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Chef Q&A: Massimo Bottura on 'authentic' Italian food

Massimo Bottura

Has Italian food lost its authenticity? We put the question to Massimo Bottura, 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.

What does authentic Italian food mean to you?

I am an Italian chef, born and raised in Emilia Romagna. At age 49 I am still discovering new Italian flavours and asking myself "what are authentic Italian flavours?"

A great part of my investigation is about throwing away my own assumptions about tradition, territory and ingredients. Clean slate. I am tasting, travelling and discovering within my own country and outside it as well.

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It is as if Italian food is not allowed to evolve”

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I am interested in what other people think is Italian food and adding that to my reflection. Italian food is internationally appraised and yet it seems still to be stuck in someone's grandmother's kitchen.

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.

My recent investigations and research are focused around understanding techniques to sublime these flavours, let them be tasted for the first time, understand how to work with them and tell historical, fanatical, emotional stories with flavour.

When I talk about returning to the Classics, this is what I mean.

Perhaps I have been influenced by my teenage daughter who is studying Latin and ancient Greek in high school - thinking about how much of our culture has been influenced by the past centuries.

Italy is a country that has been trampled and traversed by so many different peoples. Each left behind something that has been integrated into our culture - especially our gastronomic culture.

This is interesting to me: finding the new in something very old.

Where do you think the tradition of Italian cooking will head?

Tradition in evolution is something I talk about all the time. Seeing tradition from 10 kilometres away. Taking some critical distance and thinking about continuity, longevity and terroir. Tradition is only as good as it is able to evolve and change in time.

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

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No rules. Just flavour…. flavour in evolution”

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I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of contamination or rather cross-pollination.

Italian gastronomic history developed because our country was invaded, trampled and trodden on.

Today there are so many interesting ethnic groups coming to Italy to work.

As a country we are still evolving and our traditions are as well. I am not an absolutist. If anything I tend to include rather than exclude so I will always be open to new ingredients coming from abroad.

A classic example of this idea is our version of "melanzana alla parmigiana" which takes on the form (and a touch of flavour) of a tom kai Thai soup.

All the ingredients are from Southern Italy - milk of buffalo mozzarella, eggplant, Neopolitan piennolo tomatoes confit, fresh oregano, caper and bergamot... all except a touch a lemongrass which allows your palate to travel a thousand miles at the speed of light and return back to the flavours of something familiar but almost forgotten.

This is what I mean by returning to the classics. No rules. Just flavour…. flavour in evolution.

Is there a certain period of cooking in Italian history that modern cuisine is closest to, or has it changed substantially?

If you think about it historically… Italy survived two world wars - from 1919-1945 Italy was engaged in wartime.

Our grandfathers (and great grandfathers) fought and our grandmothers (and great grandmothers) kept us alive.

Their ability to feed their families with very little resources is what has made their cooking legendary.

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When we chefs make reference to La Nonna, we are making reference to a time when the Italian family meal was an art”

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Of course, shortly thereafter, came the economic boom with the industrial production of food, restaurants and women going to work.

Everything changed - and not always for the better (regarding Italian cuisine).

When we chefs make reference to La Nonna, we are making reference to a time when the Italian family meal was an art - a delicate balance between seasonal products, economic conditions, health concerns, and traditional recipes.

As Pellegrino Artusi so poetically wrote in his book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, first published in 1891: "The Italian kitchen is a myriad of traditions passed down from generation to generation and brought from south to north, east to west, by extraordinary housewives who made do with what little they had but most importantly always gave value to time spent at the table."

The family meal is still sacred in Italy where schoolchildren leave school to eat a hot lunch at home before returning to lessons, and bankers and factory workers often return to their mother's home for lunch to share time and a plate of pasta.

It is not the recipe from La Nonna that counts, it is the ritual.

Italian food has been adopted and adapted around the world - why do you think it has evolved so much?

Italian cuisine is one of the most important in the world for several reasons:

Historically: Italian culture dates back to pre-historic villages.

The Etruscans were a thriving population.

Pasta machine

The Greeks invaded Southern Italy, the Arabs, the Vikings, the Moors, and so forth. The Roman Empire eventually was crushed by the Barbarians.

History has placed many layers upon the surface of this country and many cross-cultural influences have left their mark on its cuisine.

Italian cuisine from north to south is one of the richest and most vibrant kitchens, thanks to the diverse populations that inhabited this country and brought products, techniques and new flavour combinations to a fertile land.

Just think about pasta which originated in Asia.

Geographically: Italy is a small country surrounded by five seas, with many mountain ranges, volcanoes and miles of coastline.

The diverse terrain and climates in various regions creates a rich and varied quantity of products and ingredients.

This array of products has been influential in developing a kitchen that is simple, healthy and seasonally driven. These are three basic secrets to eating well.

From Piemonte there are truffles, hazelnuts and some of the most incredible wines in the world (not to mention the cheese tradition); from Liguria a tradition of vegetables, olive oil and fish.

From Emilia Romagna, Parmigiano Reggiano, aceto balsamico and prosciutto.

And the list continues down to the tip of Sicily and the island of Pantelleria where the most extraordinary capers, almonds, citrus fruits and olives are grown.

Socially: For over 2,000 years Italy was a country invaded by others.

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Is there a city in the world that does not have at least one pizzeria?”

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Over the past 200 years it has been a country that exported Italians to far corners of the planet.

Thus Italian cuisine is known and loved all over the world. Is there a city in the world that does not have at least one pizzeria?

Spaghetti is eaten from Russia to Japan. A '"caprese" salad with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes has become one of the most classic dishes of the 20th Century.

All of this is thanks to a population of Italians who have left their own country to begin Italian communities abroad.

The bottom line is that Italian food is healthy, practical, and delicious.

It is seasonally based, quite simple, and generally pleasing to adults and children alike.

As Italian cuisine is all about the ingredients, and not so much about technique, it is a kitchen that adapts well to many people's lifestyles.

Buy the freshest ingredients, make sure the recipe pays respect to them, and keep it simple.

You really can't go wrong, that is, unless you cook the pasta for half an hour, forget about the roast and over whip the mascarpone, in which case, maybe you shouldn't be in the kitchen in the first place.

Does Italian food have to be cooked by an Italian to be "Italian"?

This is a myth.

Italian food is prepared all over the world from Mexico City to Kyoto by chefs who have fallen in love with the Italian kitchen.

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The most important quality for any chef preparing Italian food is to know how to source ingredients and respect their origins”

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Anyone who has travelled to Japan knows that some of the best Italian chefs there have been trained in Italy. I am lucky enough to have three Japanese chefs in my kitchen in Modena.

They are passionate about quality ingredients, very able with broths and sauces, and natural pasta makers.

But the most important quality for any chef preparing Italian food is to know how to source ingredients and respect their origins.

By that I mean that they understand where they come from, whether they are part of northern Italian culture or southern Italian, and how they have been used traditionally.

Once that is clear, then there is room for improvisation, contamination and the evolution of traditional plates.

Does it have to be made from "traditional" ingredients?

There are two sides to this coin. On one side certain ingredients cannot be substituted with less.

Ingredients such as Parmigiano Reggiano from the Emilian region of Italy, or traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena, extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany or Liguria, prosciutto from Parma, capers from Pantelleria, truffles from Alba, bergamot from Calabria are the backbone of the Italian kitchen and should be kept in one's cupboard.

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Traditional ingredients do not necessarily have to be used in a traditional way”

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But on the other side of the coin, these traditional ingredients do not necessarily have to be used in a traditional way.

Recently I have been playing with traditions like Roman spaghetti "cacio and pepe".

Instead of re-making this dish in Modena, I am making a similar sauce with Parmigiano Reggiano and crushed pepper and substituting the spaghetti, which is very southern Italian, with risotto, which is locally grown. I am calling it Risotto "cacio e pepe".

This dish falls somewhere between a classic risotto and a Roman cacio e pepe. It is neither one nor the other but pays homage to both.

This is a way to appropriate or borrow neighboring traditions within my own country and elaborate them to express my regionality.

This is my personal vision of "zero kilometre" cooking… where my mind is free to travel great distances but my ingredients are sourced locally.

How do you think traditions have evolved in Italian cooking? Have they been lost or retained in Italy or abroad?

In Italy our culinary traditions still define who we are. Emilians like rich pork and egg based pastas.

Pasta e fagioli served in a parfait glass Osteria Francescana's pasta e fagioli, layered in a parfait glass

Sicilians use spices like mint, cinnamon and bitter almonds. Piemontese are heavily influenced by French cuisine and so on.

Traditions are no more than experiments well received and repeated over time. They are not absolute solutions to be frozen in time but ideas that can evolve - and should be allowed to evolve - based on the availability of ingredients, the kind of lifestyle, and dietary concerns.

I often describe my kitchen as "tradition seen from ten kilometres away".

Traditions are a point of departure, not a point of arrival.

Traditional plates can tap into an emotional state which releases creativity and expression.

Osteria Francescana's version of the Emilian classic "pasta e fagioli" has many layers served in a parfait glass.

The bottom is a "crème royal" which pays tribute to my classical French training with Alain Ducasse, the top layer is rosemary air which nods to my experience with Ferran Adria.

Pasta e fagioli

Massimo Bottura's dish evolved from the traditional version

In the middle there are the beans and the "pasta", only that instead of pasta squares there are thinly sliced cooked Parmigiano Reggiano crust.

It is chewier than pasta and full of flavour.

It is what I remember most about my grandmother's cooking (she melted the crusts in broths to lend flavour and we ate them like chewing gum).

Here a pasta and bean soup becomes a summary of my gastronomic history and a fine example of tradition in evolution.

What do you think about pasta, pizza, tomato sauce becoming staple foods around the world?

I think that Mr Esposito, who invented pizza, was a genius.

Pizza Margherita is one of the most successful culinary experiments ever made with quite humble ingredients, some flour, tomatoes and local cheese, and a slight hand.

It is hard to believe that the tomato came from South America in the 1400s, but has become famous thanks to waves of Italian immigrants over the past century, and now is a staple food around the world eaten in Russia, Africa, Asia and perhaps, even in outer space.

What has been the most "evolved" Italian dish you have made or would like to make?

I began seriously working with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese about 20 years ago.

Now I am not talking about cheese for grating or sprinkling on other dishes, I am talking about creating a dish with one primary ingredient - Parmigiano Reggiano.

This is what I call "territory seen from ten kilometres away".

It is the evolution of the ingredient and the perfect combination of technique to sublime and express the potential of certain iconic Italian products.

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At the end of the day, the evolution of ideas is what counts for me. Only then do I feel that I am contributing to the rich culinary traditions I belong to”

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Parmigiano Reggiano is an incredible ingredient, especially considering the transformation that takes place in the aging process - not only in flavour but also in chemical components.

Parmigiano Reggiano is made in Emilia, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Parma and Piacenza.

There are many varieties of Parmigiano Reggiano depending on the location of the animals (and the cheesemaker) as well as how long it is aged - minimum 24 months, traditionally 36 months, and up to 50 months.

At Osteria Francescana the plate "Five temperatures and textures of Parmigiano Reggiano" is a perfect example of my cuisine and this extraordinary product.

This recipe began in 1995 as a monochrome, in shades of white with three temperatures and textures.

It has evolved with time into five elements all made with the same product but with different cheese producers and different stages of maturity.

This dish is grounded in terroir and yet it projects into the future. At the end of the day, the evolution of ideas is what counts for me. Only then do I feel that I am contributing to the rich culinary traditions I belong to.

During the May 20th earthquake in Emilia, many producers of Parmigiano Reggiano suffered terrible damage to their warehouses.

Thousands of aging forms of Parmigano crashed to the ground.

Immediately the word got out that these broken forms had to be cut - packaged - and sold before they went bad.

The response to this disaster has been overwhelming. People were lined up at drop off spots (communicated by social media) to buy damaged forms.

This shows great solidarity among Emilians but also what an extraordinary product means to many people.

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