Pico Iyer writes “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” For me the part about bringing my ignorance is definitely true. Travel lets me look at food anew – everything from what the locals call food, how they make, sell or buy it, to how they eat it in public and ultimately how they appear – how their food makes them. So my recent trip to 3 cities in northern Italy albeit short was incredibly enriching…my ignorance just a bit lighter on the way home.
One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. ~ Virginia Woolf
Away from the grip of my daily routine, I ate as the place and time demanded. Breakfast was always at a nearby café maybe entailing a small detour on the way to the bus or train station or our day’s first stop. A cappuccino with an almond pastry for me, best of both I have ever had. Sometimes we sat at a table (which costs more than standing at the counter). And we got to watch the locals drift in and get their usual, standing as well while chatting up the barista. When food was carried out, and it didn’t happen often, it went into a paper sleeve to be eaten while walking, never while driving. So no drive-through cafes – none. The local topography influences the way food is sold and eaten. Suburbs make drive-through fast food inevitable!
The day’s meals when we were in the mood, were at a deli or restaurant rated 4 stars or more on trusty Trip Advisor and they didn’t disappoint. Two meals stand out.
One, our lunch in Siena at Antica Pizzicheria on a small street, conveniently located on the walk between the Duomo and the Torre del Mangia tower. It is a meat and cheese shop selling Siennese specialties – hocks of cured meat from the ceiling, more sausages than one can shake a pig at, wild boar local delicacies, and sheep’s milk cheeses. A shop so filled with foods I don’t know anything about, and don’t eat at all. An all-pervasive aroma I don’t usually associate with appetizing foods. Not my turf.
So what did 3 vegetarians end up eating? Only the best basil pesto, brilliantly green and smelling like sunshine, sandwiched with tangy soft slabs of cheese in warm bread from the back of the shop, and olive oil from groves not too far away. This place is not a restaurant and as such has one counter and standing room only. But our meal was carefully decided upon with the help of the owner/chef who took his time attending to us, letting us sample the offerings, explaining them in many cases. Then our meal was handed to us on a wood platter and set up outside on two sidewalk wine barrels. Add some local red and we had ourselves a picnic. So it is not only the ambiance, the price tag or the fancy ingredients. The love and passion for the food shines most and is always apparent at first bite. One can tell right away that meal is likely to be one of the best ever.
The second was a fancier place we stumbled upon in Milan – Nobile bistro de Milan. The clientele looked every bit as sophisticated as one might imagine Milan’s fashion savvy citizens to be and we certainly did not, wandering in tired of a day’s walking and needing to just sit. Regardless, we were shown the warm hospitality of a house that truly loves its food and not itself. Our meal was meticulously prepared and presented and showed off the impeccable pedigree of the chef. What has stayed with me though is our waiter’s reluctance to let us leave in a rush to catch our train. We were brought bite-sized coffee ice creams on the house with our check so we wouldn’t leave without finishing out our evening. Food and eating are as much about attention to place, time, and feeling as they are about what’s on the plate. A whole experience that is complete in itself.
My most endearing impression is not really about food at all. However, it brought up memories of my mom, aunts, grandmothers cooking especially on festival days. Food made with utmost care and focus, for the occasion and offered to the deities in the home temple before anything else. While walking the cupola of the Duomo in Florence, I noticed what looked like snow peas carved in the marble as decoration all around the dome, part of a motif that also has flowers and a beautiful scalloped shell. How curious! In exalting the divine, we have always looked to nature’s bounty and food particularly to offer up as symbols of our striving and devotion; something that resonates across cultures and religions. Food is Sacred.