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Craig Camp

Attacking Italian Restaurants

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This is a very astute observation, but it's also due to the fact that Italy's food culture is still closer to pre-industrial patterns of production and distribution.

I don't know what Italy you are talking about, but I assure you the industrial revolution has spread through even Italy.

Maybe John chose a different term(pre-industrial) but he is essentially correct. Substitute this with pre-capitalist

It is not that France and Italy are not capitalist. Of course they are. But different forms of capitalisms or political economies in terms of State-economy and government-business groups links.

The big historical difference is that capitalism found a very fertile ground on this soil and, unimpeded with other traditions, it ran amok and shaped the land according to its own image.

In continental Europe, on the other hand, the market forces had to make many compromises and not only with the working groups but with the non-capitalist elite too. As a consequence certain traditions, forms of production, and eating habits were preserved.

Not only academic historians but also some brilliant artists captured the difference between the US and Europe. Goethe has a great poem but I do not have access to it right now.

One implication of the historical difference we are talking about here related to food and ingredients is that, although it is possible to find non-scaleable stuff here you have to make a gargantuan effort and pray that people like Alice Waters will fall from the tree. It is just easier in France and Italy and Spain to shop well.

Craig, I believe, though you may disagree, consumer preferences are the symptom and not the consequence of the malaise. Americans, genetically speaking, are as able as other human beings to tell the difference between rubbery egg and the farm raised egg when they taste it. The problem is that, good things are either unavailable or unaffordable for the average consumer.

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I don't know what Italy you are talking about, but I assure you the industrial revolution has spread through even Italy.

I had a long and interesting conversation last month with Carlo Fiori, the fourth of five generations to head Luigi Guffanti, a firm of traditional cheesemakers and distributors based at Arona since 1876. He explained why visitors to Italy may have varying impressions as to the omnipresence of supermarkets.

The biggest single factor, he said, is geography. In the cities which were heavily industrialized, the supermarkets became the dominant retail food suppliers, but in smaller cities and in rural areas where the traditional way of life was not under such violent attack, the farmers’ markets and neighbourhood shops survived.

But it’s not just a holding operation, he said. Carlo had kind words for Slow Food. [Which, I should add, was conceived by Carlo Petrini and friends in a wine cellar just a couple of hundred yards from where we were talking!] Their success on every level from the local to the international has brought artisanal foods to the attention of a younger generation who had been seduced by the fast food industry, so that the foods of their parents and even their grandparents are now becoming fashionable. Not only are the older shops once more prospering, but new ones are opening up in successful competition with the supermarkets, which can compete with their smaller rivals in price but not in quality, skill, ambience or personal service.

That, at any rate, was his take on the situation.

EDIT: I would add, with at least marginal relevance, that in Turin half a dozen years ago I had difficulty in finding aceto balsamico. The Old Turin family with whom I was staying - expert cookers and enthusiastic eaters - weren't quite certain what it was. Last month when I went back to Tre Galli, an old Turin vineria, there was a bottle on the table along with the olive oil. And my friends tell me that everyone is going mad over single estate olive oils, with dozens on offer everywhere. It's all quite new to them.


Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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I like a good melanzana alla parmegiana, and it's real Italian food

Parmigiana di melanzane - real Italian food?? Not where we live!

Do we need to talk about regional Italian cuisines? You know about regional Italian cuisines. Melanzana alla parmegiana wasn't being served at that trattoria for visitors from New Jersey or Staten Island. :raz::raz::raz:


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Sam, bless your soul, while I accept your "different" point, some of your "not better" arguments seemed to self-destruct before my very eyes.  Sadly, there is ZERO chance that the eggs are not generally better in Italy than in Union Square.  Most chickens are free-range, and most eggs organic, because most Italians do not understand the alternatives.  And the chickens eat corn, which produces the miraculous red-orange yolk and contributes to a distinctly "egg-ier" taste.  I, too, cannot duplicate Italian pasta dough here.

I agree that the "regular" eggs in Italy are in general better than they are here. The eggs I buy at the Green Market, though, are totally organic, free range, etc. and yet I still can't make pasta fresca that tastes like it does when I make it in Italy. This is part of my point that Italian cooking, in general, heavily relies on the inherrent properties of the ingredients and it is therefore impossible to duplicate the Italian flavors and textures with American ingredients -- no matter how good the American products may be.

Certainly it is the case that many Italian products are generally a lot better than they are in the US. And it is also the case that certain American products are generally a lot better than they are in Italy. On the whole, though, I agree that this equation is balanced in favor of Italy. That said, I think a lot of it has to do with geology. There is simply no way someone living in Nebraska is going to have access to the same diversity and quality of local ingredients someone living in, say, Lazio can have.


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I like a good melanzana alla parmegiana, and it's real Italian food

Parmigiana di melanzane - real Italian food?? Not where we live!

Do we need to talk about regional Italian cuisines? You know about regional Italian cuisines. Melanzana alla parmegiana wasn't being served at that trattoria for visitors from New Jersey or Staten Island. :raz::raz::raz:

Parmigiana di Melanzane is in my handy DeAgostino "Ricette Regionali Italiane" as traditionally coming from Campania, FWIW. I have a feeling that "Melanzane alla Parmigiana" is an American construction.


--

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And of "heirloom" tomatoes?  How long do you suppose the concept of "heirloom" has existed in the U.S.?  10 years?  Less?  Slow Food USA appears to be the leading exponent of the concept here, and we know its roots! 

A bit "food centric".

Gardeners have been saving seed from "heirloom" plants for, well, for longer than the US has been a country. (Still so young.) Vegetable gardeners as opposed to agribusiness, have grown, shared, cultured, and promoted species biodiversity and food sustainability long before the Slow Food movement came to exist. It just took quaint marketing to put this in front of people with more money than sense and to create a market large enough and wealthy enough to interest business.

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Vegetable gardeners as opposed to agribusiness, have grown, shared, cultured, and promoted species biodiversity and food sustainability long before the Slow Food movement came to exist. It just took quaint marketing to put this in front of people with more money than sense and to create a market large enough and wealthy enough to interest business.

All quite true, but it's inaccurate to describe the birth of the Slow Food movement in such a way as to imply that its motives were commercial. I know Carlo Petrini well enough to be certain that he was out to save a range of artisanal foods which were (and are) genuinely threatened.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Vegetable gardeners as opposed to agribusiness, have grown, shared, cultured, and promoted species biodiversity and food sustainability long before the Slow Food movement came to exist. It just took quaint marketing to put this in front of people with more money than sense and to create a market large enough and wealthy enough to interest business.

All quite true, but it's inaccurate to describe the birth of the Slow Food movement in such a way as to imply that its motives were commercial. I know Carlo Petrini well enough to be certain that he was out to save a range of artisanal foods which were (and are) genuinely threatened.

Sorry John, didn't mean to disparage Slow Food. I'm thrilled it happened. I just thought it unfair to suggest that the US had no proponents of open-pollinated species and other artisanal foods prior to the Italian born Slow Food movement. There are many people who are interested in preserving biodiversity for many different reasons - Slow Food has just enticed the consumer culture better than other factions. And I see I am hijacking another thread, pardon me.

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If those-who-moderate think this tangent might be better as a separate thread, please feel free to split.

Solely based on the Ducasse book, the following are ingredients where I agree with him that North American product is as good or better than anything available in Europe (and in some cases there is no significant European production). Obviously, we're talking about top-of-the-market stuff here. I've put a * next to some where I think the American product is particularly excellent:

Abalone

Apples

Apricots

Baby eels

Bass

*Beef

Bell peppers

Bison

Blackberries

Blueberries

Catfish

*Cherries

Chili peppers

Clams

*Cod

Conch

*Crabs

Crawfish

Eggplant

Fennel

Garlic

Ginger

*Grapefruit

Grouper

*Halibut

Herbs

Honey

Lettuce

*Lobster

*Maple syrup

Marlin

Meyer lemon

*Morels

Most birds

Mussels

*Onions

Oysters

Pecans

Pompano

Potatoes

Pumpkin

Radishes

Raspberries

*Salmon

Scallops

Shrimp

Snapper

Snow peas

Spinach

Squash

Swordfish

Tomatoes

*Tuna

Turnips

Urchin

Venison

Walnuts

Watermelon

Zucchini

There are quite a few things I would add to the above, but certainly with that list alone plus a few staple items (cooking fats, etc.) one could produce a near-infinite variety of dishes in an Italianate or any European style and be quite successful at "harvesting excellence."

Which is not to say that many chefs in North America take full advantage of this situation. I am decidedly not arguing that restaurants on my continent are living up to their potential. Quite the contrary. The only point I'm trying to make here is that there is no practical ingredient limitation preventing it from happening.

In addition, I believe the case against shipping has been overstated. Many of the world's best ingredients are extremely stable and can survive boat-shipping no problem. Others do quite well with air shipping. Sushi-quality fish is a good example of something that is at the extreme delicate-and-perishable end of the spectrum of ingredients, yet fish is successfully shipped every day -- to the satisfaction of the world's top sushi chefs -- from the Northeastern United States to Japan . . . and vice-versa. I don't think Europe even plays in that league, though I could be wrong -- can anybody tell us whether there's significant traffic in European seafood heading to the top-level sushi places in Japan?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Parmigiana di Melanzane is in my handy DeAgostino "Ricette Regionali Italiane" as traditionally coming from Campania, FWIW. I have a feeling that "Melanzane alla Parmigiana" is an American construction.

I thought that melanzana alla parmegiana was the phrasing at that Neapolitan trattoria, but it was 12 years ago, so I could easily be wrong about that kind of detail. The rest of my meal was spaghetti bolognese and bistecca alla pizzaiola, and it was a great meal, washed down with some pleasantly minerally Campanian wine.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Abalone

Apples

Apricots

Baby eels

Bass

*Beef

Bell peppers

Bison

Blackberries

Blueberries

Catfish

*Cherries

Chili peppers

Clams

*Cod

Conch

*Crabs

Crawfish

Eggplant

Fennel

Garlic

Ginger

*Grapefruit

Grouper

*Halibut

Herbs

Honey

Lettuce

*Lobster

*Maple syrup

Marlin

Meyer lemon

*Morels

Most birds

Mussels

*Onions

Oysters

Pecans

Pompano

Potatoes

Pumpkin

Radishes

Raspberries

*Salmon

Scallops

Shrimp

Snapper

Snow peas

Spinach

Squash

Swordfish

Tomatoes

*Tuna

Turnips

Urchin

Venison

Walnuts

Watermelon

Zucchini

I think I had this dish served on pasta at a new-American restaurant in Chicago.

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Craig, I believe, though you may disagree, consumer preferences are the symptom and not the consequence of the malaise. Americans, genetically speaking, are as able as other human beings to tell the difference between rubbery egg and the farm raised egg when they taste it. The problem is that, good things are either unavailable or unaffordable for the average consumer.

The amount of time devoted to food by Italian culture is staggering. Each day RAI1, the television network, devotes 4 to 5 hours to food - on weekends more. All the other channels show almost as much. In addition, if you have satellite, there are 2 twenty-four hour food channels. A look at the magazine rack will reveal at least a dozen food and wine publications. People learn about good food and how it is supposed to taste. Conversation about food and food quality is a normal everyday experience. Italians pride themselves on their knowledge of food.

For instance, our chain supermarket in town does not carry fresh fish. They don't carry it because Italians don't think the seafood is fresh enough in such a store. This in a place just a few hours from Genova. When people want fish they go to a specialist who they know will have really fresh fish. This means investing extra time and effort just to put higher quality food on your table.

Italian restaurants in Italy are faced with incredibly knowledgeable consumers who are willing to go out of their way in their daily life to get good food. This means they have to serve good food or they will not survive.

The reason good produce is hard to find in the USA is that consumers are more concerned with how things look instead of how they taste.

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I think most Americans simply have never experienced really good produce. If they had, many of them would regret giving it up. Italian produce was a revelation for me. And yes, I found that the imported peaches from South Africa and even the items imported from the U.S. were of superior quality, for just the reasons you suggest: The Italians won't buy crap. Even more so than the French. In France, you can find great stuff. But the difference is that in Tuscany (which is the only place I actually shopped for myself every day), you'd have to look pretty hard to find something that wasn't excellent.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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If those-who-moderate think this tangent might be better as a separate thread, please feel free to split.

Solely based on the Ducasse book, the following are ingredients where I agree with him that North American product is as good or better than anything available in Europe (and in some cases there is no significant European production). Obviously, we're talking about top-of-the-market stuff here. I've put a * next to some where I think the American product is particularly excellent:

snip

Tomatoes

snip

In addition, I believe the case against shipping has been overstated. Many of the world's best ingredients are extremely stable and can survive boat-shipping no problem. Others do quite well with air shipping. Sushi-quality fish is a good example of something that is at the extreme delicate-and-perishable end of the spectrum of ingredients, yet fish is successfully shipped every day -- to the satisfaction of the world's top sushi chefs -- from the Northeastern United States to Japan . . . and vice-versa. I don't think Europe even plays in that league, though I could be wrong -- can anybody tell us whether there's significant traffic in European seafood heading to the top-level sushi places in Japan?

You are claiming that tomatoes (at the high end) are better in America than in Italy? I know that the tomato was originally American, but don't you think you are exaggerating a bit?

I think there is a lot of Pacific seafood which is better than the stuff from the Atlantic -- sea urchins being a good example, and there are some clams and so on that just don't exist on the European side.

There is some good fish in the North Atlantic, and the North Sea but they are both rather over-fished.

The Mediterranean is rather warm and doesn't get cold when it gets deep which is necessary for good fish. They do have some very good seafood, and the swordfish from Messina is famous, but I don't think it compares to the best deep cold ocean stuff.

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The reason good produce is hard to find in the USA is that consumers are more concerned with how things look instead of how they taste.

I think Americans are also very price-sensitive consumers.

One of the amazing things about Italian frutterie is the way you will have 3 baskets of strawberries or whatever at different prices , whcih look the same, and one basket costs three times as much as the cheapest. When you ask them what the difference is, the man will say "well these ones come from Terracina (or Pachino or ...) and they taste much better!" And they do ...

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You are claiming that tomatoes (at the high end) are better in America than in Italy? I know that the tomato was originally American, but don't you think you are exaggerating a bit?

I believe I said "as good or better." I would certainly be willing, however, to put the tomatoes from Tim Stark of Eckerton Hills Farm, in Hamburg, PA, up against against any in the world.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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You are claiming that tomatoes (at the high end) are better in America than in Italy? I know that the tomato was originally American, but don't you think you are exaggerating a bit?

I believe I said "as good or better." I would certainly be willing, however, to put the tomatoes from Tim Stark of Eckerton Hills Farm, in Hamburg, PA, up against against any in the world.

So your point is that there is (at least) one supplier who is as good as the best in Italy, rather than that there is parity over a significant chunk of the high-end marketplace?

I can't contradict you -- I have probably spent less time in America than you have in Italy. I shall seek out some of these fine tomatoes the next time I am over.

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Re Fat Guy's list:

Steve: The Ducasse book is a total sham, as is his list. He was trying to win over the American public. Ducasse has strictly no idea of what is available in Europe outside of France. He doesn't know Spain, he doesn't know Italy, he doesn't know Germany, he doesn't know Austria, he doesn't know Portugal, he doesn't know Sweden. Ethnocentrism is at least as big in France as it is in America.

Immodestly, I know the markets of western Europe and those of the US, overall, better than him. Some of his items are ridiculous. American baby eels? European abalone? What are we talking about here? What is 'bass'? American striped bass, European sea bass, Chilean bass?

I love American produce. I have volunteered a few great American ingredients on this thread. Yet I would sharply reduce Ducasse's list of 'as good or better' to the following items (including, of course, the elimination of all items which are not simultaneously produced in Europe and the US, like pompano or snapper or catfish or maple syrup, which of course render all comparisons moot):

Beef

Bison

Blueberries

Chili peppers

Clams

Crabs

Ginger

Grapefruit

Halibut

Honey

Morels (and I'd add something Ducasse forgot: chanterelles!)

Oysters

Potatoes

Pumpkin

Radishes

Scallops

Snow peas

Walnuts

Re sushi-quality fish: Steve, I think the trade between Spain and Japan is at least as large as between the northeastern US and Japan. A large amount of the red tuna, for toro or maguro, found in Tokyo comes from the southwestern Spanish coast, with Japanese ships permanently on call at Barbate and Zahara de los Atunes to process the tuna caught there.

You have to come to the Iberian peninsula and eat some fish and shellfish here, Steve. It'll open up a brave new world of ichtyological possibilities! :wink:


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Italian restaurants in Italy are faced with incredibly knowledgeable consumers who are willing to go out of their way in their daily life to get good food. This means they have to serve good food or they will not survive.

The reason good produce is hard to find in the USA is that consumers are more concerned with how things look instead of how they taste.

There we have no disagreement whatsoever. A theme I keep hammering on is that cuisine, like architecture, must be built from the bottom up. No foundation, no structure.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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tsquare, I take your point re: how long heirloom efforts have been around, but only as to timing. The efforts have been largely ineffectual in the U.S., in the wake of Luther Burbank and his gene-diddling progeny. How many times do we hear about heirloom products fin the media for every time we hear mention of genetically modified foods?


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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You are claiming that tomatoes (at the high end) are better in America than in Italy? I know that the tomato was originally American, but don't you think you are exaggerating a bit?

I believe I said "as good or better." I would certainly be willing, however, to put the tomatoes from Tim Stark of Eckerton Hills Farm, in Hamburg, PA, up against against any in the world.

The vine ripened heirloom tomatoes I get at the Union Square Green Market in season are markedly better than any I have found in similar Italian markets.


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Well, I've never found any tomatoes at Union Square that could compare with the best at Testaccio or Piazza San Cosimato. Italy has the best tomatoes in the world, by a mile or two. (I'm from Spain, and we're not supposed to say those things. But there's simply no discussion. Italy has the greatest supply of non-industrial tomato types anywhere. They take pride in them, and they wouldn't have them any other way.)


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Some comments re-- Fat Guy's list:

Firstly, you have included many meat and fish items that would not be in the produce category that we have been discussing;

Also, for your list, conspicuous by its absence is corn, or maize, which barely exists in Europe and if you do find it, it's horrible;

I think the most salient point for me is the idea of READILY AVAILABLE. Sure, you could drive the 150 miles to that tomato farm in Pennsylvania (or further) but that can hardly serve 280 million people. The produce that is accessible to everyone in Europe is at thousands of daily and weekly markets, usually within a few miles of their residence. And that is the product that is so superior to what we can get here easily.

You will also find American consumers stuck on appearance rather than taste and quality. Some of the worst-looking fruit can taste heavenly. Here, it looks great, and tastes like cardboard. So it's a combination of cultural and other factors that make consuming produce in Europe so far superior to consuming it in the US.

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So your point is that there is (at least) one supplier who is as good as the best in Italy, rather than that there is parity over a significant chunk of the high-end marketplace?

I can't contradict you -- I have probably spent less time in America than you have in Italy. I shall seek out some of these fine tomatoes the next time I am over.

I'm certain I have spent less time in Italy than you have spent in America. I've only been to Italy twice, and not for a long time. I'm not attempting to speak here as an authority on Italian cuisine or markets. Rather, I'm trying to address the conceptual issue of ingredients because I think it's a logical prerequisite for taking the next step in the conversation.

The question on the table, for me at least, is "Why aren't there great Italian restaurants outside of Italy?" I think when that is broken down, one has to ask "What makes a great Italian restaurant?" And the most basic answer to that has to do with ingredients, because if the ingredients aren't up to snuff outside of Italy, that's the end of the conversation. And if the ingredients are up to snuff outside of Italy, then we can move past the ingredients explanation and move on to questions of culinary training, consumer demand, and other factors.

What I'm saying is that I think there are plenty of ingredients outside of Italy to work with. And I'm focusing on North America because that's where I have my experience -- if I lived in Argentina, I'd focus the inquiry there. That the great ingredients of North America may not be particularly easy for Joe Consumer to obtain is beside the point, because they are pretty easy to obtain if you are a well-financed restaurant chef in a major North American city.

Here in the New York region, available to any restaurant willing to place an order for delivery, I'd stand by the following tomato producers:

Guy Jones of Blooming Hills Farm in upstate New York

Tim Starck of Eckerton Hills Farms in Pennsylvania

Cherry Lane Farms of Roadstown in Bridgeton, NJ

Mario Batali stands by them too; they are his three primary vendors at Babbo.

I'm sure there are excellent producers of tomatoes in California and plenty of other places. I'm only speaking of my local market. But I'd be willing to pit these three producers against any in the world and I think they'd fare quite well. At a slightly wider market-reach level, the tomatoes I can get in season at the Vinegar Factory are pretty damn excellent.

In addition, as a well-financed restaurant chef in a major North American city, you can get best-of ingredients from almost anywhere in the world. Again, I think the shipping-is-bad claim has been overstated here.

Menton:

Firstly, you have included many meat and fish items that would not be in the produce category that we have been discussing;

Also, for your list, conspicuous by its absence is corn, or maize, which barely exists in Europe and if you do find it, it's horrible;

I don't think the discussion has been limited to fruits-and-vegetables, and I'm sure I could pull some books off my shelf and list 500 regional Italian dishes that are mostly based on animal protein and not heavily dependent on vegetables. I did leave corn off the list, but that's because I was only working with Ducasse's list. There are as I mentioned quite a few items I'd want to add, but I thought my post might get split into a new thread so I wanted it to have a focus of its own. Still, I think you'll find some wicked-good corn in Italy in the form of polenta.

Victor: I'm more than happy to accept your list, arguendo as they say, because for the purposes of this discussion I think it proves the point I'm trying to make: that we need to move past the claim that the ingredients in Italy are categorically better than elsewhere. If we took your shortened list of ingredients, a savvy chef with Italian sensibilities, and a few pantry staples (either imported from Italy or found here at equivalent quality levels), we could produce year-round excellent menus at a very respectable level of diversity -- more diverse than the menus at most restaurants in Italy, to be sure. (By the way I want to learn more about the sushi trade with Spain; is there any information in English on that?)

To approach this from another angle: Does Italy import agricultural products? And if so which ones? I know Italy imports plenty of wheat from North America -- mostly from Canada, I think. So we can say that pasta in Italy is largely based on an imported product. What are the other major products flowing into Italy, if any? Are they going to have to import olive oil this year on account of the lousy harvest? Mannie Berk, US-based olive oil importer extraordinaire, is saying in his latest newsletter that the 2003 McEvoy Ranch Olio Nuovo from California is as good as anything that's going to come out of Tuscany this year. I don't know if it's true, but I'm willing to pay $17.95 (375ml) to find out.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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