My four days in Italy were blissful. The Global Food Studies conference offered a stimulating academic experience and an exceptional networking opportunity. It attracted scholars from all parts of the world and all sorts of disciplines, all bonded by one common interest – research on food. But this trip has whetted not just my thirst for knowledge, but also my appetite for food. It was hardly possible to choose a better place for such a food-centred event – Tuscany is famous for its abundance of fresh produce, unique local favourites and authentic recipes. Of course, I could not resist some of the best delicacies that the region has to offer, and I’d like to share my food experiences while they are still fresh in my mind and on the palate.
During my stay, Italy was going through an Indian summer with a generous amount of sunshine, high temperatures during daytimes and warm, hazy evenings. I had two full days to enjoy the beautiful atmosphere and explore local food before the start of the conference on Monday. So, on Saturday I embarked on a hunt for the most delicious culinary offerings of Pisa. This wasn’t really hard, I must say. Narrow streets of this charming city were full of rich smells of freshly cooked food – stone-baked pizza, fresh egg pasta, pungent cheeses, aromatic mushrooms, olive oil roasted vegetables and, of course, refreshing and delicately sweet aromas of hand-crafted gelato.
By lunchtime, I was completely immersed in a slow-paced, sun-powered and meal-centred Italian lifestyle. As I was wandering around central Pisa glimpsing at the menus of numerous traditional osterias and tavernas promising authentic Tuscan culinary experiences, one thing became clear – I was lucky to visit the region at the very peak of the mushroom season. Both primi piatti (first courses) and secondi (mains) featured mushroom – inspired dishes, and the most avid mushroom lovers could also have them on an antipasti platter or as contorni (on the side). I decided it would be a food crime not to try locally sourced and skillfully prepared porcini – handmade tagliatelle with rich and wonderfully aromatic porcini sauce topped with a generous sprinkle of fresh parmesan was absolutely gorgeous and is now my absolute favourite.
If after a satisfying meal like this you can still have a room for a dessert, this can only be light and refreshing gelato. I could sing and dance about Italy’s artisanal ice-cream forever, but I don’t feel like I can deviate from academic topics for more than one week, so this wonderful Italian treat will receive its honourable mention now. It seems like ice cream is an essential part of every Italian’s daily food ration. It is literally ubiquitous, ridiculously cheap and absolutely irresistible. It comes in generous portions, the most unthinkable flavours – from chocolate chilli and ginger to saffron and wasabi, – and various textures – from dairy-free refreshing sorbets, to smooth and rich ice-cream, to intensely sweet and wonderfully airy dessert-inspired mousses – I faced many tough decisions these days, as you can imagine.
After a healthy dose of sunshine and not so healthy dose of handmade ice-cream in Pisa, I was ready for a visit to Prato. The train journey on a late Sunday morning was enjoyable, but bad planning meant that I arrived in Prato by the time when all restaurants and even smaller eateries had closed for siesta, which, as it turned out, Italians strictly observe.
But staying hungry in Italy is virtually impossible. In the sunlit and bustling Duomo square right in the heart of Prato, I discovered a street market with about a dozen of stalls piled high with amazing local specialties – sharply smelling cheeses, fresh as well as dried mushrooms, jars of home-made pesto and marinated olives, handbaked sourdough artisan breads – all sold by enthusiastic growers, producers and bakers themselves – I guess I know how a foodie’s paradise would look like. I was lured to the sweetest stall on the square where the vendor – a young Italian with good English and even better marketing skills – has successfully seduced me into first tasting and then buying all kinds of famous Biscotti di Prato (biscuits of Prato) – crunchy almond cookies with chunks of white, dark or milk chocolate, dried figs, raisins, and all sorts of nuts – a big bag of hand-made cantuccini is not an inexpensive treat, I have to say, but it came with a priceless bonus – the sense of communion with the authentic food culture of this inviting Tuscanian city.
While enjoying the most delicious meals and treats in my life, I could not help thinking about the place of ethical considerations in this extravaganza of mouth-watering flavours and smells. Given a wide variety of meat-free delicacies, such as countless pasta dishes with piquant sauces, flavoursome pizzas, bruschettas, fresh vegetable salads and soups, going vegetarian in Italy is far from being a “mission impossible”. Dining would be more limited for vegans as it is hard to imagine Italian cooking without cheese and egg-based pasta, although even the strictest of vegans would be in for a real treat – dairy-free sorbets are available in every gelateria and are just as delicious as cream-based alternatives.
Yet, concerns for environment and animal welfare do not seem to figure prominently amongst the preoccupations of Italian food consumers. In no restaurant (and I looked at many!) could I find any claims about free-range or organic nature of the ingredients. Freshness, seasonality and local sourcing of produce were consistently emphasized, but this was linked a lot more to the taste, flavour and authenticity of the dishes rather than anything else. In supermarkets, some of the products do come with the Bio label, but those were not as plentiful as, for example, in Austria, and I don’t remember seeing a designated “organic” or “free from” section (perhaps those could be found in larger stores). So it seems that the central concern in the Italian food culture is the freshness and quality of the locally sourced produce and respect for the authentic cooking traditions, which, combined, provide for a truly unforgettable culinary experience.