I had always loved food but my time spent in Italy taught me a whole new level of appreciation for the art, and often quite simple art, of cooking and eating decent, fresh food. Find out here about how the term 'Italian tea' became a common phrase at Language Café and how I, 'l'inglese' (the English), constantly shocked my Italian friends at the dinner table.
Signore Massimo Serafini was officially the first student on the books at Language Café. He was a PhD student studying Audio Engineering at Salford University and came from Frascati near Rome. He was also typically Italian with his food habits, and was often shocked, or I might say, disgusted at my ignorance in relation to those food habits. One day at Creation Café where we held our weekly international meetings, he stopped dead in his tracks when he came in to see me eating a sandwich with a cappuccino for lunchtime. 'Ma, non é possibile' (It's not possible), he exclaimed, his arms waving in the air. He went on to explain that cappuccino could only be consumed in the mornings for breakfast and certainly not at lunchtime together with a sandwich.
"Cappuccino at lunchtime, non é possibile"
This was not the first time I had shocked Italians with my ability to flout their unwritten food rules. At the table in the house where I lived in Falconara Marittima, le Marche, I often used to declare 'Guarda cosa fa l'inglese' (watch what the English does) as I bit into my sandwich filled with spaghetti and salad. Pasta cannot be eaten with bread, apart from perhaps to mop up 'il sugo' (the sauce) at the end. There would also always be a sharp intake of breath every time I cut my spaghetti with a knife, but I just couldn't do the whole twirling it around the fork thing. In the pizzeria on a Friday night (Friday night pizza the equivalent of the English Friday night fish and chips), the waiter hesitated in quiet confusion when, after ordering my pizza con piselle e salsiccia (with peas and sausage) and another with le patate (chips), I asked for a glass of wine. You see, wine cannot be consumed with pizza. With pizza you have beer. And imagine my surprise when in the restaurant I ordered the beef and quite literally beef was what I got, and nothing else. Where were the potatoes? The vegetables? Food is not mixed and dishes have a strict order to follow. Typically, I could not get past the primo piatto (the first dish), which is usually pasta, because I would be full. If you ever go to an agriturismo, be warned, don't gorge yourself on the yummy pasta because that is only the start and like me, you'll just have to watch as everyone else delights on the many dishes that follow. Quite simply, there are rules to follow, and often ones my English palette just could not comprehend. A good summary of some of these rules can be found here and this American girl sums it all up pretty well - remember though, this is always a generalisation and a stereotype and would not be true in all cases, but what she says was certainly my experience too:
Italians are passionate about their food, but not in a flamboyant, show-off way. They just know what goes with what and what does not go with what. An Italian friend recently said to me the three most important things in life are food, health and education. In that order. Incidentally, she also claimed she was 'born hungry', and well I guess we all are. Food is indeed an essential and the Italians I have met surely treat it as such. In Italy, each conversation in the morning would always consist of what 'il menu' would be for the remainder of the day. And many days revolved around making that menu. A trip to the market was a daily thing and the food there still held the soil from the ground, the leaves from the trees they had been picked from and the seafood was still alive in its water. Indeed, one day I returned to the house to find a bowl of things moving in the sink. On closer inspection, I understood them to be snails and realised this was what I had eaten just weeks before without fully comprehending what they were - if food was given to me, I was never one to question it, I was the first to eat it, to ask for more and to give my 'complimenti' (what you say to the cook to congratulate them on a good meal). My realisation set in one day when teaching a lesson about local foods and the Italian lady in front of me began to explain how 'Garagoi' (sea snails) were a delicacy of le Marche - so that's what the little things I had picked out of the shells with a cocktail stick were! During my days in Italy, my body had never felt healthier, my skin was clear and I slept heavier than I'd ever slept in my life, and I'm convinced until this day that it was all because of the diet I had there.
The days when Massimo returned from his trips home were like Christmas. Arriving at his flat, he would proudly open his suitcase to reveal no, not clothes nor books nor things but food, a suitcase full of food, a veritable box of treasures. At the top, wrapped with care, were the precious mozzarella di bufala and the Frascati wine from his region. His grandparents had a farm and he delighted in telling me tales of the food they had grown and made there when he was a kid. To me, it sounded like heaven. The term 'Italian tea' was coined by Massimo one day on a trip to Lancaster where we went a group of about 15 of us from 8 different countries to see my friend Matthew in his show at the Grand Theatre. I can hand on heart say it was one of the best days of my life, just a day of fun and happiness with an amazing group of people (see the photo below). Before the show, we had English afternoon tea at a place in Lancaster. Everyone tucked into their sandwiches displayed on the traditional English sandwich stands and told the waitress which tea they would like. When the waiter came to Massimo, he shook his head and declared he couldn't possibly drink tea at lunchtime and certainly not with sandwiches - it was a rule that just could not be broken. No, he would have Italian tea, in other words, un vino bianco (a glass of white wine). And from that day on, wine at Language Café was known as Italian tea.
I leave you with yet another reference to Julia Roberts film Eat Pray Love and assure you that it is no coincidence that she spends the 'eat' part of her trip in Italy. Buon appetito a tutti.