Italy has long been a food destination for tourists but for chefs it is much more – it is a culinary Mecca. You have to at least once travel to the source to experience the food and ingredients produced by a society saturated with history, art, music and food.
We recently made this memorable trip to visit our new partner school ALMA La Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana in Colorno, a small town outside Parma. An ALMA chef’s answer to the most difficult technique in Italian cuisine also explained the world’s fascination with all things Italian… “Italian spirit”.
Italian spirit in food we learned through our travels from Milan, Parma and Florence to Rome seems to be an understanding of history, art, even music and a deep respect for ingredients all combined to produce simple food that engages all the senses.
It is knowing the exact moment of al dente for each pasta shape, it is knowing the perfect timing of each ingredient, the sound of perfection when the cheese maker taps a head of parmesan with his little hammer. It is such fine details that one could never learn from a book. And the Italian spirit seems to be alive from street corner sandwich bars to Michelin star restaurants and markets.
Italian spirit is also having an immense pride in the ingredients. In trying to grasp the spirit we sampled from the most beautiful Bronte pistachio nut ice-cream to four year old Parmigiano Reggiano, affiorato olive oil, 25 year old aceto balsamico tradizionale from Reggio Emilia and the most delicate culatello ham – of which prince Charles has a whole room maturing in the cellars of L’Antica Corte Pallavicina.
The castle on the Po-River belongs to Chef Massimo Spigarolli’s family (who’s great grandfather was Guiseppe Verdi’s preferred butcher!) and is probably the best example of living with Italian spirit. The restaurant not only produces 97% of what it serves on the land around the small castle, they also reintroduced the regional black pig back to the area and their menu. Certainly one of the most memorable meals was the whole roasted black pig loin carved at the table. Fat so sweet and meat melting in the mouth tender with an almost wild boar flavour.
What is even more admirable about Italian food spirit is the producers and chefs willingness to share. Try to enter South African large food plants with cameras and the words industrial espionage are uttered and requests immediately denied. We have photographed every step of parmesan production, been let in on family secrets in traditional balsamic vinegar production and witnessed and photographed tons of pasta being produced in the impressive Barilla pasta plant.
We may not have as much history and maybe our spirit will involve more sport than music, but we definitely have the ingredients in South Africa to believe in like the Italians do. We just need to find the spirit and start believing in and supporting the quality that we produce.
Restaurants, trattoria, pasticceria and markets that we loved:
Al Conte Ugolino da Marino
For the loveliest Mediterranean fish dish and their efficient gueridon service.
For the hams served on warm polenta and for introducing us to the craft beer Via Emilia.
For combining the traditional and modern Italian food so beautifully and for their aged parmigiano reggiano trolley.
For the best coffees and delicate breakfast pastries and for serving it with such warmth and efficiency.
Antica Corte Pallavicina
For the food ethics and beautiful black pigs, culatello and the most delicate peach sorbet.
For the most beautiful selection of produce and traditional porchetta sandwiches.
For the most divine smoked foie gras and a grape, lamb loin, hazelnut and yoghurt dish, the elegant service and for showing us the kitchen.
For the most modern Italian meal, combining the classics with molecular gastronomy techniques – the pork belly with grape fruit sorbet was quite a pleasant surprise!