The August issue of MasterChef Magazine is peppered with Italian recipes, inspired by the contestants’ travels to Rome, Montichchiello and Florence in Tuscany, and Parma. You’ll find familiar favourites, such as tiramisu and minestrone, plus less travelled recipes, such as pork lasagne and pici with ragù, and those, simply inspired by Italian cuisine.
Last month I wrote about food trends, but Italian food is one that never goes out of fashion. It’s a cuisine that resonates, no doubt because of its simplicity, reliance on fresh produce, and that it is, in essence, based on home cooking, and therefore regionality. I remember a leading chef once saying to me, “There is no such thing as Italian cooking.... there’s Sicilian food... Roman food, etc.” His point – you can’t define the food of the whole country, other than my aforementioned generalities, but you can define it by region.
Geography and climate determine much in this boot-shaped country. To use pasta as an example, while it is eaten nearly the country over, in the cooler north it is made with eggs and flour, and is often stuffed, and served with rich meat ragùs or dairy-based sauce. It is here, in Emilia-Romagna, that Italy’s king of cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano, hails from. Still in the north, but along the coast, is Liguria, a thin sliver of a region dominated on the one side by mountains, and the other by the sea. Its most famous export is probably pasta with pesto, or to be more specific, trenette, a tiny, tightly spiralled pasta.
Towards the south, the climate and geography become harsher. In the far south, Calabria, one of Italy’s poorest regions, pasta is made with durum wheat semolina and water, and shaped into poetically name forms, such as ladies’ curls or priest’s hats. Over on the island of Sardinia, as our Sardinian Ask the Expert chef, Giovanni Pilu, explains (in this month’s Mastering the Basics), the pasta is yet again different, also water- and semolina-based, but with unique shapes, such as malloreddus (tiny gnocchi). In a departure from the stuffed pasta of the north, theirs is filled with potatoes, ricotta and mint, in a dish known as culuzones. This is also the home of pecorino sardo, a local type of pecorino, often grated over pasta.
And so it is for many ingredients the country over: either they are unique to an area or have a regional variant. The lucky contestants got to experience all this, with each of their destinations heralding a unique offering. With such a rich culinary landscape, it’s easy to understand why Italians are fiercely protective of it. There are various safeguards employed for local specialties including balsamic vinegar, gorgonzola and Parmigiano Reggiano, which are registered, with a ‘protected designation of origin’ or PDO, a system that allows foods only to be labelled as such if they originate from the agreed areas. Then there are many groups, such as the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, whose manifesto ‘cuisine, gastronomy and quality of life’ really sums up the Italian approach to food. With all this national pride, it’s no surprise that an Italian, Carlo Petrini, founded Slow Food, an organisation also established to preserve regional diversity and to counter fast food.
Locally, CIRA, (Council of Italian Restaurants in Australia) was formed by a group of Italy chefs committed to educating Australians about true Italian food. It’s easy to see how things get muddied and why such safeguards are needed – only recently I received a recipe for mint-pepper gremolata from a non-Italian chef! The recipe name set alarm bells ringing – making me recall a conversation I had years ago with Sydney chef Armando Percuoco. He told me that he wasn’t against innovation; simply that he wanted to educate people to only call dishes by their traditional name if they adhered to the traditional ingredients. With gremolata, for instance, its beauty lies in the simplicity of three ingredients – chopped flat-leaf parsley, chopped garlic and lemon zest, and its ability to add zing and light to hearty meat braises. The other dish, Percuoco would have lambasted as an imposter, sharing only lemon zest in common. While fine as a dish in its own right, I know he would implore that it not be called gremolata. I decided to call it mint and pepper salsa and hopefully averted an international incident!
FOUR REGIONS – FOUR CUISINES
Hallmarks of this region’s cooking are the use of the strongly flavoured woody herbs: rosemary, thyme, sage and quite uniquely, soft-leafed tarragon; and spices – chilli and fennel seeds. Olive oil is used extensively, not only for dressing dishes, but in cooking from antipasti all the way through to dolci. Tuscans are known as mangia fagioli, or bean eaters, due to their fondness for pulses, in particular white beans in winter soups and stews, and as the basis for simple salads in summer. Hunting is popular, with boar, hare and rabbit adding to the mix of popular meats, alongside pork and chicken, which are often grilled. Pecorino is at its best here in all incarnations, from fresh to aged, peppered and truffled. Among the many local specialties, the contestants were exposed to was pici, a long ubular pasta similar to bucatini. See our Tuscan recipes for cannellini bean dip, balsamic onions and chicken livers and pici with ragù in our Contestants’ Italian Highlights feature.
The capital, Rome, is where the contestants took their inspiration from historic locations such as the Trevi Fountain, St Peters and the Colosseum. It’s also the epicentre for the region’s food and is associated with classic dishes such as saltimbocca, porchetta, artichoke-based dishes, fabulous lamb dishes and gnocchi alla Roman, a semolina-based gnocchi. Along the coast, abundant seafood offers up dishes such as brodetto alla Lazio, also featured in the magazine this month.
In the far north, with a border shared by Switzerland, Lombardy is a rich and fertile region. In its mountainous parts polenta is the starch of choice, and it is also home to minestrone (see our beautiful version in August’s Taste Test feature). Butter replaces olive oil for cooking, and the use of milk is ubiquitous. Osso buco is another local specialty, often served with risotto (see Matt Moran’s menu for a classic example).
The region comprises two areas offering great riches. To the west is Emilia, an area defined by its use of pork and milk. Cured pork forms the basis for fine salumi, a hallmark of the region, where some of the best coppa and pancetta can be found, not to mention Parma ham, the world-renowned prosciutto. Milk is used for grano padano and Parmigiano Reggiano, arguably two of Italy’s most important cheeses. By contrast, a vast coastline frames Romagna and therefore many fish recipes form the repertoire of the region. Of the many dishes named after the capital Bologna, it is ragù alla Bolognese that has travelled the world. In a region known for a great variety of pasta shapes and stuffed pasta, it was in Parma at the Barilla factory that the contestants had the formidable task of feeding 500 workers and the factory chairman! And if all this wasn’t enough culinary wonderment for one region, it is also home to the country’s finest vinegar – aceto balsamico de Modeno.
Sophia Young is the Food Director of MasterChef Magazine.
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