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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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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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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