Saturday, 21 May 2011

TV review: Two Greedy Italians – Episode 3 – Piedmont (BBC)

The premise behind this programme is that two key figures in Italian gastronomy who have lived away from their homeland for many years return to rediscover their homeland, its cuisine and comment on how much or how little things have changed since their departure. It's a wonderful concept combining two real passions of mine; food and travel.

Our guides are Antonio Carluccio, one of the founding fathers of real Italian food in the UK and Gennaro Contaldo, one time mentor to a certain Jamie Oliver. These two were one-time colleagues and friends but have only recently made up after a major falling out which happened some time ago, a fact alluded to on the show.

The concept of the show is that our two heroes travel around both north and south Italy, usually in vintage automobiles, meeting foodies, shopping in markets, cooking and eating along the way. They bicker and tease each other and show a north v south rivalry which will strike a chord among many English who feel the north/south divide is alive and well. Carluccio is northern Italian whilst Contaldo hails from the south.

Episode 3 which aired the past Wednesday, dealt with the Piedmont district, the area where Carluccio grew up in. He was a an effusive and enthusiastic guide to the area, showing the market, the house he grew up in and spoke with great sincerity about his memories of growing up in the region, including the tragic death of his younger brother who drowned in a pond aged only 13.

The food they explored was of the northerly region they traversed. Influenced by Germany and France, it is a cuisine apart from the rest of Italy. Apple Strudel, that classic German dish was demonstrated by Carluccio as an example of the neighbourly influence of nearby Germany and in a cafe the patisseries of France and Franco-influenced dialect of Piedmont demonstrated the cultural impact of France.

Some of the banter between the two cooks was sometimes childish and felt put on for the cameras. Particularly when the two bait each other for being unable to cook, these scenes appear to be part of an act Carluccio and Contaldo feel obliged to present for the cameras. One wonders whether their reconciliation is a real and permanent one given the constancy they revert to the childish baiting of each other.

However, it is the food which takes centre stage. The truffles literally dealt for cash out of the back of cars as if they were drugs or other dodgy contraband, the risotto rice grown in the region (Carnaroli rice from the area has D.O.P. Protection under EU law), the home cooked dishes loved by the locals. The truffle dish demonstrated by Antonio Carluccio using fresh pasta with chicken livers and truffles was a lesson in how simple but good ingredients can make a stunning dish. By contrast, Gennaro Contaldo's eastern influenced slow cooked pork dish with ginger showed how cooking techniques can be used to make a simple ingredient amazing.

What made real impact on me was the examination of the situation that recent migrants to the north of Italy have found themselves in. Contaldo and Carluccio both made their names and gastronomic reputations in the UK. The UK has a global food scene which includes the foods of most of the nations on this planet. However, despite this, some Italian towns do not allow foreign restaurants to open within the city walls/city limits. Tuscany has banned foreigners from growing any fruit or vegetables which are not Italian in nature. Despite being successful and working within Italian legal requirements, Chinese farms in the Turin area growing Chinese produce are threatened with closure.

Apparently this is all being done to protect Italian culture and the Italian culinary heritage. It smacks to this viewer of out-and-out racism. This saddens me greatly. Multiculturalism has brought strength through diversity to the UK. As a result, London now has a restaurant scene that gives Paris, Tokyo and New York a run for their money. And I reckon we are winning. This Italian 'protectionist' attitude is retrograde and backward. If they are confident in their cuisine, allow it to be open to competition! I don't have any doubt that the strength of Italian cuisine and the depth of love shown to it by its own people means it does not have to feel in any way threatened by the food of its recent migrants. However, banning foreign food and foreign produce being grown shows a lack of tolerance no civilised nation should display.

Our hosts were quick to make the very sensible point that Italian food has successfully incorporated a number of ingredients which were not native to Italy to great effect. What would Italian food be like today without tomatoes, basil, potatoes and maize (for polenta)? The forefathers of the Italian cultural heritage welcomed those ingredients and made them their own without fear or reservations.

Contaldo himself described the protectionist policy as 'silly'. He was then admonished by Carluccio for saying so, but he then added the withering words 'no one said it was sensible.' Amen that these two champions of Italian food, ingredients and culture are with me that the Italian government's current policy is both distasteful and absurd.

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