It’s In the System

I’ve been reading some of the latest weight loss tips and diabetes prevention tactics from diet gurus and nutrition experts. It’s all based on recent studies, the most up to the minute research. It never fails to surprise me how much these great scientific revelations mirror the food knowledge already contained in traditional food cultures. Since I live in Italy, I’ll compare what I learned this week from science with what Italians have been doing for centuries.

The experts have found that starches and refined sugars enter our bloodstreams very quickly and cause our sugar levels to spike and our insulin levels to rise. All of this causes us to put on weight and puts us at risk for diabetes. A few years ago the experts were telling us not to eat starches and sugars. Now they’re telling us it’s how we consume starches and sugars that cause our problems. The advice they’re now giving is to have a small fatty snack maybe just 20 or 30 minutes before your meal because the fat triggers something in the pyloric valve that slows the rate of digestion and this slows the glucose absorption into the bloodstream. Then whatever you eat afterwards has to wait to make its way from your stomach on down through your intestines.

The Italians call this antipasto. In a restaurant while you are thinking about what to order for dinner, or even at home while waiting for dinner to cook, you and your fellow diners share a plate of salami, prosciutto, cheese, some olives, some beans in olive oil, etc. Just a little to whet the appetite. One of the diet experts actually suggested that you make “antipasto bags” as snack bags to eat in the car or when you’re on the go. While I’m glad he acknowledged the antipasto aspect, I think putting it in a bag sounds disgusting. Sit at a table and eat from a plate, for Heaven’s sake. We’re human beings not horses.

Many of the other suggestions were to eat some protein with the meal. Well, there is some protein in the antipasto, the pasta sauce in the first course sometimes contains a little bit of meat or legumes, and the second course is usually a small piece of meat or fish and lots of vegetables. Another suggestion is to include vinegar, though I’ve heard brined vegetables are good too, for slowing the conversion of starch into sugar in your bloodstream. Olives with the antipasto should do the trick or other brined, mixed vegetables that are commonly served in Italy.

A glass of wine, we are all relieved to know, causes the liver to produce less glucose while we eat. Italians have always had wine with a meal – traditionally, it was just a little wine sometimes with water added to it – and they don’t drink wine without food. I don’t imagine anyone before thought much about the glucose produced in the liver. They likely noticed that warm happy feeling that comes over you as you eat, take a sip and chat.

The Italian system of eating is about pleasure, it’s about prolonging our time over the table so that we can be with our friends and family longer, enjoying our food, talking, arguing, living. It’s not about fuelling ourselves to get on with the next task, the next chore, or raising the country’s GDP. The American model is all about intellectualizing food and digestive processes and creating a scientific mystique about food that makes us think we need expert advice and specially designed food products.

North Americans don’t need to eat an Italian, a French or a Mediterranean diet to be healthy. We don’t have to eat prosciutto and olives specifically. But, we need to build up local traditions and foods and create healthy structures that might share certain elements with the traditional food cultures. We need rules about when to eat (at meal time), where to eat (at a table), what to eat (real food, not food products) and why to eat (to enjoy life).

More than anything, we need to stop looking to scientific experts for help, and we really need to stop talking about our digestive processes while we’re eating.



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Even More Snowy Days

Nico made it back to school for one day before the forecast called for more snow and the Mayor closed the schools again. Last weekend, Nico had a fever and couldn’t play in the snow. This time he’s ready with snow pants and boots waiting by the door.

While the rain intermittently turns to slushy snow and then back to rain again, my thoughts turn to dinner. But then, my thoughts are always on dinner.

Just so you know we’re not starving during the great Roman freeze of 2012. I bought all these lovely vegetables and more at Spazio Bio this morning before the weather turned horrible. In fact, things are looking good for the next few days. The courier made it through the sleet with the second season of Downton Abbey, I found a recipe for caramelized radicchio and onion tart and I even made it to the enoteca for a decent bottle of wine (Teroldego).

And yes – these are red carrots!


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Snow Days

Via Poerio Sotto La Neve

We’ve been snowed in here in Rome since Friday. Even though it has really only snowed once, the snow turned to rain and then that turned to slush and then it froze making sidewalks and roadways nearly impassable. The snow was spectacular when it was pristine and white, but once I got over the surprise of seeing Rome transformed into a wintery wonderland I started getting impatient for it to go away. I’m with the Pope on this when he said the snow is beautiful but let’s hope spring comes soon.


The snow made me long for some comforting food so I went to the market in Monteverde Vecchio. During the truck drivers’ strike this market remained open because a number of the stands are held by people who grow and sell their own food. But this time, nearly the whole thing was closed. The people I usually buy food from, Loredana and Domenico, pick their vegetables early on the morning that they intend to sell them. I can only assume that their crop was under snow. I hope the broccoli survives. Theirs was the best I’ve ever eaten.

I also went to the supermarket where people were clearing the shelves as though they were stocking a bomb shelter. (In fact, our friend Enza said an elderly woman told her she hadn’t seen empty shelves and markets like this since the war.) It surprised me to see that so many people were turning to ready-made and processed foods instead of stocking up on staples. And then it occurred to me that I ought to get out of the supermarket and go somewhere I could find real food.

I started to worry a little bit because I once took a wilderness survival course in Canada where I was voted the one most likely to be dead by morning (bad sense of direction, didn’t know edible from poisonous weeds, unwillingness to eat bugs, etc.), but then I remembered that I would have a kitchen and even heat as long as the poor little heating system could hold up against the colder than normal temperatures.

I went to our local organic food market, Spazio Bio, which was nowhere near as busy as the supermarket. I had already bought some vegetables and a pork roast at the market, which we doused with wine and cooked for dinner that night. At Spazio Bio I bought lots of dried beans and grains for soup, some corn meal for polenta and some organic sausage to go with it, along with a few kilos of flour.

While I’ve been hearing reports of the empty shelves at the supermarkets and bakeries without bread I’m really happy that I learned a few basic cooking skills. So, we’ve been riding out the storm on bean and barley soups and freshly baked bread. For the longest time I thought baking bread was difficult and when I finally taught myself how to do it I was surprised at how easy it is. Taught myself seems a bit exaggerated. There’s little to learn. I just read a few recipes and did what they said and it worked.

In this case I mixed about 3 cups of whole wheat flour with a teaspoon of salt and ¼ cup of a yeast that I found at the organic market. It’s half way between commercial dried yeast and a live pasta madre or biga as it’s often known (one of these days, I’ll make that pasta madre). Then I mixed a spoonful of honey into a cup of luke warm water and let it dissolve. Then I slowly mixed the water into the flour mixture until it formed a ball of dough that I could knead on a floured surface. Then it just sat around puffing up and Nico punched it down a few times until it was time to put it in a bread pan, let it rise there one last time and bake it.

Pane Integrale

It’s really good. It’s so simple and has no weird processed food ingredients. It’s a small survival skill that ought to get us through a few more days of Siberian cold winds and ice before the flour, the beans and the barley run out. If we had really planned ahead and did things like canning tomatoes in the fall and freezing vegetables from the summer we would be managing even better.

We are in Italy, however, and this cold weather should soon pass and we will be back to shopping for fresh produce every other day, assuming most of it makes it through this unusual freeze. But, it has reminded me that these old fashioned, though newly fashionable, skills like cooking and preserving our own food can be life sustaining in some places or, in other places, just important enough to get you through a cold snap in comfort.

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Truck Drivers and Vegetables

Rape ... white beets? turnips? They're good, whatever they are

The trucker drivers’ strike in Italy is revealing. The supermarkets in my Roman neighbourhood are struggling to keep their shelves full of processed foods and their produce aisles stocked with the many non-Italian fruits, vegetables and nuts that they normally sell. Of course, they also sell industrially-grown Italian produce too, but the strike has made it difficult to transport all that fresh food out of the south and into the centre of the country.

When I heard the report of food shortages, I thought I better not be late getting out to my local fresh produce market. The news reports said some vendors were closing their stalls because they had so little to sell. In the market where I shop, almost everyone was open but some didn’t have much to sell. It was the ones who rely on large industrial farms for their supply who were struggling the most. Those who sell their own produce grown nearby, however, seemed to be fine. There’s a married couple from Umbria who sell their own onions, potatoes and green vegetables, but they didn’t have the apples from the north or the oranges from the south that they usually stock.

Then there is Loredana and Domenico. My friend Marjorie Shaw (who runs her own travel business called Insider’s Italy) introduced me to them a few years ago. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday they come to my neighbourhood market in Monteverde Vecchio and set up a small table. They only sell what they grow on their farm out toward the Fiumicino airport. They grow vegetables and, at this time of year, lemons. In summer they sell the most amazing melons I’ve ever tasted, though Domenico said they are in fact grown by his brother.

Loredana said they don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer (other than manure from nearby livestock farmers). Their produce tastes incredibly good, but that might be partly because Loredana always takes my arm and makes me listen to her instructions for cooking them. The rape pictured above was delicious peeled, boiled in a little salted water along with the green tops and then all mashed together with a little drizzle of olive oil. And the brocoletti I boiled for just a few minutes then drained and served with olive oil, lemon and a sparse sprinkling of coarse salt.

The best part is that Loredana says they pick what they’re going to sell early in the morning, load it right into their truck and then make the half hour drive to the city. I’m grateful, at a time like this, that they still do this. It takes a strike like this one to make you realize how even the fresh food markets have become so reliant on industrial agriculture.

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Birthday Bubbly

It was my birthday on the weekend and we had to celebrate, of course. This is when I love being in Italy. They make such good things for celebrating. It’s the perfect time for drinking and eating things we can’t have every day like expensive wine and cake. I made a cake because James, as wonderful as he is in all other ways, is useless at cake baking. We ate it before the camera ever came near it. But we do have the empty bottle from the celebratory bubbly. It’s a Pinot Noir from Lombardy near where my other favourite, Franciacorta, comes from, and has been made by the Boatti family since the 19th century. But, as far as I know, you have to come to Italy to drink it. Good. It makes it more special when you can drink it. (And, possibly, leaves more for me in Italy.)

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Found Food

Wild Boar Ragu

Foraging for food is all the rage these days. I only recently realized that the people I see carefully combing the hillside near the roadways in Umbria are out there looking for wild food. They’re finding mushrooms and even truffles, thick stalks of cardi and thistly greens. They are usually elderly people with canes and plastic shopping bags, so I didn’t connect them with this now very fashionable activity. I love the idea of it but I don’t yet trust myself to know the edible from the poisonous. So, my foraging has been limited to bay leaf (which I didn’t even notice until Nico pointed at bushes of it growing along the path of our country walk) and wild mint. We were, however, lucky this weekend to try crespigni at a trattoria that caters to the locals near where the Umbrian border meets the Sabina hills. We ate this prickly dark green vegetable raw with lots of olive oil, sliced garlic and big pieces of salty anchovy. It went beautifully with the wild boar ragu with homemade pappardelle that Nico loves in spite of his fury at the hunters who frighten the poor creatures in the nearby woods. Crespigni continues to grow for a few more weeks, or until spring really sets in. And the restaurant will continue to serve it for as long as the cook feels like scouring the hillside to pick it. It’s great to be reminded that food doesn’t always come from a shop.

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Don’t Disrespect the Cow

Hamburger Ad in Rome

McDonald’s has a prominent ad campaign in Rome right now advertising a burger special. You can have a cheeseburger and french fries for just 1 euro. Maybe they’re just trying to do something for Italians who are suffering through the great economic crisis. Feed everyone in the family for only 1 euro each.

That is so disrespectful in so many ways. It’s disrespectful to the great tradition of la cucina povera. The healthy vegetable and legume rich soups and stews that were created by people with little money but fantastic agricultural resources, and it’s disrespectful to those same resourceful people who created the torta rustica, which are savoury pies filled with vegetables and maybe a tiny bit of pancetta for flavour. Like an invasive species (the serrated tussock plant of South America comes to mind, for some reason – it spread to other countries competing with local plant species and reduced biodiversity), fast food hamburgers have spread from America and have been changing eating habits and damaging culinary diversity.

Mostly, charging 1 euro for a cheeseburger with fries really disrespects the cow. I’d like to say the cow that gave its life for the burger, but there are likely bits of numerous cows in one of those hamburgers. The influx of fast food hamburgers has put great pressure on the industry to provide enough ground beef to meet the demand. Eighty percent of all ground beef in Italy comes from the same slaughterhouse that provides it to McDonalds and other fast food restaurants. The country can’t meet the demand without lowering its standards. Already, agriculture ministry vets are finding growth hormone in cattle in random tests – even though it’s banned in the EU.

To sell a cheeseburger with fries for 1 euro cannot be done without further degrading the food system in Italy. At the very least, they should raise the price to reflect what it really costs to raise healthy cattle. I’m thinking of starting a new movement – Respect the cow!

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An Ersatz Epiphany

La Befana

The Befana is an old lady who rides around Italy on a broom bringing gifts to children on the eve of Epiphany. One theory is that the three Kings on their way to see the baby Jesus asked an old woman to help them. She offered them shelter. The next day they invited her to join them, but she declined because she was busy sweeping and cleaning. The she regretted her decision so much, she ran around with her broom handing presents to children while she searched for the baby Jesus. Another theory links her to the Sabine goddess known as Strina.

Whatever her origins, children all over Italy this morning woke up to stockings stuffed full of candy. Traditionally, she brought dried figs, dates and honey for the good children and lumps of coal, onions and garlic for the bad ones. More recently she’s started bringing candy for all of them.

It’s a lovely old Italian tradition and a nice way to finish off the holidays. But like so many food traditions in Europe, the Befana has been hijacked by the big food companies. Nestle has manufactured nylon stockings with their Kit Kat logo on it. The supermarkets had little corners set up with packaged snacks and candy from the multinationals for Befana gifts.

Even Piazza Navona, the home of Rome’s biggest Christmas market, has traded in its traditional hand-made wooden presepe pieces for the nativity scenes for mass produced, made in China sets. And the traditional foods have all but disappeared in favour of processed foods and industrial candy. It’s a kind of parody of tradition.

Figs and Dates?

Good thing the Befana is scheduled to show up at Piazza Navona this afternoon to sweep the whole thing away – until next year.

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Easy Snacks for Growing Boys

A bite to eat after school

Here’s what I love about food in Italy. It’s simple. Everything depends on the quality of the ingredients, but the food itself is often quite uncomplicated. The best fish I’ve ever eaten was just fish, olive oil and salt, the best tomato sauce is just tomatoes, olive oil and salt. You could add fresh lemon to the fish or basil to the tomato sauce but then you’re up to four ingredients, which means you’re getting fancy.

When Nico came home from school today I asked him if he wanted a snack. He said yes and if I would cut him a slice of Lariano bread, he would make it himself. This is it: bread, olive oil (from our trees in Umbria, I should add – it’s still bright green and incredibly fruity and I want to drizzle it on everything I eat … but, I digress) and a Sicilian clementine.

It reminds me of the simple snacks of my own childhood. My mother used to bake bread when I was very young and so I remember that fresh, yeasty smell of the bread and the aged Canadian cheddar she served with it. Other days she gave me apples and cheddar, or sometimes carrot sticks, raw green beans, peas in the pod. It was always something simple and never something from a package.

Sometimes I think everything in my son’s life here in Italy is so completely different from my own childhood experiences in Canada. And then I realize it’s just the ingredients – he’s got olive oil and I had cheddar. The tradition of eating something fresh and homemade is reassuringly the same.


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Please – No Children’s Menus

Tartufo sauce

That’s a picture of Nico’s lunch from Saturday, or what was Nico’s lunch. He ate it so quickly it was gone before I realized it. It’s his favourite pasta – homemade with black truffle sauce – at his favourite restaurant in Calvi dell’Umbria.

Nico, who is not quite 7 yet, is really tired of driving to Calvi every weekend to check on the progress of the renovations at our house. And so we’ve been bribing him by promising to take him to lunch every Saturday at La Locanda del Francescano after we visit the workmen.

As we settled in to eat – Nico with his maltagliati al tartufo and James and I each with our plates of polenta con salsicce – James said we’re really lucky to be raising our son in Italy. If we were in Toronto, our son’s favourite restaurant could easily be McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even if it wasn’t a chain restaurant, his favourite meal would likely come with french fries.

Here in Italy, since you rarely ever see a children’s menu in a restaurant, the children have to try new things on the menu. They don’t expect special, fun food. Here, the chef is so thrilled with Nico’s enthusiasm, he shaves extra truffles on his plate, giving him even more than he gives to the adults who order the dish. It’s wonderful to be able to go to a really nice restaurant where we can all eat well and James and I can have a glass of wine with our Saturday lunch.

My only fear is that truffle season will be over well before the work is finished on the house. I’m not sure quite how we’ll bribe him to keep hopping in the car every Saturday morning once he’s eaten every black tuber in Umbria. Though, he did say he’s interested in trying the stuffed pigeon next time.

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