Italian ideas for Ferragosto

Italy marks 15th August with a holiday. Strictly speaking, it's the feast of the Assumption, an important religious festival for Catholics. However, you'd be hard pushed to find an Italian who uses that name for it. Throughout the country it's known as Ferragosto - the feasts of Augustus. Romans have been enjoying a summer break since the very first emperor provided games and other entertainments at this time of year to maintain his popularity. Nowadays the word applies to both the Assumption day holiday and the fortnight's break that most locals take following it.

The Beloved and I love visiting Italy. Being lovers of good food and wine, it’s natural that much of our holidays (and cash) are spent enjoying the local cuisine. Over the years, I’ve started to notice something in the Italian approach to food that you don’t spot at first. Every good cook knows that you’re supposed to take quality ingredients and let them shine, but nobody really tells you what that means. On the TV programme “Masterchef,” Monica Galetti sometimes criticises cooks for showing the food no love. The problem is, on a TV show or in a book, we can’t experience what “love” tastes, smells and feels like. 

Wonderful stone fruits at Testaccio
In Italy, I have noticed a respect for good ingredients everywhere. The markets are temples to the variety of Italian produce: tomatoes, of course, and olive oil, but fresh borlotti beans in their pods, too, white peaches at the peak of ripeness, cured meats and cheeses, and vast hunks of beef from local breeds of cattle. We spent a morning at the local market at Testaccio, simply admiring the goods on offer, as one might wander lazily around an art gallery. For lunch, we had hot meat panini. My partner’s was slow-cooked beef in wine; mine, stewed veal kidneys and onion. Everywhere, the traders wanted to talk about what they had on offer – not the calling out of bargains you might hear in Leeds market, but an invitation to conversation, offers of samples to try, enquiries about what we like at home.

The love of good ingredients we saw in the markets comes through in the cooking. I’m learning that what “love” means in the kitchen is making sure you can taste the best of the main ingredient in the dining room. Italian dishes are often described as simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re undercooked or easy to do. It means the final dish shows off one or, at the most, two main flavours. For instance, a tomato sauce is likely to contain olive oil, garlic, and several herbs, but what you will notice more than anything else is the taste of tomato – rich, sweet and flavoursome. It will have been reduced to a sticky, powerful mush to coat the pasta. The herbs and other seasonings will take a back seat, serving really just to make the tomatoes more “tomato-y.” In Italian cuisine, vegetables are often cooked for a considerable time, to intensify their flavour, not boiled, the way we used to do over here, but simmered in oil or wine.
Pasta making at home

Last summer, I tasted carciofi alla romana – Roman-style globe artichokes – in the food hall of Rome’s central railway station. I can’t imagine a simpler dish. I asked the woman selling them, and she told me they were stewed in water, lemon juice, olive oil and mint. That was it. She’d probably added salt & pepper but not much. They were cooked to softness, holding their shape easily, but cut just as easily with the food hall’s plastic cutlery. I’m used to French-style artichokes, steamed and dipped in vinaigrette, but these seemed like vegetables from another planet. They somehow managed to taste “soft” and “green.” Is that possible? They were neither hot nor cold, served at ambient temperature. The stall was so popular that nothing was going to be out long enough to need chilling anyway!

Everywhere in Italy, I see a refreshing honesty about food. Where small bars are serving food that’s reheated in a microwave, the microwave in on the end of the bar for all to see. If you’re served rabbit, you’re going to have to suck the meat off the bones (and deal with its head if you bought it raw from a butcher). The cheesemonger will slice a small patch of mould from the cheese in front of your eyes, before cutting off the next piece for you, but she will also throw in a knob-end of something delicious and truffled because she’s enjoyed the conversation you’ve been having about her products. And pasta is cooked in saltwater. There’s no hiding from that. They say the water should be as salty as the Mediterranean. Because of this, though, the sauces are only lightly seasoned. This takes us back to making one ingredient shine: a pasta dish should taste of pasta, not the sauce, so it’s the pasta that’s seasoned.

Italians, for all their sense of style, don’t seem to be as affected by food and drink trends as we are. I remember a lunch in Garda a few years ago. We had three dishes of local, freshwater fish and a bottle of wine. The wine was Frascati, something I haven’t seen in a British restaurant for nearly fifteen years, but it was the perfect accompaniment to the fish and the sunshine. Names from my drinking past are all over the restaurant wine lists. Perhaps we simply stopped buying the quality Italian stuff when we turned our attention to New Zealand and South Africa. I also see the same dishes on menus as I saw on my first visit – pollo alla romana, spaghetti alle vongole, casoncelli, ragù alla bolognese… And why not? Well-made, these are great dishes that deserve revisiting.

Why not serve an Italian dinner over the next few weeks? Celebrate your own Ferragosto. Start, as they might in Rome or Milan, with a Negroni, that wonderful, bitter-sweet mix of Campari, vermouth and gin. Give your guests time to chat and relax over the cocktail; serve a few of those little bread knots you can get in the high-end supermarkets, so they can have a nibble to stave off hunger. You can have prepared a sharing platter of cured meats, marinated vegetables and cheeses. Sharing, passing food around and dibbing-in will help with the relaxed and sociable atmosphere. 

One thing I love about the Italian approach to food is that they separate the starch from the other courses. That makes it easy to leave out if you prefer. It also means you need only serve meat or fish and veg for the main course. If I'm doing a celebration dinner, I'll always serve both primo (a starch dish of pasta, risotto, gnocchi or polenta) and secondo (the main meat or fish dish). In a big dinner, I'd keep the primo simple but still impressive: how about linguini with clams and a few chilli flakes, or mushroom risotto laced with a drop of truffle oil? A decent slab of pork belly, rubbed with garlic, oil and fennel seeds and slow roasted, will make a fabulous secondo, with fine beans simmered in olive oil & lemon juice with a few herbs. All of these dishes work equally well with either red or white wine, so either serve a bottle of each or a couple of bottles of your favourite. Desserts are relatively rare after a big dinner in Italy. Cakes and whatnot are far more likely to show up with coffee in the afternoon. However, a nice bowl of white peaches and a glass of sparkling moscato with would be a perfect end to an evening with friends - light, low in alcohol and refreshing.

My appreciation of Italian food culture knows few limits, but there is one. Breakfast isn’t something Italy does well. In Venice and Rome, it hardly happens at all. In the other cities I’ve visited, it’s been a mish-mash of sweetened yogurt, French pastries, Italian cured meats and cake. Yes, cake. I don’t care how many times I visit Italy: I’ll never want cake for breakfast. The coffee’s great, though.

Sections of this post have previously been published in an article for The Yorkshire Times.

Next time: In the orchard - apples, plums and pears and the drinks they make


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