But, most importantly, do you really want to embark on a discussion about food with Italians?! Good Lord, you don’t know what you have put yourself into…
[Original photo by @joefoodie from USA (Close up – Hawaiian) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons – modified by me]
I had not planned to write a post about this, but this week an article published in a news site prompted me to do it (according to their disclaimer I cannot even link it *sigh*).
As you probably already know if you have read the news, the mayor of Florence has decided to put a stop to camping tourists outside the Doms of Santa Croce and Santo Spirito by flooding the steps during the lunch hours in order to “avoid the bivouac of tourists who eat dirtily on the steps […] of religious and cultural places”. The journalist suggested that what in his opinion the mayor really wanted to do was to control how visitors snack and he started with a series of considerations about how Italians attitudes toward food demonstrate our lack of culinary adventurousness and how non-experimental we are. This is not the first time I heard these things, so I wanted to point out our stance on the matter. But first…
…DOES FOOD HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE FLOODING OF THE DOM’S STEPS?
I’m quite positive that the decision of Mayor Nardella was not dictated by his refined culinary taste nor by the pressure of some phantasmagorical lobby of restaurants. Italians do not eat in gourmet restaurants all the time and do acknowledge the existence of sandwiches. The panino (the Italian equivalent of the sandwich) is quite a common presence in the everyday life of an inhabitant of the Belpaese and Italian tourists do eat packed sandwiches when on a trip.
The swamping of the Dom’s steps does not represent some sneaky manoeuvre against the culinary barbarians who eat sandwiches (!!11!), but a trial run by the city of Florence, made to avoid the scattering of litter on the steps of the church by tourists (Italians included) and to keep the passage free. Just think about it: would you enjoy to see hordes of tourists camping and leaving litter in front of the Lincoln Memorial or the Taj Mahal? I don’t think so.
Just because Italy is “an open museum”, it doesn’t mean people are allowed to camp, lunch and leave garbage everywhere, and mind, this behaviour is something authorities wouldn’t accept even from Italian tourists, it’s not some form of intolerance against foreigners and “foreign sandwiches” (seriously?!) We are intellectually honest enough to recognize that as Italians we are generally not tidy and respectful when we find ourselves in public spaces. So, as I said, this is directed to all tourists, Italians included.
DO ITALIANS IGNORE WHAT CULINARY EXPERIMENTATION IS?
Sorry, but when I read in the article that our dogmatic attitude of mind on food can become “intolerance of difference” and that point has been reached the moment the mayor ordered to “attack” tourists eating their locally sourced lunch with water cannons, I literally facepalmed. Seriously, are we implying that “dogmatic Italians” water-bomb people who eat their local produced food?!
First of all, I don’t see how flooding the steps with water is “attacking tourists with a cannon” and, again, this was not a manoeuvre against “foreign food” (I don’t think the Mayor of Florence will run after tourists with a water-gun if they’ll go eat their packed lunch in a park).
Yes, when you state that as Italians we can be rather protective and vehement in defending our culinary tradition, I do see your point. I fully admit that when I saw pictures of pizzas with pineapple and witnessed to Donald Trump advising Italians on how they should make carbonara, I literally had chills running down my back, but asserting that Italians are non-experimental is frankly incorrect. Let me just give an example.
My municipality is Vicenza, a city which is 37mi from Venice, but that is located in the hinterland, immersed in the hills and surrounded by mountains. You know what our main and most famous dish is? Baccalà alla Vicentina, which is made of cod. Yes, fish. And not from the Venetian Lagoon or the Adriatic See, but from Norway. We have quite the profitable business relationship with Lofoten in the Arctic Circle , that has provided us with exsiccated cod since the XV century.
Not experimental enough? How about bagna cauda from Piedmont? As the name suggests this is a region located “at the feet of the mountains”, but its most famous dish contains salted anchovies which were traditionally imported from Provence, in France. What about the Sicilian granita, a derivation of the Arabian sherbet? I could go on for hours, I swear. Our cuisine is actually the result of centuries of cultural contamination.
You see, when they say that as Italians we don’t accept foreign versions of our dishes, it’s not just a question of arrogance: since we have perfected the art from such a long time, it’s difficult for us to comprehend adaptations which are…approximate? That do not make much sense? You see, when some British people accused us of being “non-experimental and boring” when we criticized their “lasagna sandwich” (I swear it exists), they failed to understand that our was a right confutation: why adding more carbohydrates with bread to a dish which is already full of them and not that easy to digest? You should always follow a logic when experimenting.
I repeat it, I do agree that as Italians we tend to dismiss foreign versions of our dishes and sometimes we can be rather vehement in expressing our opinion (and also funnily so), but you should not consider us childish when we defend something that seems a trivial matter to most of the people. It’s nothing but trivial. Food-making is not something we approach as a mere matter of surviving, it’s an art form perfected during the course of centuries. Art is something which is supposed to bring out emotions and connect people, and this is exactly what happens at an Italian table: when you savour your portion of gnocchi, you remember your nonna that used to cook them for you when you were a child, and by sitting down at the table with fellow guests in a typical Italian fashion, you experience conviviality, which is the capacity of living and eating together enjoying each others’ company. It’s not by chance that several peace treaties were discussed around a table.
Also consider what the logo “Made in Italy” means for us. In an economy that struggles a great deal in this country, Italian food is a precious resource in terms of income. So when we wander around the shelves of foreign supermarkets and we see them packed with items which 99% of the times falsely claim an Italian origin, we are positively enraged. It’s unfair competition and it’s a disservice to our producers. Everyone is surely allowed to make and sell their own version of Italian dishes, but then take away the Italian flag from them and the “made in Italy” logo. And dear foreign producers, don’t claim your pulped tomatoes come from Italy, when they haven’t seen the Belpaese even through a postcard.
Besides, consider that the “food culture” is the subject that brings a fragmented and local-minded country like Italy together, as also our former President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano has stated some years ago. Is it weird that food is what unite a people? Maybe, but that’s how our history worked. Italy is all but a normal country.
So, are we a little bit too protective of our food? Sure. Do our comments on the Internet about foreign version of Italian dishes seems a little too hash? They surely do. But there are cultural reasons behind this kind of vision, which are all but lame. I’m sorry, but concerning this matter you’ll have to be patient with us, make an effort (which, honestly, is not THAT demanding, we are talking about awesome food after all ;P ) and try to walk in our shoes. It’s what we all are supposed to do when we are in a foreign country, I guess. You won’t be required to agree on everything, but you should surely try to investigate the reasons behind a certain mentality. Don’t stop at the surface.