Sunday, November 04, 2007

On Italian Food and Seasons

I've been writing a series of articles about Italian food recently. I used to work in Italy and for years I was steeped in the local specialities of the different regions I travelled to. I haven't been back though, since my son was born.

After a wedding we went to today at a wine farm restaurant, where the food was fashionably stacked in towers, encircled by drizzles of intense sauces with fanciful ingredients, I thought back to meals I've eaten in Italy.

How can I be so sure that what I'm writing about Italian food is still current ten years later? Why do I know that I could walk into any one of the restaurants I used to eat in with my clients and eat the same wonderful meal, as long as the season was the same? Why is it that good Italian restaurants don't feel the need to reinvent their dishes with the latest jus or garnish to entice their regulars back once more?

I think the main thing that separates gourmet Italian food, or any traditional European food, from the fads and trends of haute foodiedom, is the seasons. Italian food (or rather each different regional cuisine, for each small area of Italy has its own traditions), is closely linked to the seasons. Italian gourmets will drive for hours to taste the first wild mushrooms of the season in a small mountain trattoria, or to feast on the first truffles. They will happily travel many kilometres to the best fish restaurant on the coast - one owned by the cousin of their neighbour, who can be guaranteed to produce the freshest fish in all Italy.

When your palate is refreshed every month by a new seasonal speciality, you never do tire of those delicacies. Chefs don't have to tempt jaded plates with ever more outlandish combinations. You can stuff yourself every day for a month with asparagus in every possible variation from risotto to pasta, as antipasto or in a sformato, but then it will be out of season, you move on to artichokes and by the time asparagus season comes round again you will welcome it enthusiastically anew.

It's not just that Italians are conservative in their tastes, they are that, but they know a good thing when they have it on their plates and see no reason to mess with it. Good ingredients are cooked simply so that their flavours are enhanced. Plus within in Italy there are so many variations in the cuisines of the different regions that, if you travel around, you can eat the same dish cooked in a thousand slightly differing ways.

So the ephemeral trendy restaurants may have moved on in the last ten years from 2D pictorial arrangements on enormous plates to intricate towering stacks of food that need several lines on the menu to identify the ingredients, but I am as certain as certain can be that I could walk into a favourite restaurant in Le Marche tomorrow and eat the same fantastic pasta dish scattered with a myriad of tiny wild mushrooms collected by the father of the restaurant owner that morning. He may be ten years older but the mushrooms will be from the same secret collecting places at the edge of the woods. In spring it will be the wild asparagus that make a wonderful delicately flavoured risotto.

The seasons provide the variety and rhythm that keep our fickle human palates from satiation, presenting us with treat after treat through the year, all we need to do is tune back into them and accept their gifts, something that the Italians have never forgotten.


  1. Great post! I may have to borrow it for the November "Tales from the Web", if that's okay.

    Germany is very similar, though not quite as exciting, in its adherence to seasonal cuisine. We eat asparagus day in and day out for six weeks knowing that we won't see it again for a year. Right now it's pumpkin soup, and soon it's going to be things made with chestnuts. You are so right, in that we love and appreciate these things more because we don't get them all year round.

  2. I'd be honoured, Charlotte!

  3. sigh. That sounds so lovely...the image of the myriad of mushrooms collected by the restaurant owners father is perfection.

  4. It's very odd you posted this. My family (Italian immigrants) was talking about this exact topic recently.
    While I was born and raised in the US, we were always fed "seasonally."
    As an adult, it plays a major role in how I cook.
    Great post.

  5. Oh Kit, your descrption of the mushroom dish alone makes me want to board the next plane back to Italy. Why does tradition appeal so much?

    I think you might be right about the Italian philosophy towards food.

    In Melbourne we have a few modern Italian restaurants, who dare to venture into the new. However, fresh ingredients and an appreciation for natural flavours is stll a hallmark.

  6. Exactly why I like the food here in France so well, they follow the seasons.

  7. I'm with everyone else - you had me at your mushroom dish description.

  8. I think the problem here in the US when it comes to "seasonal" food is that it is a foreign concept to most people. If you asked someone what was "in season" right now, ninety-nine out of a hundred times, I am sure that person couldn't tell you. We are so used to having anything and everything we want at our disposal that we miss out on the genuine quality of seasonal foods and their use. In fact, it almost seems as if the trend has veered in the opposite direction--that it is more "novel" today to use out of season ingredients to increase the "originality" of the dish.

  9. Kit, as you know I am passionate about local and seasonal ingredients. Yes, I know it is easier to get these in the country, but not impossible in the city. You can just be aware of what is in season and check the labels in the supermarket to see that things haven't travelled too far. The reality is that local produce, that has not travelled for days and is therefore fresher, and that has been picked at the height of perfection, will always taste better than cold stored, hothoused produce, and therefore needs only a little understanding tocoax out it's best flavours. I agree, I'd rather this any day than towers of 'fusion food' that don't really go at all.


Thanks for your comments - I appreciate every one!