I think I must have been Italian in one of my last lives, because from the moment I first landed in Italy I felt like I was home.
I was raised in an Irish/Scots/English home, something of a barren wasteland of flavours. Over cooked roast and grey Brussels sprouts was typical fare. Our neighbours were Italian and I was always trying to invite myself over to watch Mrs. Bianco cook up a pot of simmering love. The food that came out of her kitchen assaulted my senses, in a good way.
To me, everything she cooked was exotic right down to her pasta. My family ate pasta from a can – it was orange and left a ring around your lips. Her pasta was a gift of flavours and textures and colours that I had never seen in my mother’s kitchen.
I first traveled to Italy after I graduated from UBC. My best friend and I had planned to land in Florence and then make our way south. We both fell in love with that ancient city and barely made it south of the Pointe Vecchio. I vowed that I would return.
Last year I made true to my promise and visited Florence and Tuscany for an eight day foodie tour with my BFF Michale, who came as my photographer. Special thanks to the Italian Trade Commission who made this all possible.
As a health professional I have touted the Mediterranean heart healthy diet for years. But I’ve always wondered if it was the diet or the lifestyle that was the real answer to its health claims. The short answer is: yes, you have to move there, or at the very least take a trip to Tuscany to discover firsthand what I learned.
Here’s what I discovered:
- Italy is divided into regions and because the country runs north to south these regions reflect different climates and therefore different foods that are available. As a result all Italian food is not the same. Sure we as Canadians lump all Italian cuisine into one slot but each region has their own unique historical foods that are still eaten today. It’s very much like Europeans thinking everyone in Canada eats poutine.
- Pasta is universal as an Italian food but they don’t eat it like we think they do. Pasta is the star of any pasta recipe, not the sauce.
Pasta is best served at lunch or if it is a part of the dinner menu it’s only a small part, not the whole kit and caboodle drenched in meat sauce a la North American style.
- Want to look like a tourist and not a local? Ask for balsamic vinegar and olive oil with your bread. They think you’re crazy! Balsamic and oil? Another North American invention.
- I never saw any jumbo anything. No super-size my pasta, my cappuccino, my salad, no nothing. Portion sizes are small which could explain why I didn’t see many overweight people on my trip. I know that isn’t a scientific based conclusion, but when you’re walking around and noticing that most people are either normal weight or are thin, I think that observational data means something. In fact from a totally observational standpoint I may have been one of the fattest people I saw on the trip, and I don’t even consider myself overweight. Fact: in parts of Florida, I’m Goddess material, not so much in Italy!
I also never saw anyone walking around with a coffee. The coffee culture in Italy is part of their social life, you chat with the barista, friends, drink your espresso and leave. No wandering the streets mindlessly drinking anything.
- If you want to blend into the Italian way of life never order a cappuccino after 10:30 am – it will totally blow your cover. Cappuccino is considered a breakfast drink
- We didn’t invent local seasonal fare as an eating style. Italy as well as all of Europe have always been about local seasonal fare.
- Eating is a form of socializing. You don’t see people walking along the streets eating anything. Eating takes place sitting down at a table, unless it gelato. Gelato, the food of the Gods, can be eaten wandering around. Oh, yeah!
- There isn’t a fast food industry although certain fast food chains are trying to get a foot in the door, I hope they don’t succeed, just say,n
- Wine is part of their everyday life. Chianti Classico rocked my socks! Look for the Black Rooster to guarantee you are getting the real deal.
- Nothing beats fresh ricotta cheese. I had fresh ricotta for the first time in Italy and it blew my mind! Sourced it out in Canada – my local Italian grocery store stocks it fresh on Saturdays and Tuesdays. Check your local Italian grocery store – its totally worth it!
What people eat “depends on the day”. That means breakfast, lunch and dinner aren’t the same thing every day. It depends what’s in season, what’s in your fridge, and what you are in the mood for. This way of eating embraces local and seasonal fare to the max, which translates into economical meals that support the local farmers and the local economy.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Italians use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) almost exclusively. This monounsaturated fat contains polyphenols, an antioxidant that is responsible for its heart health attributes. As basically the only fat in town the average person consumes 250-375 mL (1- 1 ½ cups) of EVOO a week which works out to somewhere between 2 ½ -3 ½ tbsp (35-53 ml) of EVOO a day per person. Before you start doing the, “That’s way too much fat” dance, it’s important to note that Health Canada recommends that Canadians consume between 30-45 mL (2-3 tbsp) of unsaturated fat each day, so we aren’t that far from what the Italians are eating. The biggest difference is that Canadians have a bigger choice in liquid fat selection ranging from heart healthy Canadian canola oil to safflower, sunflower, soy, corn, plain vegetable oil which are blends of different oils, and extra virgin olive oil.
A 100% Italian EVOO is made from olives that were grown, harvested, pressed and bottled in Italy. When a Canadian buys a bottle of Italian EVOO in a grocery store the assumption is that it is 100% Italy.
Buyer beware. There is a huge problem with EVOO fraud in Italy and abroad. Labels that say Made in or Product of Italy may only mean the bottle was, not the olives.
Searching for 100% Italian EVOO can be tricky. New labeling laws will be in effect within the next several years to declare where the olives originated from, but in the meantime look for DOP, IGP, Toscana, or CERMET on either the label, on the collar of the bottle or on the side panel for assurance that you are getting the real deal and not a blend of imported plus a hint of Italian olives or, even worse, a total imposter.
DOP and IGP designation is very similar to the VQA stamp that is used in British Columbia and Ontario in wine, assuring consumers that they are buying 100% locally grown grapes that have been used in the wine. DOP and IGP refer to the olives being locally grown.
The Toscana label means that the olives are from Tuscany, a region in Italy, and will also carry either a DOP or IGP designation.
CERMET is a private certification company, approved of by the authorities for IGP and DOP certification and also assures you of 100% Italian EVOO.
There are estate bottled olive oils and other Italian olive oils that are available at local Italian grocery stores and speciality stores that may be 100% Italian olive oil, so check with your shop owner and get the back story. If they know for sure that they are selling the real thing, then go ahead and buy, if not stick to the tried and true designations.
After many shopping trips throughout Toronto and Vancouver I discovered DOP, IGP, and Toscana at the following stores. I’m sure there are more stores that carry 100% Italian EVOO but here is a quick list:
- Pusateri’s (http://pusateris.com/)
- Whole Foods
- Mcewan (http://mcewan.mcewangroup.ca/)
- Summerhill Market (http://www.summerhillmarket.com/)
- Bosa Foods (http://www.bosafoods.com/)
- Urban Fare
- Whole Foods
- I found the CERMET designation on bottles of Colavita EVOO sold at many local grocery stores.
Costco shoppers you’re in luck, the Kirkland brand of 100% Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil is made from olives that come from an area called Maremmain Toscana which consists of Grosseto, Siena and Livorno in the region of Tuscany, which is a large olive producing area in Italy. The olives are processed at OL.MA. a large plant that I was lucky enough to visit.
Professional home economist tip:
- Store all EVOO in a cool dark place.
- My Italian sources recommend that you use the oil within 30 days to protect the polyphenols. In Canada we have always recommended an opened bottle is good for up to 3 months. I am now going to go with the 30 day recommendation and start buying smaller bottles more often.
- Because the fatty acid chain in EVOO is affected after 180 F, I am now going to be using canola oil exclusively for frying and sauteing or any other higher heat cooking and then top dressing with EVOO. I will be getting a bit more fat, but the best qualities from both fats.
Cooking pasta the correct way
If you think you’re cooking your pasta like an Italian would you might be sorely mistaken. They aren’t kidding around when they say cook to al dente. You have to bite into al dente pasta; it’s just this side of chewy. The real bonus of al dente lies in its health benefits. Without boiling the living daylights out of regular pasta it has a lower glycemic index. Yes, you read it correctly; regular white pasta that is cooked al dente has a lower glycemic index than pasta that was cooked longer. Barilla, an Italian pasta company, labels their pasta with the timing for al dente right on the front label, which is less time than similar Canadian brands. Cook it as per their directions and you will be in the low glycemic zone. If you want to kick up the fibre content of your pasta choose either one that has added oat fibre, like Barilla, or choose a 100% whole grain version.
Bottom line on my burning question: Is it the Food or the Culture?
In my humble opinion it’s the culture. We can’t all move to Italy, but we can go for a visit and experience life at a different pace OR at least take a page from their lifestyle manual – eat depending on the day, make every meal an occasion, enjoy your food, reduce your portions, express your feelings, hang out with friends, and have a glass of wine every day.
The trip was 8 days – we took 1900 pictures!
To read the posts I published while I was in Italy click on the following:
What I learned in Chianti – click here
What I’ve learned in Florence – click here
What I’ve learned in Tuscany – click here