Saturday, October 09, 2004

A perilous future for Italian food?

The FT reports that due to the changing lifestyle of Italian women (increasing numbers work...), culinary knowledge is being lost. Young professional Italians do not have time to cook in the manner in which their mothers did - ie: spend half the day doing it.
Another problem is the nature of Italian cuisine: it lacks a professional element. Whilst both the French and Italians have simple, regional foods, the former is distinguished by a proud tradition of professional cooking. For example, Germany has more Michelin starred restaurants than Italy!

Italian food is predominantly home cooking, so when the nature of the home changes, so does the cuisine. This may turn out to be beneficial - some might say that a strength of Italian cooking, its conservatism, is also a blinder to foreign influences. Italian cuisine will evolve in ways hard to predict, but I think most of the fears will come from outside of Italy, from those who want to preserve Italy at a particular point and time. The increasingly liberated women will probably, unsurprisingly, be least concerned. They will be too busy enjoying themselves.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't read the article as I don't have a subscription. However, as an Italian woman, I think the FT is a bit late, it's been at least 30-40 years since the nature of the Italian home has changed, particularly in urban and industrial areas. Of course in rural areas it's a different story, but I don't think most women there regularly spent half a day in the kitchen either. It's not like most daily ordinary Italian cooking is that complicated or takes that long. My mom worked and never spent more than an hour in total cooking each day, the longer thing was the risotto, and even then it's just 20 minutes. I do remember the special occasions when we'd help prepare preserves, or ragu, or lasagne, roasts, etc. and that would indeed take all morning. But that was once in a while.

I don't think the lack of a professional element in Italian cooking is that true today. There's lots of good restaurants and lots of young people working in the business. I think it's more of a lack of a professional image and a "restaurant scene" like in other countries (this has often been the subject of debate in specialist magazines like the Gambero Rosso). The French are definitely better on those fronts, but they're also better in terms of having a body of technique and standards, not just having the right ingredients. Italian cooking is often more about those ingredients than elaborate professional preparation, and even more about the local regional nature of those ingredients or even full products like cheeses and cured meats. I don't know about the Michelin stars, but as a mere consumer, I think it's the shops and producers with the local specialties that are the real treasure troves of Italian cooking, more than restaurants.

It's true Italian cooking could do with more creativity and foreign influences, but I think there can be excesses and real "fusion" nightmares so a bit of conservatism doesn't hurt. Openness to influences is great but only insofar as it's translated into something that still retains its local character. Like, the Japanese influence on the preparation of fish, it's spawned a cross with the Italian "carpaccio", and Italian sushi has become a trend, but there was already a common ground there, in technique, and in the possibility to use exclusively Italian ingredients. There's been a lot of that kind of thing recently, because younger cooks travel more and like to invent something new, so I don't think the future of Italian cuisine looks that bad. I don't think culinary knowledge could ever get lost, especially now that there's so many more food magazines, entire tv channels, associations, consortiums, etc. and they seem to increasingly appeal to men too. Especially in the young professional category.

Again I haven't read the article so I'm only commenting on your comment! Sorry if I went on too long. But it seems there may be a few of the usual clich├ęs in there, it is a bit amusing to talk of the impact of changes in family and work life in 2004. I don't think women's liberation is measured in hours working vs. hours cooking, it's about attitudes, and mentalities, and sadly there's still a lot of work to do there.

1 November 2004 at 20:29  
Blogger Peter A Rossi said...

I agree that the FT may be a bit late, but I think a lot of magazines catch these sort of trends a bit late. It was a fairly weak article in this sense. In my experience, some of my family in Italy plan their days around eating (those in the country) and others less so (in the city) - as you probably know, the city v country division is quite stark in places.

France has both Michelin restaurants and local, artisan produce, so it is ahead in this sense. This is only to say that it is not a case of one or the other.

I agree with women's lib but if nothing else, it is hard to find time to be liberated if you have to spend most of the day cooking, decreasing the time needed to do these jobs (or getting a man to do it) leaves more time for other things. Changing mindsets is probably a cause and effect of this. I think it is more appropriate to talk like this re Italy than the UK / US.

1 November 2004 at 20:58  
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