretti version.

Nigella's new Italian recipes:

'Meatzza'

Love pizza? Then try the meaty 'meatzza'

Taste Sicilian pasta with garlic and almonds

Tantalise with crunchy Tuscan fries

"Along with a lot of not traditionally Italian baking, the good old English crumble has seemed to be gaining in popularity - even modishness in Italy," she writes in her recipe book.

What's happening in Italy, the home of real Italian food? Its food concepts have been exported and adopted around the world, but global foods are also finding their way back into Italy and changing the landscape.

Take Nigella's meatzza recipe - pizza with a meat base. Ever heard of that before?

She writes about the recipe: "It amuses. But then, a culinary pun, it is intended to amuse: it looks like a pizza but its base is made out of meatball mixture... rather like a juicy disc of meatloaf or polpettone."

So just what makes food "authentic"?

Start Quote

The term 'pasta sauce' is meaningless in Italian, because authentic Italian sauce is regional”

End Quote Maryann Tebben Associate professor at Bard College at Simon's Rock

Zachary Nowak, food historian and assistant director of the food studies programme at The Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy says Italian food culture as we know it today actually developed in the post-war economic boom in the country after WWII.

"We would like to imagine we are eating what a peasant in 1800 or 1500 was eating - but they weren't. There is definitely a national Italian food culture now, but I would argue it's not an historical one," he explains.

He thinks that authentic means that "over a certain period of time... say 100 years, it has been a common food, with more or less the same preparation and context for the majority of people in a given area".

Sticking to this definition, Mr Nowak says, there's only one traditional Italian ingredient around today that was around 100 years ago - polenta.

"You can go to Manhattan and have polenta and it costs $20 and is a very chic thing, it's going beyond the Italian food offered in the States maybe 20 years ago.

"But polenta has a completely different meaning to the farmer in the 1890s. It didn't mean a hearty meal, it didn't mean authenticity, it meant monotony and misery and poverty, so as soon as they could get rid of polenta, they did, in the post-war boom."

Polenta remains a hard sell, says chef Theo Randall, who has his own "Italian inspired" restaurant at the Intercontinental, Park Lane, London.

Nigella Lawson

"If you were really authentic and cooking peasant food you'd cook polenta, but people just don't get it in this country. If you put polenta on the menu it's not going to be a big seller."

Mr Nowak says Unesco has recognised the "Mediterranean Diet" on its Lists of Intangible Heritage, but argues the items the diet includes are things people did not eat 100 years ago. Describing that diet "as historical is an enormous invention", he says, "it's the beautiful confluence of people wanting to be authentic and huge marketing and tourism businesses wanting to deliver that".

Olive oil is one such part of the diet.

Mr Nowak says in the 1800s it was really expensive, an industrial lubricant, poor quality, and documents show peasants hardly bought much of it at all - about a tablespoon a day.

The expert's opinion

Massimo Bottura

Massimo Bottura, chef patron of the three Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana, Modena writes how he favours "flavour in evolution"

He describes it as "the best example of how this tradition has been pushed back retroactively - it's definitely not an 'authentic' Italian food stuff".

But today premium olive oil is widely loved as one of the cuisine's key ingredients.

Theo Randall says the availability of Italy's finest foods has changed Italian cooking the world over.

"One thing that is quite staggering is just how much Italian food people eat in this country, and the quality of authentic ingredients available. I just bought three kinds of squashes from southern Italy, and I could never get them a few years ago.

"I love going and getting ideas from all over Italy and then bringing them back and using what I think is the Italian philosophy of food - which is buying wonderful ingredients and not mucking them about too much, keeping it quite simple and letting the ingredients speak for themselves, and letting the flavour of the vegetable, meat or fish really come out."

The modern perception of Italian ingredients can be traced back to the Italian immigrants that settled in the US in the 19th Century, says Maryann Tebben, an associate professor at Bard College at Simon's Rock, Massachusetts.

Cook like an Italian:

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She says they purposefully took a set of foods that were familiar to them to the US - such as tomatoes and dried pasta, and classified those foods as "Italian cuisine", despite them being from various regions of Italy.

But why?

"Because they wanted to have a market for their foods, and it was much harder to market them as Calabrian or Sicilian, to the Italians in the immigrant enclaves in New York at the time, but... they didn't want to divide customers.

"But it was also because they wanted to get into industrial marketing, they needed a united front," she explains.

Industrialisation led to the standardisation of pasta, pasta sauces, and other products. Today people associate Italy's pasta and pasta sauces as cornerstones of the cuisine.

Maryann Tebben has been researching Italian sauces for a book she's writing on the history of sauce, as the homogenisation of "pasta sauce" in the US was her inspiration.

"In the US when you say pasta sauce people think only of spaghetti with tomato sauce, but you can't say or do that in Italian.

Start Quote

Everyone's grandma made tomato sauce a little bit differently”

End Quote Prof Carole Counihan Editor-in-chief of food and foodways at Millersville University

"There's no one pasta and there's no one sauce. 'Pasta sauce' the term is meaningless in Italian, because authentic Italian sauce is regional.

"And the regionality means you can't define or say for certain what Italian cuisine is, because there is no one idea of it."

Indeed this regionality has been put back at the centre of the fight to retain the roots of Italian cooking.

Carole Counihan, editor-in-chief of food and foodways and professor emerita of anthropology at Millersville University, Pennsylvania, US, says her research shows that there have been dramatic changes in the way that Italians buy their food - with the masses now preferring to shop in supermarkets rather than local stores.

Like many western countries, Italians are consuming more international food and processed food, and cooking habits are changing.

Tiramisu

The Italian language has a reputation for being particularly poetic. This is especially true in the case of food, as it boasts some of the most creative names for dishes and cakes.

Consider the evergreen tiramisu, which literally translates as "pick me up". This is a hint to the magical properties of its main ingredient: coffee.

Nigella writes in her book: "Some say that it was invented in a casa chiusa, or house of ill repute, to give the working girls a 'pick-me-up', as the name suggests."

Two baked treats from the north of Italy are named as sweetly as they taste: the dainty, macaron-like baci di dama ("dame's kisses"), and the melt-in-your-mouth brutti ma buoni. The latter translates as "ugly but good", or "ugly but tasty".

The meat-rich saltimbocca ("jumps in the mouth") evoke that party-in-your-mouth feeling that is typical when eating an Italian dish.

On the other hand, strozzapreti have a pretty dark name - "priest stranglers". Who knew that pasta could be so morbid?

Prof Counihan says it is what has inspired a movement to return to locally sourced food.

"It is somewhat shocking when you look at Italy and you think about the profound importance of... local food, cultural food, terroir - for true Italians, the real prevalence and prominence of their food is a marker of local identity.

"So the transforming food system really I think impinges or conflicts with that traditional identification of local identity with local food," she says.

"A lot of Italians talk about the taste of home, or the taste of our food, so taste is a motivator to return to local foods - local food tastes better, satisfies an atavistic craving for foods that represent home, culture, tradition, community, it's pretty amazing because it encompasses the whole of the culture.

"Everyone's grandma made tomato sauce a little bit differently," she explains.

Such "traditions are traditions because they have evolved", says Zachary Nowak.

Many experts believe food is authentic only when it is evolving, as there is no one moment that makes it more "authentic" than another.

Massimo Bottura, the chef-patron of the three Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana, Modena, which ranks at number five on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, the highest placed Italian restaurant, is one.

He says it is "as if Italian food is not allowed to evolve".

"Everyone talks about authenticity but I am not sure that is really what they are aiming for… it almost seems like copying from someone else's test and not thinking things through properly," he says.

"If traditions are put under glass they stagnate. People forget about them and they are lost forever.

Alpine pizza Traditional foods were once innovations, and they continue to evolve

"By keeping them actual and contemporary, there is a chance that they will be passed onto future generations which ensures that culinary heritage continues to give people a sense of place and belonging," he explains.

William Drew is the editor of Restaurant magazine, and the chairing judge for the Birra Morretti Emerging Italian Restaurant Awards. He says Italian food is "far from losing its authenticity".

"It's difficult to define but some restaurants are very avant garde, but are grounded in authenticity in a recipe - the ingredients, their seasonality... and what has been put together with traditional dish construction, sometimes is then used to deconstruct."

But for true authenticity, he says you can't beat the right ambience.

"What really makes an Italian restaurant 'authentic' is conviviality. Eating together being a communal, family process, so you want a welcoming maitre d'or chef patron - it's that combination of eating and experience."

But perhaps authentic Italian food in its purest form is easiest to achieve with one simple lesson.

As Theo Randall says: "Italian food is simple and should remain simple."

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