Italy has taught me a lot about food.
It’s taught me a lot about freshness and flavor and fat. About the simplicity of some fresh bee honey abundantly drizzled over fresh ricotta gotten that day from the cheese counter. “Così?” like this? the man will ask, holding his spatula over a pie-slice size chunk of ricotta and you know the only response is, “un po di più, per favore.” A little more.
It’s shown me the impossibility of counting calories and the soul-replenishing feeling of eating in variety, eating to enjoy, eating only what’s the best.
Sometimes I, too, have cookies with my coffee in the morning, as the ever-skinny Italians implausibly do. And though dessert was once shunned, it’s now more or less a staple in my day. Some days that means a huge slice of tiramisù, some days it means fresh fruit and other days it’s cheese drizzled with honey. It’s the fullness of flavor, the rounding out of a meal, the pleasure of pleasure.
On a base level I’m closer to my food. Perhaps partly because I’m in Italy but also simply because I’m growing up. Along with our move we were able to carve out an ever-so-tiny plot for a little vegetable garden. A garden more than enough for two that will likely provide gifts for 11, for Marco’s entire family. We have five tomato plants, two eggplants, three bell peppers, two zucchini and three strawberry plants, just for fun.
This morning I went to check on the garden, to enjoy, as it is said, the fruits of my labor and I was surprised to find tiny white flowers sprouting from the strawberry plants. I had never known that strawberry plants grew flowers, little five-petaled things, shockingly pure among my bird-picked strawberries. And I wondered, how many people know that strawberry plants sprout these pure, tiny white flowers? Or that eggplants sport purple flowers as light purple as the eggplant is dark? Who could identify what a zucchini plant looks like? So distinct with its wide, fanning leaves and large stems.
Before I came to Italy I didn’t know what a leek looked like. Before I didn’t have the product readily on hand for the first time I had never considered that a tortilla could be made at home or that cajun seasoning was a mix of spices that could easily be reproduced. Blame my education, a lack of instruction or cooking knowledge, our supermarket culture or my parents. In any case I’m sure I’m not the only one.
We’re so far removed from what we eat we don’t even know the basics. The simplest things about what we put in our bodies we don’t know because we especially don’t know the simplest things about nature.
With this blog I’ve tried to promote a Get Outside attitude and I hope it’s worked, but more importantly I’ve tried to promote it in my own life. Maybe once I didn’t know what fennel was or how its distinct flavor adds a woodsy taste to bread or salami. Maybe once I didn’t know that the flowers that blanket our lawn in the spring are called margaritas or what hazelnuts look like hanging from the tree. Now, however, I know the difference between a farm fresh egg and a store bought one. I know the difference between some good grana cheese soft with youth or hardened after it’s been aged. I’ve seen trees hanging low with hazelnuts and trees whose thin limbs were bent from the weight of pears.
In a land where conversations about the two different schools of pizza can be discussed for hours, where coffee brands are dissected down to the individual flavors and the cut of a meat is as important as the company you share it with, I’m happy to appreciate food for more than just its calorie content.
Besides, I know how good I feel after polishing off a container of blueberries – and I especially know how good I feel eating them straight from the bush, blue juice and summer staining my fingertips.