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Italian Cuisine and Recipes

Italian Food, Recipes and cooking

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 7,600 km 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.


A 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!


Ancient 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proves that by the beginning of the Neolithic period c. 2400 B.C. the earlier communities of hunter gatherers had been replaced by agricultural and pastoral settlements. These peoples grew crops and bred livestock for food.  Latin's settled 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.


The Greeks 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 today: artichokes.


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 BC.


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 saffron


The most 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 cous-cous dishes.  


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.


Current 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 used.

Fish and seafood is plentiful in the coastal areas.


Central 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.


Recipes from Italy - Click here for lots of Italian Recipes

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