Renown foodie Denise Bjorkman shares the virtues and proud history of Italian cuisine with #JoziSters

People associate Italian cuisine with a tempting slice of pizza and a heap of pasta, but there is much more to Italian Cuisine according to renown restaurateur and owner of La Fiorentina Denise Bjorkman.

The idea of a pizza base or pizza goes back some 7000 years to Sardinia where it was considered to be a type of leavened bread. The ancient Greeks also made this ‘bread’ as did the Middle East and the Mediterranean area. India also had a flatbread called Roti (unleavened) or Naan (leavened). It seems it has been a natural progression as a food source throughout the world. The Greeks and Sardinians added toppings becoming increasingly inventive. In Italy it was probably more a focaccia which remains popular today with Italian cuisine. The Romans called it ‘panis focacius’. It is only after the 16th century when it is believed the Americans introduced the tomato to Naples that the treated top pizza as it was called then and now, started to evolve. The most popular pizza remains the Marinara and Marguerites with the latter being a generalised throughout Italy. The Marinara has remained popular along coast lines.

I suppose the pizza is Italy’s equivalent to a McDonalds and a much healthier alternative despite what dieticians say. It has helped to place Italy on the map as an instantly recognizable cuisine brand and it has served tourists well as they often hesitate to experiment with foods unknown in a language even more alien to them. Pizza speaks the universal language of togetherness and social events with its global acceptance. Trust the Americans to start adding extraordinary toppings which themselves have a life of their own. Pizza is a metaphorical international passport to eating pleasure so do not sniff at it.

 It is said that the “Italians” did not discover pasta.

Did Italians invent or discover Pasta? Ask any Italian and the answer would be ‘yes’. Italy has laid such a profound claim to pasta it staked its right to intellectual property by declaring an official Pasta Day. I have heard a similar argument around the cos lettuce with no less than 4 countries claiming ownership to its agricultural source.

Don’t confuse noodles with pasta as the key lies in the ingredients. Pasta has become so popular with its many varieties that it is not uncommon for at least ten countries to lay claim to having discovered it. But you are quite right that it was probably not discovered by the Italians – they just perfected it as they did so many other things. The Romans invented and perfected air conditioning, flush toilets and workable sewerage disposal. Their architecture, masonry and art leaves little to be desired.

Pasta in distinct varieties can be traced back to both Jewish and Arabic heritage within the Mediterranean. Some sources attribute its introduction to Italian cuisine around the 5AD and introduced more specifically Sicily. It was seen as elitist food commodity.

The argument that Marco Polo brought it back to Genoa doesn’t hold much ground as even his travels and voyages of discoveries now fall under the negative lens. How much was invented in a tour de force of fantasy? He compared Chinese noodles to an existing pasta food that was in existence by dint of which he actually acknowledged a prior source. And anyway he only returned from China circa 1295. Because of the exploration that was taking place coupled to long distance travelling, the Arabs perfected the art of drying pasta to later be boiled. This art they imparted to the Sicilians and to this day we are able to purchase a range of pastas at retail stores.

When Pavarotti came to South Africa on one of tours, his whole suite had to be revamped and he insisted not only on chairs which were high enough to enable easy seating with his heavy weight and large girth, he also arrived with dried pasta and played a hand in the cooking of his pasta. A close friend who assisted in bringing him out regaled me with endless stories of the installation of stoves, raised couches and star personality demands.

Research reveals that the name pasta is probably from Greek origins. The word ‘pasta’ has a Latin flavour which was absorbed into Greece to denote dough and pastry cake to which salt was added. Listening to CNN this last week some Greek politicians were claiming vociferously that they had contributed so much to the Western world and beyond by way of literature, culture, science, mathematics, sport, prose, cuisine and architecture, why should they pay back their debt they asked – the world owed them. I reckon pasta would feature strongly on the list together with olives, feta and wine.

Pasta has excelled itself in its own reinvention: long, thin, flat, chunky, serrated, oval, round and hollow. A variety of sauces followed with the thinner strand variety being associated with creams and oils and the chunky or flat with heavier sauces.

A good Italian friend of mine who lays claim to being a distant member of the Medici family of Florentine fame explained that macaroni derived its name from its association with ‘machines’ or forceful kneading of the dough into a shape with the assistance of an instrument. The famous Thomas Jefferson who was an ambassador to France is reputed to take such a machine back to the US with him in 1789 and the Americanization of macaroni began.

The virtue of Italian pasta is its use of durum wheat or semolina which gives it a glutinous texture of its own.

An important figure in the evolution of Italian cuisine is Apicius. You ask what is Apicius, but more correctly this is a big ‘who was’ although both questions apply. Generally Apicius is considered to be a collection of Roman specific cookery recipes believed to having been compiled about the 4 or 5 AD by Marius Gavius Apicius in the realm of emperor Tiberius. It was written in vulgate Latin – the same language of the early scriptures. It has been translated for posterity by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum in 1958. It has obviously been refined to look, taste and sound good even though the recipes of those days lacked the finesse the Romans claim loudly personified the publication and the culinary arts of those days. Many describe it as bourgeois cuisine.
The name is so popular that restaurants and hospitality schools have opened up with his name as a brand and a source of credibility in the culinary world. Now let’s look at the person. You are referring to one Marcus Gavius Apicius who fancied himself as a Roman gourmet who loved to experiment with food. His life was one of opulence and excess. In short he was a glutton of note. Certainly not the refined classical tastes of one Catherine de Medici who singled handed is reputed to have changed eating habits around the world one country and time beginning with Florence and France.

Apicius had a sharp eye for luxury foods and he became a gastronomic advisor. His opinions were taken seriously. His dismissal of cabbage as a common food not for the discerning palate had far reaching implications. Its reputation spread as peasant food and today perhaps influenced by the obnoxious sulphurated smell akin to bad body odour, it remains a food not first on the list of good cuisine. Despite that he perfected marinating cabbage into a fermented food with oil, salt and soda – which was a very healthy option. It is believed he influenced the development of the German Sauerkraut.

Mullet was a favourite of his as was prawns or shrimps. Italian seafood often seems to be dominated by calamari and sardines and prawns excepting the pescatore, have not weighed heavily into the diets. This is changing with aquaculture becoming a global industry – the new gold. South Africa for instance imports more than 7000 tons of prawns from China alone, frozen and often contaminated because of open air raceways. The new aquaculture looks at bio secure raceways with no external contamination.

Apicius did to pork liver what the French did to pate foie gras or goose liver. He fed his pigs on figs and smothered the pork liver in honey in line with his excesses. He is also reputed to have also invented jelly fish omelettes. Ugh.

Another epicurean fancy was the tongues of flamingoes, which was considered a delicacy of the highest order. His home was known for entertainment and lavish meals and he goes on record as having spent the equivalent of millions on his kitchen. He probably was one of the earliest publishers of a cook book in history: ‘De re Coquinaria.’ Let’s call him a culinary adventurer who went where few cooks would go.

The spread of Italian foods’ diversity began to uphold separate identities and traditions. Each region began to display the unique way of cooking. 

Travel through any country and you will find variations in food from the epicentre of business or urban life to the rural or more agricultural areas right to the borders. This is accompanied by accents. For instance you will find Germans on their borders understand the language of the surrounding countries but this rule may not apply to those in the big cities. The same diversity applies to food and often the nature of the cuisine or food depends on the needs of the individuals in a particular area, such as agrarian or coastal, and their financial means.

Visit www.La-Fiorentinaco.za

Images courtesy of Denise Bjorkman and La Fiorentina.

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