This post was sponsored by The Italian Chamber of Commerce

“Every time I eat spaghetti with tomato I feel like I am home. When I was a boy and I came back from school and my grandmother used to wait for me, I used to say, I am here! And still every time I eat spaghetti with tomato, I feel like that little boy. That is a great, great thing for food. We always associate tomatoes with Italy, but northern Italians didn’t use tomatoes until the 1960s so you could always tell if someone from the family had married someone from the south because they used tomatoes. There are so many quirks related to the microclimactic conditions that have developed in Italy with location, culture and time. It is specifically the microclimatic conditions that make it impossible to reproduce a dish even with the same ingredients in different conditions.”

I am at a very special dinner in London cooked and hosted by Giorgio Locatelli on behalf of The Italian Chamber of Commerce, “The Extraordinary Italian Taste”. You likely know Giorgio, he is one of London’s best Italian chefs and a regular on TV. He is about to share some of his favourite dishes with us, and many stories. Italians are intensely proud of their food, heritage and culture and we reap the benefits. It is through protecting the ingredients and processes that the culture survives intact today.

Italian (and EU) Food Classification (in brief!)

A little about ingredient classification before we hit the food and stories. Specialist Italian ingredients and foods can apply for protection and classification, it is a protection offered by the EU for all EU countries. If they meet the criteria these food and processes are preserved. In fact they apply across Europe, but today we are just going to talk about Italy.

There are three classifications and they are quite simple: DOP (Denominazione Origine Protetta), IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) and TSG (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) with 223 products currently registered in total across the 3 categories. It is simple – DOP everything about it is tied to the location and is protected, like Parmesan is DOP. For IGP, the location is important but not everything is tied to the location, Lardo di Colonnata is IGP. The entire production of Parmesan must happen in a specified region and only with specified local ingredients; Lardo di Colonnata must be produced only in Colonnata with a specified regional technique, but the pigs don’t have to be from Colonnata, the region of production is what is protected. TSG provides protection to traditional food products, right now just two, Neapolitan pizza and Mozzarella.

Growing Up in Italy

“As I grew up and became a chef, I realised that there were other very important things with food. Italy is a very long country, the food is very diverse and is determined by the microclimates and conditions. There are very big differences in regional foods produced by Italy. Within regions there are differences. My grandfather said to me, those guys at number 19, they put parsley in their minestrone – you should never trust them.

Selection of Breads and Grissini, Olives and Cured Meats

Selection of Breads and Grissini, Olives and Cured Meats

“The value that we have is in our heritage, it is very special and very singular and we can produce things that no other territory can. Everyone can make light bulbs but to produce something from the terrain, that belongs to the land is not so easy. In Tuscany they have fennel salamis. I went to New York and every meal that I had in Italian restaurants had fennel seeds in it. I read about it and realised that the Tuscans were not very friendly with Venetians. They decided to put an enormous tax on the peppercorns, the Tuscans didn’t want to pay it so they put fennel seeds in their salamis instead of peppercorns. The historical moments around food still influence. All these produce are not just about creation, they are about necessities.

Historical Food Differences

“(Also in Tuscany) the Pope put a massive levy on salt because he wasn’t getting on with the Medici. The Tuscans started making bread without salt, and still today Tuscan bread is without salt. Just as a reaction to the moment, and the palate gets so used to that. When Tuscans are in my restaurant, they eat first the 3 pieces of bread in the bread basket that have no salt.

“Mozzarella has travelled all over the world. A fresh cheese made by hand, originally in the southern region because milk needed to be turned into something before refrigeration. The microclimatic conditions in the south of Italy are not very good for ageing cheese, like the North of Italy. So mozzarella became the thing.

Steamed Asparagus with Quails Eggs and Parmiggiano Reggiano

Steamed Asparagus with Quails Eggs and Parmiggiano Reggiano

Mozzarella with Caponata and Balsamic Vinegar

Mozzarella with Caponata and Balsamic Vinegar

“I come from Lombardy and I made my Dad this burrata dish for the first time. He spent all his life in Italy and the first time that he had burrata was in London. We are 100% sure that my grandad never tried it.

The Origins of Pasta

“The Sicilians and the Arabs used to make pasta 2000 years ago. In 1900 around the Gulf of Naples the production of wheat was very high. Before refrigeration, dried food were staples. If you didn’t have dried food you had no food in winter and you died. Pasta in Gragnano became very famous because the air around the coast is a very fresh and dry wind allowed you to dry the pasta (not too fast and not too slow). It is very simple in terms of ingredients: wheat and water, no salt. It is the shapes that are different.

“Italians are obsessed with design, that idea of design was born out of the necessity of producing different designs of pasta for pleasure in the mouth but also to suit different sauces. The shape of the pasta determines the sauce that you serve with it. With an oily sauce you will use a long pasta, with a ragu you eat penne or tagliatelle.

An English Italian Dish – Calamarata di Gragnano with Monkfish, Lemon, Samphire and Capers

“This is a classic example. We were in Cornwall and we went to the fishmonger, my son was 8 years old and he saw a whole monkfish. We cooked it with bacon, herbs and lemon. We had all these bits and bobs left over and I had some of this pasta in the car. The surface almost scratches, it is very rough, and it will stick to an oily sauce. I chopped the leftover fish small and tried to make a fish ragu.

“That day (my son) Jack said to me, Dad, the pasta is Italian, the fish is Cornish, what will we call this Italian dish? What makes an Italian dish? To me it is the fact that I cook it and that makes it Italian. It is the technical side, the knowledge and experience. If one of the ingredients is Italian, that makes it an Italian dish. Chilli, garlic, olive oil and a little bit of white wine.

“I wanted a British dish made by an Italian. It was important to bring the flavour of lemon through the pasta, as always, add a little bit of lemon juice at the end but also transfer more of the flavour, most of the flavour is in the skin, so I put the lemon skin inside. Infuse the water with the lemon skin. 70% of what you have in the pasta is the water, the lemon flavour will come through without bitterness in the pasta water.

“This is a dish that is made with a very high level of Italian produce (Gragnano pasta) but everything else is British. I feel that this is one of the best dishes that I have ever made in my life. It took a little bit of perfecting, but I was very happy with the first time. A way to try to realise is not to convince everyone that Italian produce is the best but that the certified produce from Italy is guaranteed by the territory and the history, and the people that produce the ingredients are respected all the way through.

To Sicily for Dessert – Sicilian Cannoli with Almond Cream and Pistachio Cream 

“Pistachio grows on another tree like an apple tree, ice cream and the nuts together and the cannoli, inside there are almonds. It should shout Sicily. As a Northern Italian I only went to Sicily when I was 30. When I landed I see there is no square metre that is untouched. They keep this whole island in a beautiful condition. Every year I went there for 10 years, and every year I discovered something new, not just the produce, also the historic influence there. It is such a beautiful island, you can feel it so much, it is very spartan, a greek way of cooking, 3 or 4 ingredients. On the other side it is Arabic, after the bay of Palermo there are restaurants that serve cous cous and cous cous with fish.

“Almonds are very important, all the way through. As you travel down Italy you found that the almonds (from the South of Italy), they didn’t have a lot of flour, eggs or sugar, so they made amaretto. They are different everywhere, this is the one from Lombardy.

“Food is never the work of one person, food is always a collaboration.”

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Niamh

Cooking and travelling, and sharing it all with you.
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