By Matthew Fort
Travels Through Italy – Culture, Tradition, and Recipes
By Marina Solovyov
Travel through Italy with Matthew Fort. He is the entertaining and hilarious author of Eating Up Italy, a new cook book that leaves you with more than just recipes. Fort travels up from the southern most tip of Italy to Turin in the north, and makes stops along the way meeting friends and securing great memories.
Through his recipes, Fort offers insight into the Italian culture and traditions of the country’s smaller regions that other cooking books usually miss. His writing conveys his love affair with Italy and its cuisine. Don’t read this book on an empty stomach! The recipes he includes at the end of every chapter are so mouth watering your stomach won’t be able to handle it.
Excerpt from Eating Up Italy:
First came the antipasti: neonati, minuscule fish no bigger than a toothpick, fried to crisp little nuggets; a couple of slices of burly prosciutto di Calabria; fleshy, acrid black olives; and some chewy hanks of melanzane sot’olio, aubergines preserved in oil; tomato, chili and oregano, on crostini.
The biscuity gold slice of toast was heaped with tiny cubes of cardinal- red tomato, shiny with oil and juices, and flecked with dark green particles.
The crostino was explosively crunchy, with a slightly malted flavour. The tomato was clean and sweet, its flavour sharpened by the exhilarating intensity of the dried oregano, the warmth of chili rising up through fruit and herb.
Next there was the prima piatto, tagliolini with tiny artichokes and fennel braised to an amber, emollient, vegetal softness. It had a sensuous, sybaritic luxury, slithering down my throat. Another plate, the secando piatto: a random selection of very fresh grilled baby cuttlefish and fat prawns, their caramelised, marine sweetness cut by the sharp acidity of lemon juice. Finally a salty, sharp young pecorino and a couple of early nectarines, full of juicy sweetness that trickled down my chin.
An agreeable sensation of repletion suffused my being from the tips of my toes to the remote corners of my brain. This was what I had come for. Each mouthful was a reminder of the essential plainness, and grace, of Italian food. There were no extraneous sauces, no distracting garnishes, no mint sprigs or dashes of fancy oils. The flavours were clean and clear. The beauty of each dish lay in the quality of the ingredients, and in the understanding with which they were cooked.
I mopped my chin and finished off the last of the red wine, which tasted of chemicals and damsons. Lunch was done. There was time for an espresso.
‘I think you need a glass of bergamino as well, signore,’ said the waiter.
‘The liquore from the berqamotto.’
In my ignorance I had always assumed that oil of bergamot, a staple for a thousand perfumes, eau de toilettes and aftershave lotions, not to mention the fragrant, vaguely medicinal liquore, came from a flower. Indeed, the fragrance of’ the flower, Ia zagara filled the blustery breezes here in Melito di Porto Salvo, the southernmost point of’ the southernmost coast of mainland Italy.
But it was the large, rounded, lemon-yellow fruit that was the basis of a substantial industry in the area, with a consorzio del bergamotto based in nearby Reggio di Calabria and a tightly controlled group of producers.
Prominent among them was Signor Enzo Familiare, whom I met later that afternoon. He was a short, handsome man of around seventy, I guessed, with the lively manner of an elderly leprechaun. We wandered among the ranks of immaculately maintained trees in his groves tucked away off the main road, just outside Melito.
As he pottered from one tree to another, he caressed their trunks or let the leaves trail through his fingers, speaking about them all the time with the fond indulgence of a kindly uncle. Words gushed from him. 1 watched his lips. I listened to his voice. I understood perhaps one quarter of what he was telling me.
‘The name “bergamot” probably comes from the Turkish begarmudi, meaning the Lord’s pear,’ Signor Familiare said. ‘The harvest is over for the moment. Picking the fruit lasts normally from November to March.
The tree also grows in Central America, but there the skin of the fruit is not as productive or as fragrant as those that grow only on a narrow strip about one hundred kilo- metres long between Villa San Giovanni and Gioiosa lonica and between the sea and the slopes of’ the Aspromonte a few kilometres inland.’ Bergamot, he explained, was ‘un incidente felice della natura’.
Archbishop of Naples
No one seems to know exactly how the first bergamot came about, although one account I had come across claimed that during the eighteenth century a tree was discovered growing in the gardens of the Archbishop of’ Naples which bore fruit that looked like something between a lemon and a grapefruit. Naples has an impressive record in the annals of miracles, but, if’true, the sudden appearance of the bergamot may be counted as among the most enduring. A happy accident of nature — it was a cheery way of describing the anomaly of this oddball member of the citrus family produced by spontaneous genetic modification.
I have been in love with Italy for most of’ my life, It’s an affair that began in 1958, when I was eleven, and we took a family holiday at Cervia on the Adriatic coast. I remember little of the cultural side of’ things — the endless churches and monasteries around which we were dragged, or the celebrated mosaics and frescos that seemed to clutter up every available surface.
On the other hand, I can still taste the ice creams with which we were bribed every step of the way. and visualise the vast cold buffets, complete with swans sculpted from ice, that appeared in the dining room of’ the Hotel Mare e Pineta at lunchtime each Thursday, and the grapes, slices of’ melon and segments of orange coated in light, Friable caramel that we bought from a vendor on the beach who cried out ‘A-ro-via gelati e vitamine BB’, brushing away swarms of’ wasps as he wandered past.
I consummated the affair as often as I could thereafter, but perhaps its intensity was maintained by the short duration of my visits. A question always lingered in my mind as to whether what I felt was true love or merely another Englishman’s infatuation with sunlight, landscape, food, wine and people seen through the distorting glass of’ sentimentality and self-delusion.
So this journey, from the very southernmost tip of the country to Turin, eating as I went, was to be an attempt to sort through the waffle of interior monologue. Food, in all its forms, was the medium through which I would try to understand this beautiful and baffling country. OF course the journey had a certain sybaritic appeal, too. Quite a lot of sybaritic appeal, in point of fact.
I had considered walking. or doing the trip on a bicycle, but dismissed them as being impractical. A car? Too boring, too conventional, too…middle-aged. No, a scooter; a classic Vespa, design icon, landmark of Italian culture, sound, sensible and slowish. A voyage of exploration on a Vespa — that was the thing.
Matthew Fort works for the Guardian as a food and drink critic. He has written Rhubarb and Black Pudding and Eating Up Italy: Voyages on a Vespa with a sequel, Eating Round Sicily.
Sample recipes from Eating Up Italy:
POLETTE FRITTE (Fried Meatballs)
1 cup soft bread crumbs
3-4 tablespoons milk
1 clove garlic
Bunch of parsley
1/4 cup shortening
2 1/4 lbs lean minced beef
1112 cups grated Parmesan
Olive oil, for frying
Moisten the bread crumbs in the milk. Finely chop the garlic and
parsley. Lightly beat the eggs. Chop up or grate the lard. Put all these
ingredients into a bowl with the ground beef and Parmesan and knead until thoroughly mixed. Take bits of the mixture and shape them into balls about the size of a large plum. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan, and fry the meatballs until crisp and golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.
LA PITTA PIENA (Stuffed Focaccia alla nicocastro)
2 1/4 lbs focaccia dough
(made with 9 cups flour, l oz fresh or
1 tablespoons dried
yeast, 2 1/4 cups warm
water, 1 teaspoon salt) 4 oz softened strutto
(pork fat), plus extra for greasing
8 oz pork rind, blanched and diced
6 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
9 oz spicy sausage
(preferably soppressata), cut into rounds
8 oz fresh pecorino, finely sliced
1 egg, beaten
Mix the focaccia dough in a bowl, knead until smooth and elastic, then leave in a warm place to rise. Put the risen dough on the work surface, pull open in the middle and punch down. Add the softened pork fat. Knead until the dough is elastic and silky. Put hack in the bowl and leave in a warm place to rise again. Roll out half the dough to cover the bottom of a round baking pan greased with lard. Cover with the pork rind, sliced hard-boiled eggs, sausage and pecorino. Cover with the rest of’ the dough and seal with half the beaten egg. Prick the surface with a fork and brush with the remaining beaten egg. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes until golden brown
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