The great biscotti mystery and other food tales from Rome

2010-10-12 00:00

ALTHOUGH my soul is African, I have returned from Rome convinced that my stomach is Italian. Eating in Italy seems to be a daily rite invested with almost sacramental significance as Liz Gilbert discovered and related in her book, now the movie that has just opened here: Eat, Pray, Love. The Eat part refers to the months she spent in Rome doing exactly that.

The time Italians dedicate to the purchase, preparation and consumption of food may seem time-consuming to those used to treating meals as little more than the fuel needed for the machine of the body to function. I found myself wondering and asking why there are not more obese Italians, given their predilection for eating. However, closer examination of what and how much they eat revealed the answer: lots of fruit and vegetables and very little sugar or fat.

As a non-meat lover, I revelled in the plentiful and inexpensive fruit, including unusual varieties like pomegranates and pumpkin-shaped peaches; and the vegetable dishes. Determined to try as many food items as I could, I enjoyed some interesting gastronomic experiences.

I ate roasted chestnuts on the Spanish Steps, pumpkin and zucchini flowers at a sidewalk cafe near St Peter’s Square and chicory roots at a stall in the Campo de’ Fiori food market, Rome’s oldest market.

I loved the tradition that is common in Europe of eating several small courses or “plates” and always chose the vegetable options. What a joy to eat just spinach, mushrooms, peppers or tomatoes as a meal, rather than as an afterthought to meat and a starch. And do they know how to prepare vegetables: roasted, grilled, marinated or just fresh tossed in olive oil. Nothing like the unrecognisable boiled sludge of my boarding school days.

Even when not needing to buy food, I loved exploring food stores and supermarkets simply looking at the products. Many shop owners clearly thought I was strange and would shadow me at a discreet distance, like security guards tailing a suspected shoplifter. Nothing beats Italian dairy products. My mouth still waters at the thought of Buffalo milk mozzarella, piquant Pecorino and gorgeous Gorgonzola. Not a huge fan of yoghurt in this country, I made sure to eat it for breakfast every day and fell in love with the best ever coffee-flavoured yoghurt, so smooth and tasty it was like eating dessert.

I promised my colleagues I’d bring back some biscotti, those hard, bread-like biscuits that many coffee shops serve with a cappuccino. I scoured food stores in Rome for them, but never found any. I also noticed that cappuccinos were not served with a biscuit, which seems to be obligatory in this country. How could that be? I guessed that the transformation cultural food practices undergo when translated into a different context must account for it.

This certainly seems to be the case with that most famous of Italian dishes: pizza. For example, the United States has given rise to its own varieties of pizza: thick and cheesy Chicago and thin and more traditional New York. Italy recognises only two kinds of pizza: Italian and everything else. Originally a peasant food, my favourite was pizza al taglio or pizza rustica that is baked in trays and cut into slices to suit customers’ appetites. Pizzas served in pizzerias are the well-known circular shape, made to order and always baked in a wood-fired oven.

I eventually came across what I thought were biscotti in Siena in Tuscany. There they were common in food stores, but, as a waspish confectionery store owner informed me, hands on hips, they are not called biscotti. Biscotti are biscuits of all kinds, but the hard, crunchy coffee-accompaniments served here are actually cantucci, although biscotti did reportedly originally refer to cantucci, as it means “twice-baked”, which they are. Siena is known for its almond cantucci, but I brought back some chocolate ones that were equally delicious.

Another surprise was the pasta. I tried pasta dishes several times before deciding I prefer this well-loved Italian food to be “properly” cooked. It seemed to be served so al dente that I suspected it had had little more than glancing contact with a pot of boiling water. I was intrigued by the variety of colours, shapes and flavours that pasta came in, including chocolate macaroni and brightly striped and sweet-shaped variants that looked like pasta liquorice allsorts.

However, the highlight of my gastronomic ramblings through Italy has to be the ice cream, or gelato. Near the Piazza Navola in Rome I was introduced to what I thought had to be ice- cream heaven: La Palma. This store keeps more than 150 flavours of ice cream that change with the seasons and ingredients available. I made a point of trying as many as possible, so if you are going to Rome, I can vouch for the liquorice, pineapple, cactus and pear and gorgonzola gelati at La Palma.

I said I thought this was ice-cream heaven, until I went to Siena. There I found a small family-owned gelateria that has won the international ice-cream making competition five times, including four years in a row, from 2006 to 2009. Gelato heaven indeed. There they had even more unusual flavours like saffron, pink grapefruit and chocolate and chilli, as well as any number of varieties flavoured with alcohol, including red wine and champagne gelato. I have returned determined to make my own ice cream with my grandmother’s old recipe. I can’t wait to start experimenting — Buon appetito!

 — www.lifeinitaly.com

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