Holidays in Italy
Italian Cuisine and Recipes
Italian Food, Recipes and cooking
by Country - July 2004
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Italy is situated in Europe and has
borders with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. It has a
coastline and includes two large islands, Sicily and Sardinia, plus
smaller islands and its central position makes for easy access to
Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
The land is made up of plains, hills and
mountains and its climate is relatively temperate although it can vary
quite dramatically with more severe winters to the north and a hot and
dry summers in the south.
note from the Editor
In order to truly appreciate today’s
Italian cuisine, Italy’s political history must be understood. It
should be remembered that Italy, as a country, was only completely
unified in 1870. Certainly as far as its cuisine is concerned, up until that
time the various regions were, to all intents and purposes, separate
entities adhering to many localised customs. Although there are some
Universal Italian recipes which are eaten throughout the country, the
ingredients and methods can vary enormously from region to region,
indeed, from kitchen to kitchen!
times, History and Influences on Italian Cooking
Archaeological evidence found throughout Italy and Sicily shows evidence of
human activity dating back to the Palaeolithic period but more interestingly,
proves that by the beginning of the Neolithic period c. 2400 B.C. the earlier
communities of hunter gatherers had been replaced by
pastoral settlements. These
peoples grew crops and bred livestock for food.
in the surround areas of Rome around 1000 BC. They kept pigs, herded sheep,
goats, cattle and lived in primitive huts.
By 700 BC, the
Etruscans, thought to have come from Lydia (now Turkey), had invaded and
settled central Italy. It is known that they
grew cereals such as barley and rye,
from which they extracted "puls" the ancestor of today's bread. Garlic, onions
and herbs such as rosemary and bay leaves were popular seasonings in Etruscan
cooking and other vegetables consumed included. Etruscans grew many fruit and
vegetables such as black eyed peas, fava beans, legumes, pomegranates, figs,
grapes and small melons. Many domestic animals were raised for food including
beef, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, goats and sheep. They made cheese from the
milk of cows and pigs.As
well as farmed animals, there was an abundance of wild
game in the forests of the north: hare, deer and wild boar were all on the menu
as well fish from the rivers, the lakes and the sea.
invaded southern parts of Italy and established colonies on the southern coast
as early as the 500 BC. They continued settling colonies in the south for the
next two centuries, bringing with them more developed agricultural methods.
Fish and seafood were widely eaten in the south ate this time, with meat being
less common in the diet, although goats and sheep were in abundance, and some
forms of cheeses were made, probably an early form of ricotta. These basic
cheeses developed into Pecorino and Caciocavallo. It is also believed that the
Greeks utilised the wild thistles growing in the area which are cultivated
Food and its
preparation was a very important part of the culture of the Roman empire (31BC
to the 476AD) and the only surviving cookery book from the Classical period is
Roman; Apicius de re Coquinaria, the oldest known cookbook in existence
written by a Roman gourmet, Apicius Born 25 B.C. who lived in the first century
Around 568AD The
Lombards, who were of Germanic origin, started to settle in the north of Italy.
These northern Europeans also brought their cuisine with them, which was
reflected in the more hearty cuisine.
However, it was
the Saracens (Arabs from North African) invasion of Sicily in the early 800’sAD,
who brought culinary traditions which would affect not only Sicily, but
subsequently much of Italy’s cooking. Not only did they introduce more
sophisticated methods of irrigation which made vegetable farming easier, but
they also introduced new produce such as peaches, melons, dates, rice, sugar
cane, raisins, oranges, and lemons, as well as spices like clove, cinnamon, and
important Arab import was pasta. Although some may still question this, many
scholars now agree that it probably was the Arabs who introduced dried pasta to
Italy, which was an easily portable staple. The Arabs also introduced rice and
It was during
the renaissance period, that Italian cuisine profoundly influenced cooking and
eating throughout Europe. Most notably in 1533, when Catherine de Médicis
married the future Henry II of France who took to her personal cooks and pastry
makers to the French Court, who set the foundations of haute cuisine.
They were also responsible for changing the way food was served, in particular
the serving of various “courses”. Also in the 16th century, One of the most
important ingredients in Italian cooking was introduced by the Spanish. The
tomato. However it was only in the eighteenth century that it took pride of
place in the everyday Italian the kitchen.
Day Italian Cuisine
Perhaps more so
than many European countries, traditional dishes and ingredients vary widely
according to the availability locally produced food, not to mention its
political history. despite modern day storage and transport, the specialties of
each region remain distinct.
Dishes in the
north are often rich with cream and meaty sauces being popular. Here risotto
and polenta are often eaten instead of pasta and Germanic influences are clearly
seen, a good example of which is gnocchi (potato and flour dumplings).
Beef, pork and particularly dairy products such as butter and cream and widely
seafood is plentiful in the coastal areas.
Italy’s cuisine reflects its geographical features. Miles of olive groves and
vineyards dominate parts of the landscape and both olive oil and wine are
popular ingredients in cooking. Other widely used ingredients include truffles,
ham, pork, and offal and fresh vegetables are used with reverence. Much of the
cuisine is more simple and rustic dishes make the best use of the excellent
local produce without the need for heavy sauces or too much seasoning.
In the south the
Tomato reigns supreme. The hot climate is ideal for growing excellent tomatoes
as well as Citrus fruits, vegetables such as Capsicums (sweet peppers) and
Aubergines (eggplants) which all feature heavily in the cuisine. Seafood like
prawns, lobster, octopus and cuttlefish and fish such as sardines, anchovies and
mullet are plentiful and common ingredients as are cheeses such as Ricotta,
Mozzarella and Provolone. Of course, mention MUST be made of Pizza which
originated in Naples.
In Scilly and
Sardinia, rich pasta dishes are often served and it is here that the Greek and
Arab influences show themselves the most. Good examples are the use of sweet
spices and Cassata, the famous Sicilian ice cream cake, takes its name from the
Arabic qas'at, the name for a large, round bowl
With all said
about the diversity between the various regions, two ingredients stand out as
nationally used: Olive Oil and Pasta - although it is interesting to note that
pasta is usually served as a starter rather than a main course and the olive oil
used is the south is usually the strong dark green “first pressing” oil as
opposed to further North, where a more refined olive oil is used.
Italians eat two
main meals a day: Lunch and dinner. Breakfast is often just a frothy
cappuccino. Despite the abundance of livestock in most regions, meat often
doesn’t play a huge role in everyday eating as with many other European
cuisines. Fish, poultry, vegetables, grains, legumes and cheese play a major
role the everyday diets of many Italians.