Talking Italian: Taste La Dolce Vita
Unified into twenty regions in 1861, Italy is a relatively young country. Bordering France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia to the north and hugging the Adriatic, Tyrrhenian, Ionian and Mediterranean Seas, each region has its own identity when it comes to its cuisine.
Regional cooking preferences and styles are shaped by their geographic, historical, and climactic differences: some regions are landlocked and mountainous, others are hilly or located by the sea.
Over the centuries, regions have absorbed Arab or Greek influences, others have been shaped by the French or Austrians: creating dishes, sometimes with tastes as different as you'd find between countries. We take a look at each region to identify some of the amazing ingredients that help make up some of the countries many spectacular dishes.
Influenced by recipes from many European countries, such as France, Austria or Switzerland, the eight regions: Liguria, Val D'Aosta, Piemonte, Lombardia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Emilia-Romagna make up the North.
With the Alps as its northern and western boundary and the Apennine Mountains to the south, the climate can be quite cold and wet. The milder weather comes between the two mountain ranges, where large plains such as the Venetian Plain and the valley of the Po (the largest river in Italy) lie.
There is an extraordinary variety of seafood and fish; Comacchio, south of the Po Delta, is renowned for its eels, while the Veneto's coastal lowlands provide mussels and clams, and the inland lakes and waterways yield a tremendous variety of freshwater fish.
Certain regions in the North (Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna for example) have excellent cattle breeds, suited to meat and milk production, as well as hogs that help create such ingredients as (prosciutto), sausage (cotechino), different sorts of salami. Due to the abundance of these ingredients, cooking styles such as boiling and frying through slow braising and stewing is more prevalent. You will find that cooks in the North also use less tomato, using wine or broth as the liquid and chopped herbs for flavour.
If you thoughts all Italian cooks use pasta, think again. Most traditional North Italian recipes the flat and extruded forms of pasta that are so important further south are less prevalent, taking a backseat to polenta and risotto, and, in the winter, too rich, hearty soups.
Central Italy comprises four regions: Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, and Lazio.
Compared to the North, the climate is much warmer and summers are longer, so expect to see more tomato based dishes. Despite the regions famous cities such Rome, Siena or Florence attracting millions of visitors each year, Central Italy cuisine is probably one of the most unknown around the world.
If you were to holiday in Central Italy, expect to see lots of braised meats and stews. Throughout Tuscany, the renowned Chianina cattle graze the fields, while in Lazio, spring lamb is cooked in a pan with oil or lard and garlic, sage and rosemary, then seasoned with salt-cured anchovies.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the star dish of the Lazian cuisine, 'Spaghetti alla carbonara'. A recipe imitated around the world. The original ingredients for a great Carbonara are eggs, Pecorino Romano cheese, guanciale (similar to bacon) and black pepper.
Close to the Adriatic Sea, the Marche region sees fish as its most frequent ingredient. Fish soups that contain different kind of fishes, garlic, onion and tomato or saffron are found on the coast, whereas Inland, dishes are more meat based.
Rustic and traditional, the Umbrian region takes its inspiration from the woods. Game such as wild boar and the black truffle that grows just below ground level in deciduous forests work their way into most main dishes. The most prized ingredient of the region is the tartufo bianco (white truffle), expect to find this in soups and pasta recipes.
Consisting of 6 regions; Ambruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Campania, Calabria and Basilicata, Southern Italy cuisine could be the most exported in the world.
Tomatoes – fresh or cooked into tomato sauce – peppers, olives and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, oranges, ricotta cheese, eggplants, fish; such as anchovies, sardines and tuna and basil are always indispensable in the recipes of Southern Italy.
As far as meat dishes are concerned, the South is best known for its shepherding, with Lamb and Goat playing a major role. In coastal areas, don't be surprised to see seafood on the menu.
Campania, home to the city of Naples (above), cooking is all about carbs, the white flour of a pizza base in particular. The region is known the world over for its pizza. The Pizza Napoletana is a thick-rimmed pizza, topped with cow's milk mozzarella, tomato sauce and another some additional toppings of choice. The Margherita on the other hand is made with mozzarella cheese, basil and tomato. Some people think that the name derives from the colour of this ingredients (green, white and red) – those of the Italian flag, but actually it is in honour of the Italian queen Margherita of Savoy.
In Calabria, pasta, pork meat and vegetables are very important for its cuisine, as are fish such as sword fish with tomatoes, olives, onion, parsley and capers. Pasta also has its place on Campania, with many recipes containing Spaghetti as its pasta of choice.
The Italian islands have a very different cuisine from the rest of Italy, due to its position and influences.
Some people think that the name derives from the colour of this ingredients (green, white and red) – those of the Italian flag, but actually it is in honour of the Italian queen Margherita of Savoy.
Despite being surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, you may be surprised to know that Sardinia's cuisine is shaped by what 'di terra' (the land) offers. The Porceddu, Pork roasted and flavoured with myrtle and rosemary, roasted on the spit or boiled in stews of beans and vegetables, thickened with bread, is one of the main examples of this kind of cuisine.
Speaking of bread, the traditional 'carasau' bread is a highly decorative bread, made with flour and water only, originally meant for herders, but often served at home with tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic and a strong cheese.
It would be folly for Sardinians not to sample the rich bounties of the sea, hence Rock lobster, scampi, squid, tuna and sardines being amongst the most prevalent seafoods eaten on the island.
Over the past 3,000 years or more, Sicily has seen invasions from the Greeks, Romans, French and Spanish – to name but a few. It is therefore no surprise to see so many influences in their cuisine. Natural, fresh and spicy the Arab and Greek influences are there to see. Breaded rice balls filled with meat, cheese, peas and saffron, and the Cannoli Siciliani (sweet cylinders filled with ricotta cheese cream) are very popular throughout Italy.
I think it is fitting to finish with probably one of the most important contributions to Italian cuisine -and the whole world. Gelatos. The story goes that ice cream first came to Sicily by way of the ancient Greek or Roman foot runners who brought snow from Etna to Taormina and Catania, flavoured with nuts, berries and honey. As any good Sicilian will tell you, the best way to start the day is with an ice cream for breakfast – then one for lunch and a final one for dinner!