Principles of Gastronomy: Italian Cuisine
General background of Gastronomy
Gastronomy is a relatively new field of study in which experts seek to understand eating habits of people in a given culture or geographical region. Since the beginning of man’s existence, food has been the major drive towards civilization and innovation. Originally, people fed on simple foods that only served as one of the three basic human needs. As such, peoples’ foods were entirely made of any palatable substance that could thrive in the prevailing climatic and geographical conditions (Eertmans, Baeyens & Van den Bergh 2001).
However, this trend has long changed and evolved into a luxurious and complex entity due to the technological, intellectual, and agricultural advancements that characterize the current society (Cullen 1994). Additionally, religion and socialization have added their weight to this evolution. People from all walks of life have developed and are still developing their eating norms and taboos. Feeding has, therefore, become an undisputable academic profession. Gastronomy is fast growing, and terms like gourmet cuisine, culinary arts, and haute cuisine are no longer new.
Gastronomy, now a much studied subject, has helped us to understand not only the history and reason behind the food we eat, but also of the food eaten by different cultures worldwide.. World Cuisine, as more popularly known, has become common knowledge among common people. It consists of several cuisines drawn from various cultures across the globe; for instance, there are the French Cuisine, Italian Cuisine, Middle-East Cuisine, Indian Cuisine, and Chinese Cuisine among others (Navarroa et al. 2012).
Italian Cuisine – An Overview
Just like in other communities, the Italian cuisine has evolved over the centuries through social and political changes that have occurred in this community. Though Italy has united into the state we know it now only in the 19th century, the cuisine traces its roots as far back as the 4th century BC. Italian cuisine has been heavily influenced by external cultures, such as Etruscan, Byzantine, ancient Greek, ancient Roman, and Jewish (The Essence of Roman Italian Cooking 2010). Due to its regional diversity and abundance of difference tastes, the Italian cuisine is particularly popular in most parts of the world. It is characterized by the extreme simplicity where most dishes consist of four to eight ingredients only.
In order to make their dishes distinct from the rest, Italian cooks rely mainly on the quality of the ingredients rather than on the elaborate preparation. However, these ingredients and dishes vary from region to region. In most cases, grandmothers are the creators of the dishes and recipes, not chefs. This makes many recipes easy to make, inexpensive, and ideal for home cooking.
Italy is non-arguably a culinary delight of the world. One can hardly miss Italian cuisine serving restaurant in any of the world’s major cities. Pizzas and pastas are some of the common Italian delicacies, not to mention the superb sauces (Hazan & Kretschmann 1992).
Though it is a culinary wonder, the basic food is usually prepared in ordinary and simple techniques of boiling, braising, simmering, and grilling. Olive oil is said to be common for all recipes, even though other ingredients can be changed in different dishes. Occasionally, some regions use more of butter in cooking these dishes.
Joining the summer course program was one of the best things that have ever happened to me. It gave me the first opportunity to visit one of the Italian local farmers market. I enjoyed every minute of the Italian tour. Lecce was just a gastronomic wonder to me and my classmates. With a help of our tour guide, we learnt about the local farmers’ market from one of the farmers who sold us some of her homemade cheese. According to cheese vendor, the market is mainly composed of farmers residing around Lecce who have set up some shops for their local produce.
Contrary to my expectation of an open air market, these farmers operated indoor businesses just like other grocery store owners. Despite all its peculiarities, this was a true and real farmers’ market. The produce was as fresh as expected and ranged wider than any super store we came across in Puglia, Italy. It was bustling with people eager to get the best of the products for best prices. The atmosphere was very lively with vendors trying to advertise their wares in loud voices, customers haggling with vendors, women sharing anecdotes and recipes, and a general feeling of a village market.
Lecce market boasted the exclusively organic produce directly from farmers to producers. We were all amazed by the huge expanse of cheese: cow and buffalo mozzarella, aged and fresh cheeses, soft cheese, scamorza cheese among many others. It is here where I came to believe that Italy produces more than 200 varieties of cheese. According the farmers, they make cheese from dairy products got from cows, sheep, and buffalos reared around Salento areas. The animals were fed on fodder composed of legumes and fodder grasses grown in the area. The Italians attribute the unique flavour of these dairy products to the enriched fodder (Canavari 2007).
Besides the showcasing and selling of the farm products, farmers at the market also demonstrated to us the art of ricotta and mozzarella and cheese tasting. This was another great point of attraction for tourists like us and encouraged us to buy some cheese. The agricultural wealth in this region could be seen in the endless rows of stalls full of lush red tomatoes, berries, cantaloupes, lettuce, string beans, cucumbers, potatoes, squash, zucchini, homemade pastas, olive oils, and rich greens. Apart from the fresh products, there was a range of bottled products like jams, pickles, and sauces. Non-vegetarian products like sea food, chickens, and sheep also formed part of farmers’ goods.
Consequently, we learnt that buying from the market was cheaper than supermarkets since farmers at the market do not incur a lot of preservation and infrastructural costs (Asioli, Canavari & Pignatti 2012). However, farmers are faced with stiff competition from the Lecce supermarket, which also offers an indoor market with all features of better grocery store and superior organic products. Nevertheless, farmer’s market’s prices for organic products were lesser by almost 30%-40% compared to the prices of “organic” products from our supermarkets.
Besides the adventure, this market tour was a great gastronomy lesson to me. For one, I learnt the natural composition of the Italian cuisine. I also got to know that most of the ingredients are mainly common agricultural products that are grown naturally. This agricultural culture is not only healthier but also economical to both consumers and suppliers. This was a great challenge to us who have totally embraced the “supermarket lifestyle”, where fruits and vegetable are being frozen and packed for future consumptions (Artusi 1996).
During the same school tour, I got an opportunity to stay in one of the farms in Sora town, Central Italy. In the period of our stay, Gonzalo, the farm owner, used to take us around the farm which is located in a beautiful mountainous region. Driving along smooth roads, flanked by tall green palm trees and fruit trees of all kinds, was as enjoyable as the Italian dishes. The farm was modest in its structure, but provided a spacious and clean accommodation for tourists. The rooms were more than cool in the absence of air conditioning. It was not a place to expect pampering, but a place of all the homely attention and care that we missed in the bustle of the city life.
Our accommodation included taking all meals in the farm, prepared by Leanne, Gonzalo’s mother. The lady welcomed us with a snack composed of olive oil, bread, and wine, - all homemade. The meals were delicious, wholesome, and fully organic, prepared completely from the organic produce of the farm. We got to visit the tomato beds and herbs garden from where we picked fresh vegetables that were wonderfully cooked by Leanne. Ours day at the farm started with a wonderful breakfast on fresh cow’s milk and just-laid eggs, accompanied by fresh fruits. The meals were bliss.
Most of our days were spent exploring the farm and stumbling across walnut, cherry, pomegranate trees. There were grape wines in abundance as well to complete the feel of the rural Italy. The process of cheese making by shepherds early in the morning was the most interesting part of the day. The shepherds milked the sheep and goats while their wives took the responsibility of building a fire to heat the milk for the cheese making process. The cheese was then put to us for tasting along with homemade bread, olive oil, and delicious leftover whey.
We also had several hikes with food baskets laden with savouries from Leanne’s kitchen. A visit to the local restaurant also gave us a taste of fresh home grown cooking at its best. The stay included mountain and trail treks in addition to horse riding. A trip to the Thursday farmer’s market at Sora is worth mentioning. The market was lined up in its downtown with local famers displaying their colourful and fresh farm wares. It was so unfortunate that we could not stay at the farm any longer, but I still treasure the memories.
Academically, this stay was significant in understanding the Italians indigenous methods of cooking in a rural setting. Lack of modern amenities in this setting only added to the freshness of pasta and breads and flavouring of the sauces. The sauces were slow cooked, and pastas were freshly kneaded and boiled. Cheese was abundant and added a lovely texture and taste to all our meals. No fancy, Italian restaurant can beat the bite of a tangy, just dug tomato sauce and the flavour of the freshly pressed olive oils. In my cooking lessons with Leanne, I saw her knack for not wasting anything, be it eggplant or leftovers of fried tomatoes and peppers. Everything was used to make one more antipasti! Italy surely proved to be the top culinary destinations of the world.
Italian cuisine had been historically swamped with French cuisine in the early 18th century, but once French ways of cooking were blended with Italian cooking, the regions revived their culinary expertise and contributed to the gastronomic picture of Italy. The natural flavours found their way back in the Italian kitchens, and this cuisine prospered since then. (Bugialli n.d.)
However, with the advent of the 21th century, Italian cooking has also faced the impacts of globalization. Every major city of the world claimed a couple of Italian restaurants serving primarily pizzas and spaghetti. Fortunately, this is changing to give way to the culinary expertise of Italians. Professional Italian restaurants have embarked on serving regional cuisines to satiate the guests’ taste buds to boost their appreciation of Italian culinary prowess (Capatti, Montanari & O'Healy 2003).
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