Italian food guru, Anna del Conte, sings the praises of gluten-free Italian grains.
I have never understood why, in this country, whenever somebody mentions Italian food, the comment is 'Oh yes, pasta and pizza'.
Just a moment, please, and what about vegetables – and rice – and polenta – and lentils – and chick peas – and beans – and fish – and offal? All cooked with the same creativity and care, and eaten with the same pleasure and appreciation.
Pizza, in fact, is hardly ever made at home. We, Italians, go out to the pizzeria to eat our pizza, because we know that our domestic ovens cannot compete with a wood-burning oven which can reach the very high temperature necessary for baking a pizza.
As for pasta, alright we eat a lot of pasta – more than any other people in the world – but we do not eat only pasta, and we no longer eat it every day, as it we did in times gone by. Actually, in Northern Italy where I come from, pasta was never eaten daily, rice was the staple, while down in the south, the Neapolitans were nicknamed 'mangiafoglie', leaf eaters, because of their love for any vegetable.
So I would only say that yes, most Italians love pasta in every form and shape and are always delighted to eat it. But look for a second to the repertoire of recipes for rice for instance, from all the innumerable risotti – the Venetians say that you can make a different risotto every day of the year – to the many rice soups, rice cakes, rice fritters, rice salads and rice puddings.
And the Neapolitans 'mangiafoglie'? Chicory, spinach, beets, artichokes, fennel, tomatoes, courgettes, pumpkins... The list is endless, as are the ways in which the Neapolitans eat them: raw with delicious dressings, braised, stewed, roasted, grilled, steamed and boiled – but always dressed. I remember when I first came to this country, my shock to be served salad without any dressing and having to eat it like a rabbit. Or boiled vegetables without the minimum smear of butter, never mind about a drop or two of the blessed olive oil which was practically unknown then.
In Italy, and especially in the South, it is olive oil which is used with all the vegetables. After all, the olive trees so often grow next to the field of broccoli or tomatoes in that land blessed by very fertile soil and long sunny days.
Tomatoes are indeed the prime crop of Sicily and Puglia. Some years ago we were stuck for hours on the motorway from Puglia to Naples in a queue of lorries loaded with tomatoes to be delivered for canning to the factories in Campania, near Naples. Apparently it was suggested that some factories should be built in Puglia, closer to the growing fields, but to no avail; the manufacturing of tinned tomatoes is a monopoly of few factories in the hands of the Camorra – the Neapolitan Mafia – and that’s that. So everybody has to queue and to pay the cost of transport and the large tangente – or pizzo – or bustarella – whatever this protection money is called.
In Northern Italy the largest crops are rice and maize. Rice fields are extremely beautiful at the right time of the year, end of August-beginning of September, just before the harvest. Their green is the colour of the most resplendent emerald, which appears even more resplendent being surrounded by rivulets of clear water.
You stop at the nearest trattoria and you are served an outstanding risotto with frogs or with the local river shrimp. The second course often is a colourful peperonata, peppers stew made with the meaty local peppers, called the Quadrati d’ Asti – the squares of Asti (a town very close to the rice fields), which are considered the best variety. Or you may choose a dish of grilled radicchio, the real radicchio, long and red and white striped and with that touch of gentle bitterness that characterises it. Or you might prefer a dish of green snappy beans swimming in a red pool of tomato sauce flavoured with a touch of fennel seeds.
Farther north, the colour of the fields becomes yellow. Once I was there in October for the harvesting. I walked in that forest of dried cream leaves holding the fat yellow pinnacles enveloped by an oddly sweet smell. It was indeed an endless forest with the corn plants taller than me sheltering me from the burning sun. For lunch we had polenta, yellow or white (a delicious soft polenta made from the local variety of maize), served either simply dressed with butter and different local cheeses, or with a rich ragu of the first wild mushrooms of the season. And we finished with local grappa accompanied by Zaletti, little yellow biscuits made with polenta flour. A real feast.
In the Northern regions of Italy polenta is eaten daily in winter sometimes even just swimming in rich milk with a sprinkling of sugar or a tablespoon or two of local honey. It is the sort of food, like pasta, which combines well with many different ingredients, so well that it is locally called La Traviata, because, like Violetta Valery it adapts happily to many different partners.
Other dishes in which Italian cuisine excels and all perfect for those on gluten free diets are all those made with pulses, which grow very well in Italy. The borlotti beans of Veneto, the cannellini of Tuscany, the chick peas of Puglia, the black eyed beans of Calabria and the best lentils ever, the lenticchie di Castelluccio in Umbria, which are often eaten with the sausages from the local breed of pigs to counterbalance their rich porkiness. All these pulses have been cherished by the locals who in the old days used to live on them. They were the meat of the poor people.
Here are two recipes which I hope will tempt you to cook all’italiana even if you do not cook pasta or pizza.
Risi e bisi – a very well known recipe from Venice, where the pea comes from the islands on the Lagoon. They are small and very sweet. Here I use sugar snaps pods which are larger than mange tout but smaller than peas. If you cannot find sugar pods, use the smallest peas you can get.
Polenta and Cannellini beans – The name of this dish is descriptive impastare means to knead and impastoiata is a mixture similar to dough, It is one of the more esoteric polenta dishes since the dressing of stewed beans is added to the polenta while it is still cooking for a final cooking all together. It is a lovely earthy dish and very healthy too.
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