As part of a monthly bloggers group I am apart of, Italian Food and Wine Travel, we journey through the world of Italian Food and Wine, one region at a time. This month the topic is Emilia-Romagna and in the past for this blogger’s group, I’ve written quick cheese guides. This month however, I decided to dive a little deeper and closer to my blogging roots. And that is- cross cultural examinations and analyzing food ways.
I have been in Seattle for nearly 6 months after a very challenging 2.5 years of establishing a life in Florence. I am just a few weeks away from being back in Florence after this little hiatus and I have been busy reflecting and observing my home country in comparison to my new one.
I think something that has struck me so profoundly is Americans relationship with food and community in comparison to Italy’s. Almost immediately after being back “home”, I notice how individualistic Americans are with food. In most shared housing situations in the states, it is not uncommon or strange for people to not share even basic staples (i.e. the concept of asking your neighbor for sugar is seemingly obsolete), meals are eaten in front of a T.V. instead of with each other, and rarely offer to share what they have created. This to me is truly strange. One of the things you learn as a child is “sharing is caring.” If it becomes common place to not share, then did we also stop caring for each other? What is most strange is that it is not common practice to cook together, to break bread and eat together. On the west coast where we are obsessed with fad diets, wellness, nutrition, natural foods and organics, I find it so paradoxical that people don’t seem to factor in community with eating well. I really think these are one of the keys to a healthy life, and that is to have community, ritual and culture with food.
The Emilia Romagna fascinates me as a food observer. I don’t know if I’d call myself a food expert. I’m definitely not just a foodie but I don’t like the word expert- it denotes a certain amount of mastery and I think that something like food with thousands of years of history behind it, it would be impossible in my lifetime to truly master, and that goes most things for that matter.
Emilia Romagna is famous for a few things: Prosciutto, Parmigiano (Parmesan) cheese, Balsamic Vinegar, Lambrusco Wine, Fresh Pasta and even Chef Boyardee. I am truly amazed by these foods which are now expensive delicacies, but were born from hard times. Prosciutto: drying and salting pork was a preservation technique to help food stretch further and to add a lot of flavor without needing to consume too much. Same with Parmigiano and it was a cheap way to provide protein. These foods, are today considered luxury and the cost is definitely reflected in that. Just to make clear: most regions have their own types of Prosciutto so don’t assume that every prosciutto is from Emilia-Romagna. Some of the most noble cuts come from the town of Parma so look for “Prosciutto di Parma”- the same goes for Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan). Not all aged, grated cheeses are Parmigiano Reggiano. For example, Grana Padana and Pecorino are common household aged cheeses grated and used like Parmesan, but it is a fraction of the price and in my opinion, also in quality. In Italy, I lead food tasting tours in Florence that contrast these very products so people learn the differences (learn by tasting, of course! How else?)
This post is titled examples of food and community…so what are some examples that Emilia Romagna lead that Americans can learn from? Pasta.
Tortellini are a famous and beloved stuffed, ring-shaped egg-pasta that are ubiquitous throughout many Italian households but sadly in modern times, they exist in the fridge in packaged, industrial form as people are “too busy” to make them from scratch anymore and now rely on machinery to make their food. The filling typically consists of caloric rich foods like pork and cheese in various forms: prosciutto, sausage, parmigiano, etc. and if you think about it, is a food packed with a lot of rich sustenance when times were rough. Again, another classic example of la cucina povera. I welcome and celebrate innovation, however I remain critical of one of the casualties industrialization has created by eroding our relationship with food and community.
Traditionally in Emilia-Romagna where the ritual of making them from scratch has not completely died out and gone extinct, Tortellini are made in large batches since they are so technical to make. Almost as a sort of teambuilding, the family gets together to roll out the dough, make the filling and fold the stuffed pasta into tortellini shape. Once made, they can be kept and frozen for a fair amount of time. Again, another example of a noble food having a more practical application. The Grandmother passes on this culinary knowledge and technique to the younger members in the family so that they can carry on the knowledge of making these ring-shaped pockets of bliss for their children and family. A common application for tortellini is “al brodo” which is equivalent to the American “chicken noodle soup” in terms of inciting comfort food memories and is also known for being served during Christmas lunch. As I have mentioned in my food manifesto, we must preserve local food traditions in a way that demonstrates integrity towards our hardworking producers: most importantly mammas and grandmas and we must never forget the meaning of from-scratch. How sad is it that compared to the Americans for comforting noodle soups like tortellini al brodo, we associate ours with a industrial product from a can (Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup). What exactly do we have traditionally that doesn’t have a brand-name attached to it? Slowly but surely, the claws of industrialization and Americanization are digging too into the roots of Italian food culture. But until that day when those roots no longer sprout, we should savor every last bite of homemade tortellini. And appreciate the community it creates by bringing us together to make food and break bread together. That, is one of the most beautiful things that exists on this planet. To get together and cook in order to feed and nourish one another.
This is why I won’t give up on Italy. The world is going belly-up in terms of community and food culture. I hope to promote, encourage and prolong these traditions through my work for as long as I can.
In your love of homemade tortellini, not in a can of Chef Boyardee,
Interested in learning to make tortellini, other pastas and typical cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna? I can put you in touch with a mamma who can teach you a thing or two about traditional pasta making and regional cooking with cooking classes in Bologna or if you are in Florence, you can still learn some kitchen magic of the Emilia-Romagna. Culinarily curious? Contact me.
ALSO: Here are our featured articles this month of #ItalianFWT (Italian Food and Wine Travel) on Emilia Romagna:
Vino Travels – Pignoletto from Colli Bolognese & Emilia Romagna Delights
Cooking Chat – Wine Pairing for Bolognese Sauce Recipe
Food Wine Click – Prosciutto, Balsamico, Parmigiano; You Already Know Emilia Romagna
Curious Appetite – Food and Community in the Emilia Romagna
Flavourful Tuscany – Emilia Romagna: lifestyle of joyful quality
Enoflyz Wine Blog – A Taste of Emilia Romagna