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The Importance of Nostalgia

Happy memories from the past influence our entire lives. When we connect certain foods with toys and with exciting experiences, of course we grow up with fond memories of those foods. I’ve tried to keep my son away from fast food, the quintessential children’s food, because I don’t want him to connect the flavour of that particular kind of corporate food to his childhood memories.

I grew up in an outlying area of Toronto. My neighbourhood didn’t have a McDonald’s restaurant until I was a teenager. I often wonder if the reason that I don’t crave their food the way that some of my contemporaries do is because I didn’t eat it as a child. It has no happy emotional resonance for me.

This weekend, we were invited to spend the day at a friend’s villa north of Rome. The children spent the morning swimming and chasing each other around. The adults crowded into the kitchen preparing food. Green salad, fresh mozzarella, pasta in a fresh tomato sauce with basil, even homemade pizzas baked in a wood oven and then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with rosemary and salt.

It was a great day and the food was a part of what made it such a pleasure. It’s not about health so much as it is about enjoyment. I won’t mind at all if my son attaches fond memories to food like this.

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Truffle Hunter

About a year and a half ago, we decided we needed a dog. Our old Canadian cats had passed on and we had been pet-less for about a year. We did all kinds of research on the internet, we asked people who had dogs, we talked to our vet and we learned what kind of dog would best suit our life. And then we went out and got completely the wrong dog. We went to visit friends of friends and they had puppies. How could we resist.

Lilla is a mutt. Her mother is a Golden Labrador and no one really knows much about her father. She doesn’t sit when you tell her to (or, she’ll only sit if you have food), she doesn’t stay, she jumps on people when they walk through our door and she knocks over small children in the park. Lilla is sweet and affectionate, but she’s a real pain.

But, Lilla, I’ve just learned, has hidden talents. She’s a truffle dog.

Our neighbour in Umbria mentioned once in passing that he thought she would make a good truffle dog, but we had no idea how we would teach her to unleash her talents. This weekend, we met some friends for lunch at a wonderful agriturismo in Amelia and ate lunch at the restaurant. The owner, Fausto, watched Lilla playing with the children, running after sticks and retrieving rocks. He went to the kitchen and came out a few minutes later with a bowl full of black summer truffles that he had just collected that morning. He threw one to Lilla. She caught it and brought it back to him.

Fausto let her smell the truffle in his hand and then threw it a few more times. Each time she found the truffle and brought it back (she’s had lots of practice with sticks and tennis balls). He told us to get her a license and some truffle training and then set her free in the forest near our house in Calvi.

As we were leaving, Fausto handed me a truffle. “Don’t eat it,” he said. “It’s for her to practice at home.”

My feelings for Lilla have changed. She’s still a pain, she stills jumps on our friends and knocks over children. She still wants to have a nice long walk right when I’m trying to concentrate on something else. But now I’m imagining fresh linguine in truffle sauce, poached eggs in truffle sauce and maybe even risotto with fresh truffles shaved on top.

Nice doggy.

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French Food Rules For Children

One of the most interesting features of a food culture is not so much the foods, though they can be enticing, but the structure. When I first moved to Italy, I found the rules intriguing. Why not drink a cappuccino after a meal? Where I came from in Toronto that was pretty standard behaviour. But ever one to succumb to peer pressure, I stuck to espresso after lunch in a restaurant in Rome and soon came to love the way it rounded off the meal and left me feeling comfortable. It was only in contrast that I was able to see that a milky cappuccino interferes with your digestion and makes you feel uncomfortably full.

When I asked my Italian friends for explanations of any of the rules, the coffee rules, the no cheese with fish pasta rule, etc., I received a variety of answers, but nothing definitive. Ultimately, no one could tell me much more than “this is how it’s done here.”

So it is really with great interest that I read Karen Le Billon’s book French Kids Eat Everything which is essentially the ten French food rules for children. At first I thought, really? The French have actually thought out these rules? And while the answer is yes, they have thought them out; they couldn’t explain them to you. But Karen, being a very smart woman (Rhodes Scholar, PhD from Oxford, fluent French speaker …) and the mother of two young girls, figured them out. She applied what I gather is her very analytical nature to the task of understanding just how it is that French children learn to eat so well – and with so little fuss, mess and crumbs.

So, what’s the secret? Rules! These are things like no snacking between meals, the adult plans the meal and everyone eats the same thing, families eat together. Why didn’t we think of that in Canada or in the United States? Well, it turns out that we did. Karen actually points out that the French ban on snacking is very similar to the way that North American children were taught to eat a generation or two ago.

French Kids Eat Everything starts when Karen, her husband Philippe and their two daughters (age 2 and 5 at the time) leave Vancouver to go and live in a small village in Brittany for one year. The couple’s children are so distraught by the food at school and the expectations of the adults that their mother tries to seek special permission to allow them to bring more North American style lunches from home. This sets fingers wagging and tongues clucking – Non! The children have to learn to fit in. And so their mother sets out to understand exactly what French parents do that is different from their North American counterparts when it comes to food. How do they raise children to eat beet salad and raw vegetables with vinaigrette?

Through trial and error she really does decode the system and puts it into action. It means a little more cooking and planning for the parents, but it pays off in meals that are actually a pleasure to eat and adds a note of harmony to the evening meal, too.

When I mention this book, and also Pamela Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food, to Italian friends they always look a little alarmed. The French, they say, are too strict, which makes me laugh. I thought it was just us Anglophones who were afraid of the French. And certainly, Karen does depict the other parents as somewhat unwelcoming (so does Druckerman – so I tend to believe them both), the villagers as disapproving and her own French in-laws as stern judges of the food habits of two very small Canadians. But perhaps this strictness is what has helped the French to keep their levels of childhood obesity down. Italian adults tend to stick to their food rules, but for some reason Italian children are becoming incessant snackers who consume large quantities of junk and processed snack foods. Both countries have seen their actual food systems become more industrialized, but in Italy the OECD recently reported that childhood overweight and obesity is now 1 in 3. Though obesity is rising in France among adults for some reason (I would bet largely due to the perseverance of the junk food lobbyists), it is the lowest in all OECD countries, and the rate for children has not changed much in 20 years.

It was fascinating for me to read this book because I’ve spent the last three years researching and writing my own book about food culture and the importance of feeding children traditional foods rather than processed and fast foods. I tend to agree with Karen’s analysis and her suggestions. As I was reading it, I found myself at times trying to urge her French husband Philippe to just explain the rules to her, but of course he couldn’t. As a French child he internalized these cultural rules and turned them into lifelong habits. He acted as moral support, he knew what the end result should be, but often it takes an outsider to see and actually define what people within a food culture do naturally.

As much as I enjoyed the story of their year in France, I found the most telling part of the book to be the ending when the family moved back to Vancouver. It had been difficult at first for the children (and their mother) to adapt to the French cultural food rules, but when they returned to Canada they really had to adjust their new rules and expectations because the rest of Canadian culture was not eating in a similar manner. Children are really influenced by their peers. It’s really sad to see that after a year of learning to eat like the French, which in this case meant shared multi-course meals at school and only one snack a day, the school in Canada was forcing the children to eat their lunch in ten minutes. This meant of course that they had no time to eat and instead had to snack more often. Naturally, most children were bringing processed food snacks rather than anything homemade or genuinely healthy.

There’s only so much that individuals can do. Some things have to be done together. I find feeding my son to be relatively easy in Rome because he shares a two course meal with fresh fruit for dessert every day with his classmates. The school also provides a snack of fresh bread with olive oil and fruit – though parents do bring the occasional cake for celebrations. My son’s friends influence his food choices and this is the reason that he likes anchovies, octopus, asparagus and broccoli.

If enough Canadian parents decide to implement a few of these rules, perhaps they will catch on. If the schools can be convinced to change their attitude to school lunch and recognize that it is an opportunity to teach children to be civil, to share, to feel connected to each other, lunch will become a happy part of the day. Things can change in a single generation, and perhaps this generation of preschoolers and early elementary school children will be the ones to internalize the rules so they can enjoy food and live happy, healthy lives.

Take a look at Karen Le Billon’s blog http://karenlebillon.com/ to learn more about her crusade to change school lunches.

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Meatballs

Today, I asked on Twitter if anyone cared that I was making meatballs for dinner. Surprisingly, many people did care. And they wanted the recipe, too. These are the meatballs my friend Valeria Del Gatto makes. In my book, Outside the Box, I describe dinner at her house. These are THOSE meatballs.

Those above are the raw meatballs in the pan.

Here’s the recipe – I’m not great at writing recipes. I’ve never measured anything in my life, but here goes:

Polpette di Valeria:

½ a kilo of ground chicken (that’s 1.1 pounds)
A pinch of salt
1 clove of garlic, minced
About 1 tablespoon of minced onion
1 egg
Some grated parmesan. I have no idea how much, really – maybe ¼ of a cup, maybe a little more ..
Zest from one lemon
Bread crumbs
Olive oil for cooking
A few sprigs of rosemary

Mix everything except the breadcrumbs, olive oil and rosemary together and then try to form balls. The chicken with the egg in it is really messy, but don’t worry.

Roll the balls in breadcrumbs and place them in a large frying pan. Drizzle them in olive oil and place a few rosemary sprigs among the meatballs.

Cover and cook on medium heat for about five minutes, then turn the meatballs and let them cook another five to ten minutes on the other side. Just cut one open to see if they are cooked through. You don’t want to overcook them, but then you really don’t want raw chicken either.

These are the same meatballs after they were cooked for about 14 minutes:


Thanks Valeria.

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Thwarted Plans

Today is our 9th wedding anniversary. Originally, we planned to get a babysitter and go out for a romantic dinner in a picturesque restaurant down some charmingly narrow Roman street. But, Nico felt offended that we would celebrate without him. So we decided to cook at home tonight and that the three of us would go out on Saturday night instead.

I went out early this morning to go to the fish market. I decided to buy anchovies because Nico loves them and I’ve always wanted to fry them in an egg and flour batter. I asked for half a kilo, and while these kind men were busily gutting the little creatures:

I went off to the bar for a cappuccino and a tiny cornetto.

On the way back to pick up the fish, I stopped to buy some lemons for the anchovies and saw the first cherries of the season. These are from Sabina, just north of Rome. We’ll have them for dessert.

All was going well. I thought I would have some time to work on some writing before I had to run to the dentist. Every year something happens to prevent us from celebrating our anniversary. Usually it’s because James is travelling for work, once we were on a plane heading to Canada with a squirming toddler, another time a friend from Toronto arrived unexpectedly. This time it threatened to be a broken tooth. It happened last night. I’m a nocturnal tooth grinder. Still I took a few painkillers and thought I’ll be fine after the dentist fixes it. The dentist is a half hour bus ride from my house. But, in the market I overhead people saying there was a transit strike.

I dropped everything off at home and headed out on foot. It would take me 1 hour and 45 minutes. And, though I was sorry to lose out on my writing time, I found myself enjoying the walk past Trastevere:

Over the Tevere:

Past Beppe’s cheeses, but no time to stop:

Through the Jewish Ghetto:

Down narrow streets:

Crossing at the crosswalk where traffic flows around you like rushing water in a fast moving river:

Past Piazza Venezia and a million tourists:

Old things:

Almost there:

I don’t know why I thought the dentist would take away the pain. Of course, I’m in more pain now after he’s fixed my tooth. And I probably shouldn’t drink champagne with Ibuprofen. Our celebration this year might be a little muted by my whimpering. But there’s always next year to look forward to …

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A Sentimental Journey

I had a whirlwind trip to Toronto a few weeks ago to promote my book (Outside the Box). At the same time I was able to visit some friends, to sit by the fire at my very good friend Lorraine Johnson’s house every morning and to reacquaint myself with the city that used to be my home.

I went to the Saturday morning farmer’s market at the Wychwood Barns. It’s a fantastic former bus depot that has been refurbished to include live/work studios for artists, The Stop Community Food Centre, which runs a community bread oven, gardens, cooking classes, etc., theatre classes for children, a great playground and a dog run that my Roman mutt would adore. It’s the sort of place the ex-mattatoio in Testaccio could become if the mayor of Rome were a different sort of person.

I met small food producers, such as these lovely women who made the red currant jam that I am now so, so sorry to say I’ve finished eating.

And a young woman from Russia who has lived in Canada for only a few years but speaks English without a trace of an accent.

I had forgotten about the presence of Mennonites at Ontario farmer’s markets selling their sausages and their goose eggs.

It was mid-April and the spring vegetables had not yet sprung, so the market was full of root vegetables: loads of potatoes, carrots and beets.

I tried to fit in a little wandering here and there. I walked through Kensington Market, where I used to shop when I was in University. Everything I cooked during those years came from this market. I would ride my bike over in the morning and stop for coffee and read the newspaper. Then I would walk around the market and decide what to buy and what to cook. It’s a strange market, no doubt, with its ethnic mix, restaurant mix, food shops and old clothing. It’s completely different from the markets where I shop in Italy – and I’m glad that it is. I love differences. The more Toronto is different from other places, the more I love it.

I also took a long walk in uncomfortable shoes (I was going out to dinner afterward and wouldn’t have time to change) along Queen Street East. I saw the butcher shop where I used to go sometimes with my mother on Saturday mornings. I don’t think we went there regularly. In fact, I’m not even sure that it’s the same butcher shop. Memory is a sketchy thing. But the thought that it might be the same place made me teary-eyed with nostalgia, with memories of shopping with my mother, memories of the lunch counter where we would have gone for a cup of tea before taking the streetcar home.

It was wrenching to leave Toronto, as it always is, even though I love Rome. But it helped knowing I was going back in time for fava beans and pecorino,

which we ate, as generations before us have done, with our friends on the Labour Day holiday.

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Shared Pleasures

It was a holiday in Italy yesterday – Liberation Day. To celebrate the day off work and school a big group of friends and strangers including many children took a hike around Lake Nemi, just south of Rome, led by a young agronomist called Mattia. We thought we would be walking 10 km with lunch in the middle. The calculations were slightly off. Instead, we walked for 12 km before we came to the agriturismo where Mattia’s friend Gino was preparing our lunch.

Lunches like this one are the best part of living within a food culture. There were 12 children in our group and even more adults, but no one ever asked us any questions about what we wanted to eat or whether or not we had any dietary restrictions. Instead, our table was laid and ready for us when we dragged ourselves up to it. There were jugs of water and jugs of the local red and white wine, bowls of black olives and plates of bread that had been toasted on the fire and then drizzled with olive oil. For the first course we ate two kinds of pasta (one with tomatoes and mozzarella, the other with tomato sauce cooked with a little bit of crumbled beef) followed by sausages stuffed with dried berries that grow in the area, fennel seed and rosemary, as well as chicken stewed with tomatoes and salad. After, we had fresh ricotta with apricot jam. Everyone enjoyed the meal.

After spending the last two weeks in Canada, where everyone seems to have dietary restrictions, personal preferences and political food issues, it was a relief to eat a communal meal with so little fuss (I love you all, my friends, but eating with you is becoming more and more complicated). The children ate a little of everything and then were excused to play among the ancient ruins of the Temple of Diana while the adults took their espresso at the table and grilled Mattia on just how long was the hike back to Genzano, where we had left our cars.

During the post-lunch six km hike uphill through stinging nettles and along narrow paths, my friend Andrea and I talked a little about how shared meals like this one serve to unite a group. There’s something about passing the platters and collectively trying to figure out the unusual and delicious taste of the sausages (which turned out to be the berries) that gets conversations flowing.

I’m only sorry that I forgot to bring my camera.

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Home and Away

I’m happy to be back in Rome after nearly two weeks in Canada publicizing my book – Outside the Box. I loved seeing Toronto again and really enjoyed visiting Ottawa. It’s wonderful to see the increasing availability of good, fresh, local food in shops and in restaurants. I’m happy to see how receptive Canadians are to the idea of building a local food culture with children. But the best part of a journey is often going home, and after ten years Rome really feels like my home.

The first thing I did this morning was go to my local market in Monteverde Vecchio to pick up some fresh vegetables. The nicest part was realizing that my favourite food vendors noticed my absence and they welcomed me back. We chatted about the weather in Canada and the fact that you don’t need a parka in Toronto in April. And we talked about the spring vegetables that have been growing near Rome in my absence.

Loredanna’s fennel, fava beans, asparagus, and artichokes (which her daughter trimmed for me since she could see I was tired and jet lagged – she seemed to think the less time I spend today with a knife in my hands the better) will turn up in dinner tonight in some form or another – maybe a shaved fennel salad with a little lemon and crumbled parmigiano to start. Then an artichoke risotto, followed by fava beans and asparagus cooked with guanciale. It’s all fairly easy to prepare and involves minimal knife wielding.

In the next few days, I’ll post some photographs and a few stories about Toronto. For now I’m going to get to work at tracking down my luggage (with a tin of maple syrup, a vacuum packed wedge of Quebec Blu cheese and a bottle of Ontario wine – not to mention ALL my clothes …), which was last seen in Frankfurt and might have taken a holiday of its own in Paris.

At my favourite Toronto Bookstore - Nicholas Hoare

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Snacks

Leave it empty

Don’t do it! Don’t eat them. If you are not a child, you shouldn’t snack. If you are a child, you should have some fruit between breakfast and lunch and a small snack after school. If we all followed this advice alone, we could probably stop the obesity rate from growing. And then if we made sure those snacks for children were unprocessed and nutritious (these are snacks, remember, not treats), we could be fairly confident that our children would grow up strong and healthy. We could trust that these good habits started in childhood would serve them well into adulthood.

It sounds simple, but North American cultures have become snacking, grazing cultures without clearly defined mealtimes. In France, as Pamela Druckerman describes in her book French Children Don’t Throw Food, children eat three meals, plus an afternoon snack. They don’t even have the morning snack. French children know when it’s appropriate to eat cake (after some dinners and for celebrations) and they learn early to stick to the rules, which makes them less likely to be consumed by their desire for all those delicious pastries. Those slim and stylish French adults just don’t snack.

Here in Italy there is a morning and afternoon merenda for children. It was traditionally just bread with olive oil and some fruit, sometimes it was a piece of frittata made out of the leftovers from the night before mixed up with egg, or it might be leftover garlicky vegetables on a hunk of rustic bread. As an occasional treat children ate bread with butter and sugar or a piece of crostata, which is a jam tart.

Unfortunately, the food industry has been pushing packaged merendine at children and their parents for years now so that many of these healthy ideas have been lost. Children now eat industrial sweet cakes at snack time – usually with some sort of banner ensuring that there are some synthetic vitamins stirred into all the sugar and chemicals. And, both children and adults increasingly succumb to temptations at the coffee bar – coffee bars used to just sell coffee and also pastries in the morning but now they have racks of chocolate snacks and potato chips available at all hours. It’s more common now to see children who have just had a packaged cake for a snack then stop to pick up some potato chips and soft drinks on their way home from school. And this is how the childhood obesity rate grows to one in three among Italian children.

If we only give children a snack at their designated snack time, they will come to the table with an appetite when it’s time for dinner. This often helps to eliminate a lot of picky eating behaviour. It teaches children when it’s time to eat and helps them to stop thinking about snack foods and treats as things that are potentially available all the time.

It’s hard to say no to a hungry child at 5:00 when dinner won’t be ready until 7:00, but it only takes a few days before they learn to eat at mealtimes and to stop thinking that they can graze their way through the day. It works for the French (though the food industry is busily trying to break these good habits, and the childhood overweight and obesity rate, still low compared to other countries, has grown to one in five) and it used to work for the Italians. If we ignore the food industry and stick to the structure, it can work for the rest of us, too.

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More School Lunch

Broccoli fresh from the garden

What’s my first grader having for lunch today at school?

Well, first he’s eating a mixture of fresh garden vegetables. Last time I saw this on the menu he said they ate broccoli, cauliflower and swiss chard. Then the first course is pasta all’amatriciana, a rich-tasting sauce made with tomato and guanciale (air-dried pork cheeks) and then topped with a little pecorino Romano. After he’s licked that plate clean (well, not really … the teacher won’t let him), he’ll have some croquettes made with fresh ricotta and spinach. To top off the meal, he’ll eat some fruit. Likely sweet and incredibly juicy Sicilian blood oranges.

It gives me such pleasure to check the menu each morning and see what a great lunch my son has ahead of him. Looking down the week I see a series of carefully planned meals – Mediterranean pasta followed by pork stew and fennel salad one day and lentil, rice and vegetable soup with breaded sole and pan fried potatoes another. The food is fresh, organic and cooked in the school kitchen each day. The children drink water (the Italians don’t have the same milk obsession as North Americans, maybe because they don’t have a powerful milk marketing board) and they don’t eat dessert other than fresh fruit.

Examples like the lunch programme at this Roman school and examples from French school lunches (read the menus on writer Karen Le Billon’s blog http://www.karenlebillon.com) are a constant refutation of the idea that children will not eat healthy food. Of course, schools in Italy and France have culture and tradition to help them settle the question of what and how to eat. But the fact that they serve up multi-course, delicious food to school children every day shows how easy it can be if the children’s interests are put first.

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