The Piazzetta Sicilia at the World Fair in Milan, performer Giovanna Colomba evokes the colours and smells of Sicily, where memory is the future and ‘being Sicilian’ is the ultimate in artistic and culinary expression.
Giovanna Colomba’s ‘half-head’ images present the beginnings of a colourful journey into the culture and history of an island that has been shaped by the cuisine of two continents and the culinary sensibilities of countless invaders.
This is da perdere la testa: quando cibo e arte si incontrano (be off your head: when food and art meet), a project conjured into existence by Al Plurale, a collective in Trapani in western Sicily and by the tourist consortium in Siracusa in eastern Sicily for exposure at Expo 2015 and elsewhere.
They describe the project as a framework of flavours, a description that could not be more apt for 21st century Europe, where culinary identities are being reshaped to reflect new realities. These realities are the interaction between people and place – the fields and forests, the seas, rivers and lakes, the mountain pastures, the settled estuaries, the plains and steppes, the allotments, plots, rooftop gardens, terraces – and all the produce they grow, fish, cook, bake and manufacture daily. We have given it a theme – People Place Produce – and we call our work the Fricot Project!
Traditional recipes have always evolved through generations, and traditional foods remain popular largely because of their organoleptic properties, but the emphasis has shifted from national to regional, from the city and town back to the townland and village. The re-emergence of traditional foods in the kitchens of imaginary bakers and visionary chefs is the start of a new food revolution that has roots in sustainable food security, the protection of localised employment and that culmination of culinary expertise – freshness and quality.
It is not a surprise that the people of Sicily feel a strong desire to share their traditional food culture with the world. Much of what is good about Europe’s culinary traditions emerged or passed through the islands of the Mediterranean, most of all Sicily whose food was shaped by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks and the Romans, by the Moors and the Normans, by the Spanish and the Italians.
The same can be said of the Italian peninsula. Food historians Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari explain this in their book, Italian Cuisine: A Cultural Journey. ‘Mirroring a history marked by provincial loyalties and political division, a huge variety of gastronomic traditions make Italy’s culinary heritage unimaginably rich and more appealing today than the cuisine of any other country, now that the demand for diversity and distinctive “provincial” flavours has become especially keen.’
Capatti and Montanari believed in 1999 when they wrote their book that Italian cuisine was ‘experiencing an internal identity crisis’. Italy was not alone. The four ‘great cuisines of Europe – French, Italian, Russian and Turkish’ were in deep crisis at the turn of the millennium. In September 2011 the Festival of French Gastronomy was launched to promote ‘gourmet food, produce, and expertise’. French Food Minister Frédéric Lefebvre said it was ‘so ubiquitous that we had forgotten to celebrate it,’ completely missing the point about the decaying aristocratic cuisines and their centralised agendas.
Food connects us culturally to atavistic place, to sensuous people, their wonderful produce, their fabulous traditions, their creative methods of cooking and their desperate desire to celebrate their culinary arts. This was the idea behind a cooking academy, the Compagnia del Paiolo (Company of the Cauldron), established in Florence in 1512.
Founded by Giovan Francesco Rustici, the motto of the company was l’arte si fa a cena (the art of dining), which sought culture and conviviality, good taste and simplicity, frankness and friendliness. Rustici was a painter and sculptor, friend of Andrea del Sarto and Leonardo de Vinci and cousin to Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement), who commissioned from him a bronze Mercury for the fountain in the courtyard and garden of Palazzo Medici. At small banquets the members of the company, which included the imaginative gastronome del Sarto, had an obligation to bring a dinner of their own invention and if two had had the same thought they were sentenced to a penalty.
By the mid-1600s, with Catherine de’ Medici ensconced in Paris as crown consort then regent, this new attitude to food became an aristocratic obsession. It spread through the courts of Europe like a fad. The Tuscan and Venetian styles, among others from the Italian peninsula and islands, penetrated the French court with chefs, confectioners and pâtissiers trained in the emerging classical manner.
The de’ Medicis – Catherine and fifty years later Maria, Queen to Henri the fourth – are believed to have been the instigators, following the sentiments of Pope Clement. He would have luxuriated in the extravagances taken at the grand banquet for Maria’s wedding, where the cornucopia of flavours and architectural displays of food epitomised the Tuscan attitude to food.
Within five generations a dominant aristocratic paradigm was created, the chefs and cooks of the aristocracy bringing exquisite care and infinite attention to detail in the preparation of food.
French historian Denis Diderot announced the success of this grand cuisine in the mid-1700s. ‘Cookery, a simple matter in the early stages of the world, is now a most difficult study or science.’
Despite indifference from many, Prosper Montagné produced his Larousse Gastronomique encyclopaedia in the 1900s to establish the hegemony of haute cuisine with its classical range of recipes.
Whether this high style of cooking was to the detriment of a ubiquitous peasant tradition has always been debated, not least by the likes of Capatti and Montanari. The foods of the provinces of Europe’s coastal, forest, mountain, river valley and steppe regions remained rustic, traditional and separate. While the sophisticated futurists in Florence ate their meat with a dolceforte (strong sweet) sauce flavoured with expensive chocolate, the plain people of the Tuscan hills delighted in their castagnaccio, a humble chocolate-coloured cake made with flour ground from plentiful chestnuts.
A wind of change, like the Provençal mistral, is now sweeping through European cookery. For the first time in five centuries the traditional food of the peripheries is ascending the high ground, and becoming established – as it should be. This is not a surprise. Ever since English writer Elizabeth David produced her book of Mediterranean recipes and followed it with books on French and Italian provincial cooking in the 1950s, and food scientists began to study the health of southern European communities, the traditional food of the continent has attracted the enquiring eyes of clever chefs who believed her when she claimed it was always about ‘local ingredients and traditional methods’ and separate from haute cuisine.
With its emphasis on fresh produce, primarily fish and fowl, vegetables, legumes, oil, salads, herbs, seeds, nuts, roots, grains, berries and fruit, on dried and cured meats, on fermented foods, on ancient methods of bread making, on old style confectionary and pastry concoctions, traditional food has become the new tourism – because it is authentic.
From the dairy slopes of Iceland to the seafood streets of Turkey, from the wild berry forests of Latvia to the olive groves of Sicily, traditional food is being used to attract travellers and visitors. It is being celebrated by seasonal festivals, weekly markets and daily promotions, in the regular functions of cafes, kiosks and stalls, and by the growing number of travellers seeking new culinary experiences.
Traditional food filters into our subconscious because it brings together people and place, memory and time. The farmer and fisher, the artisan and specialist, the baker and chef, the confectioner and pâtissier – each brings a flavour of their expertise and knowledge.
This little book is about the importance of authentic ingredients and those curious similarities when foods connect, and not always because there is a climatic, geographical or historical reason. Sometimes people come to the same conclusions about the indigenous food that is available to them.
Italian traditional food features heavily in this book. This is because Italy has taken its influences from the far-flung reaches of Europe. Its food is characterised by its ancient relationships with countless peoples and by its diverse climate – from the snows of the alps in the north to the grassy slopes of its central hills to the sands of the sun-splashed coasts in the south.
This has given Italian food its greatest strength, the regional variety that produces grain and meat products in the north, citrus fruit, olive oil and tomato products in the south, and cheese and dairy products the length of the peninsula.
Look at baccalà. It defines European culinary diversity. The food cultures of Veneto, Liguria, Campania, Calabria, Sicily, the Basque Country, Galicia and Provence have been shaped by this delicious dish made with the air-dried cod from the Lofoten Islands in the far north of the European continent or with salt-cured cod from the Iberian peninsula.
The marriage of cod and olive oil is, in the sentiments of the Dogale Confraternita del Baccalà Mantecato, not just food. ‘It is history, religion, adventure, secrets handed down from cook to cook, from mother to daughter: the pleasure of the palate, mind, heart.’
‘… questa è la cucina di Venezia: un crogiolo sempre acceso che filtra, accoglie, unifica e presenta in tavola piatti di straordinaria bontà, nel segno inconfondibile della propria antica cultura e d’una civiltà che si proietta ancora giovane e viva nel nuovo millennio …’
All of Europe is a melting pot, an extraordinary expression of food cultures moving onwards into a new millennium with a sense of optimistic expectation. The peoples of Sicily, Tuscany and Venice understand this but they are joined by the peoples of others regions, each bringing their past into the future in the luggage containing their artistic and culinary memories, who know why traditional food defines all that is beautiful in the world.
Therefore we apologise for the low number of traditional Turkish recipes, despite the Ottoman influence on the cuisine of the Balkans and eastern Europe. This is rectified in the large edition, as is the paucity of recipes from the Iberian peninsula.
By leaving out several essential ingredients in European cooking we have reduced the impact from several regions. Spanish traditional food, like that of Italy, has been heavily influenced by other Mediterranean countries and by northern Africa, and is very similar to Italian cooking. The traditional foods and recipes of Poland and Russia are also poorly represented in this little book, another issue that is addressed in the large edition.
There is method to the madness with this small selection. As well as trying to ensure that there is representation from all of Europe (as defined by those who believe the continent stretches to the shores of the Caspian Sea), the shorter list of indigenous produce restricted us to specific recipes. The large format edition has a more equitable spread of recipes across the continent, and an explanation why certain ingredients, many of those in this little book, have remained popular.
This little book is an introduction, nothing more. The real thing starts as a journey.