Archive for the ‘Philological Food’ Tag

News: Nutella threatens marmalade   Leave a comment

In an article which barely concealed its gleeful tone, a recent article in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (13 Jan 2011, p.18) noted that marmalade, the traditional British breakfast spread, was losing ground fast to both Italian Nutella and, even worse, to American brands of peanut butter. In calendar year 2010, 2.5 million jars fewer of the sugary-but-bitter spread made with Seville oranges were sold in the United Kingdom than in 2009. The article quoted Xanthe Clayr of the Daily Telegraph, who called the drop in marmalade sales a “tragedy,” and who said that something must be done as marmalade “is one of the best culinary traditions of our country.” Over half of the consumers of marmalade are over 65 years old, and in addition to the an image problem, a rise in the price of honey has hurt marmalade sales. What’s worse, coffee (pushed by American chains and Italian brands in the supermarkets) has surpassed tea as the hot beverage of choice on British mornings, spaghetti often outsells sausage and beans, and wine is rapidly catching up to beer.

Though the Repubblica doesn’t mention this, Britain shouldn’t feel like it stands alone, even though its “traditional foods” are threatened. Culinary philologists all over the world will likely form brigades to help Britannia purge its food of foreign influences like…Seville oranges. And Indian curry. And Chinese tea.   ZN

Posted January 14, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Olive oil and the Mediterranean Diet   Leave a comment

In the November 2010 edition of the Italian State Railway’s magazine La Freccia (distributed onboard its luxury high-speed trains), one could find an article entitled “Le vie dell’olio” (“The Oil Routes” was the best, albeit still awkward, translation I could come up with). The article offered production background and geographic indications for the peninsula’s best olive oil, giving some specific mills to visit in each of the main olive oil producing regions.

As if we’ve never heard it before, the article sounded the tired trumpet to the tune of the Mediterranean Diet:”one of the fundamental products of the Mediterranean Diet, apart from being a food, olive oil has been used over the course of the history for medicinal purposes, for skin care and personal hygiene, for lighting and as a form of currency.” Telling the fact that only this paragraph was translated into English (the rest of the Italian text remained silent for anglophones).

I have to confess that my skepticism about the “Mediterranean Diet,” reinforced by reading Patricia Crotty’s article on the subject, is developing into a healthy suspicion. While I love olive oil, and I agree that it seems more nutritious than some other fats, I am wary of the idea (driven ahead as gospel by this article and many others like it) that the MD is actually some sort of artifact of a simple life of long ago. Olive oil was until very recently (read: the the early twentieth century) a luxury item inaccessible to most Italians. To take a simple example, the average Umbrian peasant diet of the late nineteenth century was based on polenta, a limited range of garden vegetables, and (twice a year!) meat. This data comes from the parliamentary inquest known as the Inchiesta Jacini, carried out between 1881 and 1886.

Jacini found that for the Umbrian peasant, the average number of grams of fat per day was between 20 and 30 (roughly a tablespoon). We can put aside the fact that likely all of those grams were fat from pigs: assuming that even half of that fat was from the luxury food olive oil, we can estimate that in a year the average Umbrian peasant ate between 3,650 and 5,475 grams of fat. Assuming olive oil has a mass of about 970 grams per liter, we get a total yearly consumption of between 3.8 and 5.6 liters. My mother, a 68 year old woman of Irish-German stock who has only just recently begun to use olive oil in her cooking, uses about a bottle (750mL) every two months, for a total annual consumption of 4.5 liters. How fundamental, then, can olive oil have been to the diet of the vast majority of poor Italians (and, by extension, poor Europeans) in centuries past?  (Gian Paolo Collacciani, “Le vie dell’olio,” La Freccia, Anno II, Numero 10, November 2010)  ZN

Comment: Supermarkets vs. Mom&Pop   Leave a comment

This post is something from an article in La Repubblica (5 Aug 2010, pp.30-31), but I couldn’t rightly describe it as “News” as it is hardly a novel piece of information. The article, written by Ettore Livini, discusses the recent changes in the food purchasing habits of the Italians. Unsurprisingly, there has been, between 1996 and 2009, a huge shift towards buying food in sueprmarkets. In 1996 Italians bought 40.6% of their pears, prosciutto, and pecorino at the mom&pop in their neighborhood, while 50.2% of their food purchases were at supermarkets (the remaining percentage was from the internet and itinerant sellers). Only thirteen years later 70.8% of food is bought in supermarkets, leaving only 18.8% in “traditional grocery stores.”

The article points out that Italians have ever less time and money, and the supermarket is the perfect response to both of those problems. The problem is that a huge distribution comes with hidden costs, both economic and organaleptic: pears, for example, are picked when “hard as marble” to be ripe when they finally arrive at their supermarket basket. The Spanish have been creative in their solution to this need: small producers band together and plant different varieties to ensure a three-month long “season.” Small Italian producers have yet to organize onthis level. There is hope–the article cites local markets, fair trade, and an appreciation for what I call “philological food” (i.e. supposedly “traditional” foods)–but it can hardly be doubted that the trend is towards the extinction of these small grocery stores, however pleasant the service or ripe the tomatoes.  ZN

Posted December 7, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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News: Mediterranean Diet considered by UNESCO   Leave a comment

In a recent insert of the Corriere dell’Umbria (16 Nov 2010, p.5), an unnamed author reported the following:

“The Mediterranean Diet the patrimony of humanity? Just a few more days of waiting, then the Technical Committee of UNESCO will sift through the candidacy presented by Italy, Greece, Spain, and Moracco. The examination began Monday, 15 November, in Nairobi. For Italy, the Mediterranean diet (the expression was coined in the Fifties by American nutritionist Ancel Keys), as a lifestyle based on genuine food products, could be the third element on the list, after Sicilian puppets and Sardinian Tenor Singing. For the first time the gastronomy of a country could become global patrimony.’It’s not about making gastronomy into a museum, but rather assuring the transmission of our culinary culture and the gastronomic dish, above all ones from holidays, from families, of which it is an essential element,’ said Pierre Sanner, director of the French Mission for Patrimony and Alimentary Cultures (MFPCA). And Italy, with its cultural baggage of cured sausages, oils, wines, cheeses, bread, and pasta has all the criteria for a specific candidacy. And a winning one.”

There’s no mention of Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Isreal, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, or Algeria, all of whom presumably share this diet. For an article that is a critique of the concept of the “Mediterranean Diet,” see this post. ZN

Grazie a Daniela Buglione per la segnalazione.

Posted December 2, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: On Chestnuts   Leave a comment

In a recent gastronomic insert of the Corriere dell’Umbria (16 Nov 2010, p.15),  there is an article called “Regina d’autunno dal bosco alla tavola” (Queen of Autumn from the Woods to the Table), which discusses ways to cook chestnuts. The author, Agnese Priorelli, underlines that chestnuts have been used for food since time immemorial, and mentions their use in many traditional dishes.

After these “historical” comments, Priorelli gives two recipes, one from the Gambero Rosso, a Slow Food publication: Duck Paté with Chestnuts. The recipe calls for duck breast, chestnuts, chicken livers, laurel leaves, onion, garlic, butter, pancetta (like bacon), white wine, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Though nowhere in the text is this recipe called “traditional,” the tone of the article (and, in fact, of the whole gastronomy insert) and the fact that the recipe is from a Slow Food cookbook, implies that this is a recipe that could have been eaten centuries ago.

Here again I see a desire for what I would call “philological food,” food that supposedly is the direct lineal descendant of ancestral culinary traditions, passed near-unchanged down through the ages, a cooking lets one fulfill the injunction of Mens sana in corpore sano through eating peasant food. But would an Italian peasant of, say, the mid-eighteenth century have made this dish. Given that the vast majority of Italians were poor, and the poor were effectively vegetarians, it’s unlikely. We can forget about duck breast, chicken livers, and pancetta (and even olive oil and wine, more than likely) being part of “popular” culinary traditions. The onion, salt, and garlic can stay, along with the laurel leaf, but the rest is an invention of more recent times, or is philological only with respect to a small upper class that could afford these products. ZN


Grazie a Daniela Buglione per la segnalazione.

Posted November 28, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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History: The McItaly   Leave a comment

In January of 2010, McDonald’s Italy launched its McItaly burger, billed as “A meeting of tastes: the unmistakable taste of McDonald’s® meets the tradition of typical Italian ingredients.” The launch of the burger took place at the McDonald’s restaurant at the Spanish Steps, where in 1986 the protest (against the opening of that same restaurant) that launched Slow Food had taken place. Present at the launch was Luca Zaia, the then Italian Minister of Agriculture. Zaia praised the McItaly, made exclusively of Italian products, and even gave the burger the ministry’s official patronage.

This unleashed a storm of criticism, both from Slow Food and other commentators abroad. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, wrote a letter to the McItaly burger (and to Zaia) and even denounced the menu item as

Minister Zaia at the unveiling of the McItaly.

something anything but Italian: “Whose grandmother ever made something that looked like this?” he asked rhetorically on the RAI weekend show Che Tempo Che Fa. The Ministry of Agriculture issued press releases denouncing the gastronomic snobs and underlining the Italian-ness of the burger and its aid to farmers in Italy. The polemic continued for two months, until the (already planned) end of the McItaly promotion dampened further polemics.

The unanswered question is “What is Italian?” Is it the presence of Italian-made ingredients? If so, then practically all of McDonald’s products are Italian, as the sourcing is largely national. Or is Italian grandmum’s cooking, as Petrini implies? Modern dishes like spaghetti all’amatriciana are out, then, as they are largely post-war, meat abundance-induced dishes. Despite Italian opinions to the contrary, most of their food cannot be philological in the sense they want it to be, i.e. that “Our food is good because it’s the way we’ve been eating for centuries, a balanced diet based on a peasant diet.” More on “philological food” to come. ZN

View the original press releases of McDonald’s and the Ministry of Agriculture, Petrini’s letter in La Repubblica, and Zaia’s response.