Exploring a country’s food culture is a big part of any overseas holiday, and most definitely the case in Italy where, happily, eating and drinking can be as educational as it is delicious! Wherever you go in Italy, you’ll find a focus on using only locally sourced, seasonal ingredients that are packed with flavour.
Looking for tomato and aubergine based dishes in winter? You’re more likely to find pasta parcels filled with creamy squash, hearty soups, risottos and casseroles crammed with winter vegetables.
What you eat will also depend on where you are in the country. While tradition plays as big a part in local cuisine as the regional terrain, with recipes passed from one generation to another, the flavour of different dishes also owes much to the basic ingredients.
On our walking tours, we explore the food and local wines of most regions of Italy and while it’s difficult to select a favourite dish or area – so much to choose from! – here are some of the things we love best about Italy’s gastronomic scene.
Recipes are handed down through generations, sometimes enhanced by a modern twist and often varying in the minutest of details from the same recipe in the next village.
But on top of that, there’s a recognition of the need to preserve the production of specific foodstuffs, such as cured meats, bread, cheese or a particular type of fruit. Examples include the Bronte Pistachio from Sicily, or Giant Vercelli Rice from Piedmont.
The Slow Food movement does much to support this activity, supporting thousands of farmers and food artisans in Slow Food Communities (Presidia) across 5 continents. However, compare the number of Presidia in the US and the UK – 5 in each country – with Italy’s 377, and you soon get the picture!
For many, food markets are the beating heart of any Italian community, a place to meet up for an espresso, have a chat and stock up on your daily needs. And for overseas visitors, they are an excellent way of getting a feel for what’s in season.
Top spot at the local market for me is the cheese stall, the perfect place to learn about local cheeses and find out which you prefer. Several of the best cheeses have been awarded the EU’s DOP certification (Protected Denomination of Origin), but you won’t be surprised to learn that cheeses vary enormously between regions.
Two of my favourites are Castelmagno, one of the most popular in Piedmont, and Taleggio from Lombardy. And needless to say, meeting a local parmesan producer is always a highlight of any walking tour in or around Parma!
Cheese is also a key ingredient of any Italian picnic, whether in the form of buffalo mozzarella interwoven with large juicy tomatoes and fragrant basil leaves, or a walnut flavoured pecorino, jammed between two wedges of ‘pane toscano’.
What else makes the perfect Italian picnic? Thinly sliced prosciutto or salami, a salad of fresh seasonal vegetables such as springtime asparagus, a couple of juicy peaches and some local biscotti are simple classics. Throw in a spectacular lakeside or mountain view to complete the perfect Italian picnic, one of life’s simplest but most joyous experiences.
No list of gastronomic experiences in Italy would be complete without mentioning pasta. Guaranteed to lift our spirits, it transpires that pasta really does enhance our mood, thanks to an increase in serotonin production created by the carbohydrates. And it makes us even happier when we eat it in Italy!
With around 600 different types of pasta available, you’d think that choosing which pasta to eat could become complicated. But it’s worth remembering that every region has its own speciality and specific pasta is paired with specific sauces.
Coffee is as much a part of Italian daily life as pasta. A distinctly social occasion, having a coffee in Italy is generally a case of enjoying an espresso after lunch or dinner, or as a pick-me-up during the day.
The first coffee of the day, with breakfast or until the middle of the morning, is the only time you’ll see Italians drinking a frothy cappuccino. Best place for your coffee? Head to the local bar where most people will drink their coffee propped up against the bar.
Whether you fall into the red or white camp, or are partial to a glass of sparkling prosecco, you’ll find amazing wine wherever you go in Italy. Tuscan wines are perhaps the best known outside the country, with the red wines produced in Montepulciano and Montalcino amongst the Tuscan superstars.
Then there’s Piedmont, in Italy’s northwest, known for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines, and fast becoming the place to visit to learn about winemaking through tours and tastings. But it’s not all about classic reds. Head to Friuli Venezia Giulia in the northeast of the country where there’s growing interest in orange wine.
Foodies everywhere will be familiar with the concept of truffle hunting, and better still, truffle eating! In Italy, they grow in the forests of Piedmont, and some parts of Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche. The white truffles found near Alba in Piedmont’s Langhe hills are amongst the most prized whilst the best black truffles are said to come from Norcia in Umbria.
Last, but most definitely not least, gelato. Quite different from ice-cream in terms of ingredients and production, gelato is most definitely Italians’ favourite sweet treat and one of the few foods that they are happy to be seen eating on the street, although admittedly, sitting or standing, rather than walking. Having a gelato is a huge part of Italian culture, as important as drinking espresso and often part of a social gathering.
But that doesn’t mean that all gelato is equal. The best gelato makes use of seasonal fruit and local flavours so you’ll know to avoid strawberry gelato in November and to head straight for the superb pistachio and almond flavours in Sicily!
Further reading, 6 UNMISSABLE GASTRONOMIC EXPERIENCES IN ITALY.
Have you had any standout food experiences in Italy? How much do you try to use seasonal and local produce? Do give us your thoughts in the comments below.