Written (and translated into Italian), for Internazionale Extra Menù as part of a series called Visti dagli altri, which more or less translates as (Italy) As seen by Others in May 2019. Editor Michele Weber
In early 2005, I left the thick pleats of English winter and came to Italy. After travelling two-thirds of the way round the coast of Sicily, I caught a train, then a boat, ended up in Rome, was tripped up by a part of the city called Testaccio, tasted ricotta di pecora for the first time, and wrote about it. There are other details, years of them, but this is the short of it, and the essence of almost every piece ever written about Italian food by a foreigner – came, ate, had revelation, wrote. Fourteen years later I am still in Rome, and still writing about ricotta.
I grew up in the middle of England in the middle of the eighties, when Duran Duran were almost always at the top of the charts and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Like many teenagers I read my fair share of books and novels in which the main character goes to Italy either to find something (enlightenment /love /sun) or cure something (respiratory disorders / love / boredom). But the descriptions of Italy that etched themselves onto my long-term memory, like a declaration of love scratched onto a school desk with a compass, were the edible ones found in my mum’s cookbooks.
Now by cookbooks I don’t mean catalogues of ingredients and instructions. I mean books that are fat with context, history and geography, where recipes are set into stories like chicken in aspic. Later I would understand the importance of the authors — Elizabeth David, the Doyenne of English food writing, who captured the colours, herbs, smells and flavours of Italy, which must have been nothing less than astonishing to her austerity-ridden readers in 1950’s post-war England, or Claudia Roden who rolled history, geography and cooking lessons into an award winning book, TV series and a thousand dinners, something that would be magnified into millions by Jamie Oliver twenty years later — but as a teenager the books on the shelf in the kitchen were simply good reading for a hungry girl. Not that we didn’t eat well at home; despite rumours to the contrary, it was possible in England. I had a mum who grew fruit and vegetables, and a granny who owned a pub in the working class heart of Manchester and braised oxtail in a way a Roman would approve. But I knew there was more, and like a large slice of the English population, suspected that it was in Italy.
Books took me there: I visited Genova’s fish market with its ‘Ear splitting dim and black lobsters lashing furiously’ in the introduction to a recipe for fish soup, and a Neapolitan butcher in the one for Ragù. It was in these books I learned that ricotta wasn’t just pasteurised cows milk bought from supermarkets in hermetically-sealed tubs, but a wobbly, ephemeral thing made from sheep’s milk whey that tasted like – and I quote – “heaven.” Come to think it of it, there was a lot of heavenly language used by the English writers describing Italian food, writers who, like the characters in the novels or 18th century posh people on grand tours, had not just spent time in Italy but had some sort of epiphany there. Writers had revelations of almost-biblical proportions in Tuscany when first encountering local pecorino and olive oil, which is almost always described as “holy.” The year I graduated into a world of unemployment as an actress, Nigella Lawson described how, when working as a chamber maid in Florence, she would go to a trattoria called Benvenuto to eat slices of tongue with salsa verde that tasted like heaven. Even Delia Smith, the most pragmatic of English food writers, didn’t hesitate when given the choice between a multi-starred French restaurant and a traditional meal with an Italian family: she picked the latter, concluding there are few things better than the pleasure of being at an Italian table. I stuffed myself with these stories. After reading, I would make the gnudi, with English spinach and a tub of ricotta, telling myself that one day I too would eat the proper sheep’s milk version warm from the shepherd’s pot.
It was also through this writing I encountered the almost codified Italian food lexicon – authentic, simple, rustic, honest, regional, nature at its best. Clichés about Italian food that repeat on you like raw onion: the trattoria with typical dishes known only to locals and a host who greets you with bonhomie, the spectacle and cornucopia of Italian markets, and advice given out like leaflets by formidable housewives, the mother who knows everything and the grandmother who knows more, the endless debates about pasta, the immutable rules about cappuccino and ricotta served with a spoon.
As much as enjoyed all the writing, I had no plans for my own flight, until I did. I flew to Italy in early 2005 looking to cure something tedious and ended up in Testaccio, once the grid-like working-class slaughterhouse district, now part-gentrified but still resolutely Roman. London is a food city with multiple platform and tracks, each of them taking you somewhere different, but Rome is a food city with one track going in one direction: to Rome. I started eating and soon after starting doing what countless stranieri have done before me and writing about Italian food, and discovered Rome and Italy is fat with stranieri writing about Italian food — a living, eating industry selling the pleasures of the table and insider knowledge, peppered with various degrees of history and culture.
In The Italians,Luigi Barzini describes foreigners as looking at Italy with ‘Indulgent and Dewy eyes.’ Their writing may contain ‘Flashes of intuition and some revealing truths,’ amidst a ‘clutter of clichés, superficial appraisals, supine acceptance of preconceived notions, wrong information and misspelled Italian words’. My writing was all these things, my reaction probably not far off zia Sally, la romantica signora inglese, a parody character created by Enrico Montesano, who teetered around Italian TV screens in the 80’s saying ”Mmoolto pittoresco…”. And it wasn’t just clusters, but crowds of clichés – the typical trattoria that felt like something out a Fellini film and served carbonara the colour of a canary, a local market with a riot of colours and bracing smells, and that damn ricotta always served by the spoonful – cliches that turned out to be, well, life. A different version to the quaint operetta of romantic Italy, and better for it, but life nonetheless.
While some go to Lourdes and others Graceland, I make pilgrimages to see ricotta being made, first outside Rome, then in Abruzzo, and in the middle of Sicily. I will save you the 500-word revelation, except to say that watching a Sicilian shepherd make ricotta from the 500 litres of liquid he milked by hand that morning is a bit like watching magic. More so than watching an English cheesemaker made cheddar? I can’t say, because I have never seen an English cheesemaker work. But my guess is yes, because part of the appeal was the foreignness of it all, the fact I was seeing something I had only read about, that I was up a hill in the middle of Sicily. Did it taste heavenly? No. Did it taste Paradisiacal, as in idyllic state in mouth? Yes, those first hot, wobbling curds, tasting like milky innocence and reminding me of an English pudding called Junket, which comes with its own milky nostalgia and connection to my family and English/Irish culture-cloth I am cut from. While we were watching the curds rise like clouds in the steaming pot we were told that the cooking school we were at keeps the shepherd going, that tourists are more interested than locals. Was this true? Did this mean that curious tourists, however voyeristic or romantic, were playing a part in the survival of this particular ricotta? Was the cliched narrative spawned by these visits — the came, ate, had revelation, wrote — that fills a thousand food and travel magazines, a good thing too?
A few months later, in my partner’s home town on the south coast of Sicily, we crowd round a boot of a fiat Punto to buy fresh ricotta that can’t be sold in the supermarket because of EU laws and contamination concerns. At home in Testaccio, as well as the spoonfuls, we buy tubs of pasteurized ricotta in the supermarket because it is useful and keeps for ages.
Ricotta turns out to be more complicated than I thought.
Rather like food writing itself. While the classic narrative is fine, even delicious in its familiarity – who doesn’t want to be reassured by stories of good people and good food, and a fundamental part of tourism, we need to make sure it doesn’t crush reality into one-dimensional pap. We can write about and read the romance. And as writers and readers we can commit to seeking out and supporting the counter-culture voices that call out the cliches as they would a terrible meal, tell other stories, the journalists who seek to expose the truth and those who try to hide it.
And the Italians themselves. It is rare I suppose that Italians encounter food writing by stranieri for stranieri. What is their reactions to 1000 words about ricotta or dissection of Italian food culture by a foreigner: Perplexity, derision, boredom, curiosity, amusement, pride, a mix of them all? Is what Barzini says true, that Italians ‘Don’t write or think about their customs, virtues and vices but talk about them incessantly’. Maybe Italians don’t need to write essays that pontificate about certain foods, or the making of ricotta in the same way I do, because it is such an ordinary part of their lives. They do talk about food or ricotta, as they do Cose all’italiana and politics, incessantly in railways compartments, in taxis, cafes, across kitchen tables. A culture in which people talk about food incessantly but from every perspective, the good, the bad and the indifferent: something to emulate in what we cook as well as how we write about it.
Maybe this is the advice I would like to give my 15 year old self escaping with an Italian cookbook or the woman who arrived in Rome 14 years ago. You can come to Italy, you can eat ricotta, you can even have a revelation. But the way you choose to tell that story, now that is the important bit.