A factory in the piana Lucchese where I taught a business English class last year had a fabulous canteen. Although it largely catered for meat-eaters there were many options for vegetarians. None of these had to be specially made up since Italian cuisine is varied enough to cater for both food-habits.
This fact was brought out to me by a student; a committed vegetarian for some time, when I asked her how easy was it to be a veggie in Italy. Indeed, it is far easier to be one in a traditional Italian setting than (say) in Northern Europe, she answered. Part of the reason may be because meat-eating is a relatively recent food-habit in Italy. Before the last war, and certainly before the “economic miracle” of the nineteen-sixties which brought Italy out of a mainly agricultural community into a western industrialised one, meat was rarely seen on the table unless it was in the form of rabbits or poultry. There was also a clear divide between the north rice and polenta eaters and the southern spaghetti and pizza devourers. Today very significant regional differences exist in Italian cooking but the menu is much more spread out than formerly with such items as pasta and pizza becoming world-wide dishes.
In Italy meat-eating became a status-sign that “we’ve made it – we can now eat meat as often as they do in America”. Having said this, meat portions are certainly not gargantuan here as they are in the US: if one goes for a bistecca alla fiorentina (T-bone steak) in a restaurant different prices apply very clearly to different amounts of the stuff one wants to eat. Furthermore, there are attractive meat, bread and veg combinations like cotolette alla Milanese (known in Austria as Wiener schnitzel) and involtini di carne.
The cotoletta (cutlet) alla Milanese and the Wiener schnitzel are a source of contention between the two nations of Italy and Austria. What came first? Apparently documents dating back to the twelfth century have been discovered and are now on show in a room next to the basilica of Saint Ambrose in Milan describing “lombos cum panitio” i.e. veal cutlets covered with bread crumbs. Since Expo 2015 opens in Milan this tenth of May, (theme: “feeding the world”), this is clearly a scoop – another “first” for this culinary nation.
What other firsts of Italian cookery will be discovered I wonder.
Certainly, ravioli is a good contender (although Tibetan momo could also qualify) and is an excellent example of how the Italian kitchen can be both vegetarian and carnivorous, depending on the filling.
When I invited some neighbourly cat-sitters to my house for lunch yesterday and discovered that they were both veggies it was absolutely no problem. I found some very nice fresh ravioli with ricotta cheese and spinach filling at Pian di Coreglia’s “TuoDi” (ex “Dico” but same management) which has a very good fresh pasta section. These I served with sage, parmesan cheese and melted butter.
For the second course I had recourse to the “torta salata” (literally, salted cake, known to brits by its French name of quiche). This is yet another contender for a first, this time between Italy and the Gallic nation. Who will turn up the definitive evidence here? Useless at making my own puff pastry I used the ready-made one which I got from Borgo’s Penny Market. The name for puff pastry is “pasta sfoglia” in Italian (“exfoliate”) and the name for pastry or shortbread pastry is “pasta frolla”. I chose the round shape as it fitted my oven dish much better. I could have chosen pasta frolla equally but find it a little too heavy.
The puff pastry shell was preheated in the oven at top temperature for 5 minutes while I prepared the filling which consisted of
- Four duck eggs
- Half a sliced onion
- A bit of leek
- 2 cups of milk
The duck eggs were home-sourced from Flip and Flop as were the herbs from the garden.
These ingredients were cut and mixed together to form a consistent liquid and then poured into the shell which was replaced in the oven at medium temperature and baked for around half-an-hour.
The torta salata was served with carrots and chickpeas which had been boiled in a vegetable stock cube broth:
For afters I turned to that old favourite, crème caramel, for which I cheated and used the ready-made mixture, again from Penny market. I didn’t put the crème caramel into separate cups but instead poured it into one jelly container from which guests could help themselves.
For cheese I turned to that classic English variety, Blue stilton and that classic English biscuit, the digestive. The biscuit was sourced locally, again from TuoDi at Pian di Coreglia, but the Stilton was an overseas Christmas present. It is a great pity that we can find all sorts of cheese on the standard Italian supermarket shelf Italian, French, Dutch and German but no English ones. Blue stilton stands comparison with any gorgonzola or Roquefort any day!
Thus refreshed we went out to enjoy a glass of liqueur in the dazzling early February sunshine which is so happily illuminating our valley.
PS Next time I’ll try to take pictures of the dishes before I eat them!