Never would have thought I could obtain these results in my regular oven and without special equipment. But after 11 months of weekly baking, fresh sourdough loaves have become a reliable tradition in our family.
I’ve been thinking of posting my method for a while, but only now feel confident that it’s sufficiently streamlined and repeatable–hence this blog post today!
It all began when my co-worker, Jules, kindly gave me part of her sourdough starter, which came from a restaurateur she knew along with their recipe. Baking bread, though, is very much something that one has to tune to their own equipment, method, and of course liking. Over time, I’ve been refining my technique to the point where I’ve been getting consistent results. But by no means is this the only way to bake bread at home and it can certainly be improved.
First, though, you may be wondering – okay, where do I get my own starter? Well, unfortunately, I can’t really help you with that. It is possible to grow it from scratch, but it’s not easy because it is made of a stable symbiotic mixture of yeast and lactobacilli. My friend Mark Preston describes the process in detail, but as you can read it’s a very difficult route that will take a lot of time (and money!) Instead, I recommend asking a baker if they can sell you a piece of their levain starter – or a piece of their uncooked, unsalted sourdough. Speaking of which, there are different kinds of sourdough, each with a different flavor and level of sourness. I like a very mildly sour sourdough, but more sourness (possibly an acquired taste), is appreciated by many (famous is San Francisco’s sourdough, which also names its bacterial culture).
So, say you were able to get a hold of some good sourdough starter, what should it look like? The starter is made of living microorganisms that need feeding and produce by-products. The metabolic process is slower at low temperatures and accelerates with heat. If kept in the fridge, after 5-7 days your sourdough starter will be hungry–it will look bubbly, may have liquid on the top (left image below), and it will smell a bit like beer.
If you forget to feed your starter, after a couple of weeks it will start to go bad. It’s possible to rescue a starved starter by repeated splitting and feeding, but sometimes it may be too late. If one knows they’re not going to be able to feed for ten or more days, it’s possible to slow down the starter’s metabolism almost completely by freezing it. However, freezing, just like starvation, causes some damage and the thawed starter will need some repeated splitting and feeding to fully come back to life. If at all possible, I recommend treating your starter like a pet and either taking it on vacation with you or arranging for someone to care for it during your absence.
Plastic mixing jar.
High precision kitchen scale.
Air-tight tub for storing.
100 g starter to be fed.
100 g high-gluten ‘strong’ flour.
100 g regular tap water, or non-carbonated bottled mineral water if your tap water is especially soft, or very chlorinated. The recipe below assumes water at room temperature.
Use or dispose of all but 100 g of starter.
Mix 100 g flour and 100 g water and stir energetically.
Incorporate the 100 g of starter into the mix, stirring from bottom to top.
Put the mix in an air-tight container and keep it in the fridge for 5-8 days undisturbed.
Now that your starter has been fed, you are left with some excess starter that is ripe and ready to be used! The instructions below assume you have about 150 g of ripe starter. If you don’t have enough, keep feeding your starter weekly until you have enough feed leftover to bake with.
Proving basket. Using a wooden (rattan) banneton is essential to allow the dough to undergo its final slow rise without drying out while forming a “skin” – the beginning of your bread’s crust. I use a 20 cm round basket, similar to this one. If the basket comes with linen lining, the latter can be used to smooth out the basket’s walls. Since I like seeing the basket rings in the final product, I use the lining as a lid during proving.
Cast iron casserole, a.k.a. Dutch oven. A 4.7 liters one will work perfectly for the recipe I’m about to describe. A casserole is essential when baking in a standard oven because it creates an enclosed space that fills with steam during baking, allowing the bread to do its final rise and cook through without burning. A double-dutch oven (resting on its shallow pan) or a spun-iron baking cloche can also be used and are preferable to the casserole because they allow easier access.
Scoring blade (optional), similar to this one. A very sharp paring knife can also be used.
Cooling rack (optional). Two wooden spoons placed flat on a cutting board can also be used to support the loaf while it cools down.
NOTE: These quantities make a ~800 g loaf (about 20 cm in diameter, 12 cm tall) that fits in a 4.7 l casserole.
150 g ripe sourdough starter.
150 g strong flour and 150 g water for the first rise.
330 g strong flour and 150 g water for the second rise.
1 tablespoon rice or semolina flour as a coating for the proving basket.
NOTE: The quantities above correspond to a 67% hydration (the ratio between water and flour). Higher hydration (e.g.: 80%) results in a lighter sourdough with a thinner and crunchier crust. However, high hydration also means a stickier dough during preparation which requires a lot of technique! Since I posted this article, I have been practicing increasing hydration to 72% by reducing the amount of flour for the second rise from 330 to 300 g. The improvement is noticeable, but the proportions above still yield a fantastic product that is also very easy to obtain.
NOTE: I’m presenting the slow-rise version of this recipe. It can be shortened by reducing or removing the resting time in the fridge, replacing it with a shorter resting time outside of the fridge (8 hours in the fridge equal to about 1 hour outside of it). However, I should warn you that, for reasons beyond my understanding, slow-risen bread will look and taste better!
Mix 150 g flour + 150 g water then incorporate 150 g starter and leave out of fridge 4-6 hrs (4 hrs on a hot summer day, 6 hrs in winter). After this time, the mix should look quite bubbly and have roughly doubled in size. Put it in the fridge overnight in an airtight container.
In a large mixing bowl, combine 330 g strong flour and 10 g table salt. Then add 150 g water and the risen mix from Day 1. Mix as best as you can in the mixing bowl by using a big spoon (can use a food processor as well for this step.) Let it rest at room temperature for half an hour.
Place the dough on a stainless steel or stone worktop and knead every half hour for 2 additional hours.
Roll the dough onto itself to create surface tension as demonstrated in the video below.
Brush the proving basket generously and thoroughly with semolina or rice flour. These are preferable to regular wheat flour as the latter tends to become moist and stick to the basket during proving (a quite unfortunate event!)
Put the dough in the basket upside down (seam up), and leave in the fridge for 8 hrs or overnight to prove covered with a towel or linen lid. After this time, the dough should have increased in volume by about 50%.
With the proofing basket still in the fridge, preheat the oven with the cast-iron casserole inside for about 30 mins at 250℃ (480℉).
Take the proving basket out of the fridge, and flip it on a sheet of grease-free parchment paper.
Score the top with a sharp knife or razor blade. These cuts will expand during cooking allowing excess CO2 to escape and the crust to expand for the final in-oven rise. I like to make one big cut, at least 5 mm (1/4”) deep, and shallower cuts as a decoration. Bread scoring is a difficult and fascinating art, I only lately have started to obtain decent results – don’t be upset if your bread breaks in all the wrong places!
Lifting by the parchment paper, place the dough into the super-hot casserole. This operation is easier if using a baking cloche or a double Dutch oven because they have a shallower bottom.
Immediately, put the lid on, put the casserole back in the oven, and bake for 40 minutes at 250℃ (480℉).
Remove the lid and bake for 10 more minutes lowering the temperature to 230℃ (450℉) if you have a fan oven, or maintaining 250℃ (480℉) otherwise.
After baking, lifting by the parchment paper, place the loaf on the wire rack to let it cool for at least half an hour before cutting into it. If the rise was sufficiently uniform, the scoring cuts will have uniformly expanded.
Allow the proving basket to dry in warm air (I leave mine near the oven as the bread bakes), then brush off the excess flour using a dedicated hard brush. If some of the dough is stuck to it, the basket can be washed in cold water without any detergents and then allowed to air-dry.
If things go well, your loaf should be fragrant, slightly chewy, and should have air bubbles of varying sizes trapped in it.
Using flour that is not very strong or mixing in whole-wheat flours will produce smaller, more uniform bubbles and a mealier texture. Small bubbles and a tougher, denser loaf may also result from an under proved or over proved fermentation, or the effect of machine kneading.
Home-Baked Sourdough Bread – At Last!
Total Time: 2 hours
Prep Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes
150 g ripe sourdough starter
480 g strong flour
300 g water
A generous tablespoon of rice or semolina flour (recommended).
If the loaf is left whole, the crust will provide a natural barrier that will keep the bread fresh for a day. A slightly stale loaf will regain its fragrance if warmed up in the oven, or in a toaster if sliced. If the bread is not going to be consumed within the day, I recommend freezing it in halves or quarters as soon as it has cooled down. Allow the frozen loaf to thaw at room temperature for one hour, or for 5 minutes in the microwave set to the lowest power setting before consuming it.
Other Sourdough Recipes
The recipe I described is very much like a blank canvas! Different kinds of flours can be mixed in (e.g. whole wheat, spelt, sprouted grains), as well as other ingredients added (olives, nuts, dried figs, shredded cheese.) A tablespoon of olive oil will result in a softer loaf that will stay fresh for longer.
What about sourdough pizza, pretzels, waffles, donuts? Yes, please! All of those and more are possible and delicious. I’ve been using my coworker Zoe’s pizza recipe with great results, please see below for the instructions. I’ve also experimented with other sourdough preparations, but my results are still inconsistent. I’ll report back when I’ll know more–please continue to send me your recipes!
Zoe’s Sourdough Pizza
Ingredients: – 30 g mature starter – 380 g strong flour – 250 ml water – 10 g olive oil – 10 g salt
Mix the starter, the water, and the olive oil together separately first. Whisk together.
Add to the flour and the salt.
Mix and leave uncovered for an hour or two.
Fold it a bit.
Cover and leave out of the fridge for ~24hrs.
Shape the dough into 2 balls and leave to rise for 2 hrs before cooking.
Stretching – it literally falls right out into a pizza shape.
If using a pizza stone, leave it in the oven for it to heat up slowly to 250℃ (480℉). Slide the stretched dough with toppings onto the stone. Bake for 2-3 minutes, turn it around, bake for another 2 mins.
If using a perforated pizza tray, bake for 7-8 minutes at 240℃ (460℉) or until the cheese is bubbly.
Breadsticks, or ‘grissini’ in Italian, are another, quicker, preparation that can make use of a sourdough starter.
Ingredients: – 150 g mature starter – 300 g strong flour – 50 g butter, melted – 5 g salt – 2 g sugar – 1 Tbsp rosemary (chopped, optional) – 1 tsp dried oregano (optional) – 1/4 tsp black pepper (ground, optional) – 1 Tbsp milk or beaten egg (optional) – 1 Tbsp coarse salt (optional)
Feed the starter with 150 g of flour and 150 g of water at room temperature.
Let it grow for 3-4 hours outside of the fridge until it almost doubles in volume. Can rest overnight in the fridge if unable to bake on the same day.
Add the rest of the flour, the salt, and the sugar, mixing as much as possible in a bowl.
Work in the melted butter, then continue kneading by hand on a working surface. If desired, add chopped rosemary, or oregano, and/or black pepper.
Divide the dough in half, then in half again, and again until you obtain 8 balls of roughly equal size. Roll them into cylinders.
Warm up the oven to 225℃ (430℉).
Let the cylinders rest for 10 minutes for the gluten strands to relax, then pull them gently to make them thinner and longer, and cut them in half.
Lay the cylinders on a baking sheet previously covered in parchment paper.
If desired, brush them with milk or beaten eggs, then sprinkle with coarse salt.
Bake for 15 minutes until the tips darken considerably.
Andrew Cotto is an award-winning American writer of Italian descent. His latest novel titled Cucina Tipica tells the fascinating adventure of a young American who falls in love with Tuscany and with the culture of its people. Naturally, food and wine end up setting the pace and become deeply entrenched in the story.
I was humbled to be contacted by Mr. Cotto who sent me a copy of the book for consideration as he thought it would fit with the theme of the podcast. After reading it, I couldn’t agree more! Please join us in this episode where we discuss the novel in its many aspects–from the significance of food in the Italian culture to the chemistry of taste, from culture shock and relocation to speaking a foreign language and what it does to interactions and introspection.
As an “appetizer” for the book, Andrew sent me a recap in the form of a Food and Wine Plot Menu with 24 tastes each corresponding to a food scene in the novel. Enjoy!
Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure A Novel by Andrew Cotto
Food & Wine Plot Menu
Novel Overview: Cucina Tipica is the story of a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday and decides he never wants to leave. What follows is a wine-soaked, food-filled travel adventure about one man’s quest for an antiquated existence in the modern world.
Characters: Jacoby Pines – a forlorn young American with a “golden palate” and hopes of redemption in Italy Claire – a travel writer and Jacoby’s fiancee Bill – a septuagenarian ex-pat from Texas and Jacoby’s wingman in the “adventure” Paolo – Jacoby and Claire’s neighbor and landlord in the hills south of Florence near the village of Antella Dolores – Claire’s “outrageous” English cousin and “Chiantishire” resident Helen – An Aussie/English ex-pat and Florence museum guide
1st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Excelsior Palace Hotel – Rapallo, Italy Food: Prosciutto, cheese, olives, dried lemons, fresh figs Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: They ate with their hands and drank from the bottle, leaving stains and crumbs on the bed sheets, which Claire attempted to clear before removing her bikini bottom…
2nd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: A “hole-in-the-wall” seafood osteria in Rapallo Food: a basket of lightly fried calamari, shrimp, bream and whole anchovy seasoned with salt and lemon; pureed and garlicky fish soup; steamed prawns dipped in aioli; grilled sardines; plates of pasta with pesto and plates of pasta with clams Wine: Carafes of Vermentino Additional Notes: They shared the meal of seafood by the seaside in the Rapallo back alley as completely as possible, holding hands under and above the table, kissing frequently, filling each other’s glasses, and laughing throughout the two hours of slow and utter indulgence.
3rd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Paolo Where: The terrace behind Paolo’s villa featuring a wood-burning oven Food: Handmade pizza with olives, anchovy fillets, and fresh basil; “Misto Arrosto” – a mixed roast of lamb, sausage, rabbit, liver in caul fat, guinea hen, halved-potatoes, heads of garlic, caramelized carrot and fennel. Wine: “Local Chianti” – DOCG Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Jacoby felt as peaceful and inspired as he had in months. Maybe ever. The best two meals of his life had been had over the first two days in Italy. The country itself was more beautiful than pictures could capture. The people spoke a lovely language and wore elegant clothes. It was all good. And he wanted in.
4th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Comune di Norcia (Umbria) Food: Porchetta sandwich for Jacoby; salad of wilted wild mushrooms atop bitter local greens for Claire Drinks: Soft
5th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: An elegant agriturismo in Le Marche Food: Charcuterie plate of house-cured meats; silky thick noodles topped with black truffles; lamb roast; Pecorino cheese drizzled with honey Wine: Rosso Piceno Additional Notes: After dinner, they roamed the silent grounds and made love on a pool-side chaise lounge after skinny dipping in the cool water that rippled with shards of silver moonlight.
6th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: The tiny piazza in Panzano-in-Chianti Wine: Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: Claire tucked into Jacoby’s side and put a foot up on the bench against the back of her leg. They silently swirled the wine and took small sips, staring at the valley beyond the village that burned gold with smoldering sunshine of a fading afternoon. Jacoby savored the apple smell of Claire’s radiant hair and the feel of her lithe body pressed into his. He thought that they, in that still pose, would make a great statue, like a modern Apollo and Daphne, frozen in marble so that their love would always last.
7th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Restaurant in Panzano owned by a young butcher (inspired by the auspices of Dario Cecchini) Food: Bistecca Fiorentina, uccellini in brodo (white beans with tomatoes in broth) Wine: Vecchie Terre di Montefili – Chianti Classico Additional Notes: The flavor of the beef was as profound and complex as any Jacoby had ever tasted. Steak in the States was bland, in need of sauce, but this simply-prepared choice cut was perfectly grilled – seared on the outside, rare and warm internally – helped by hints of lemon and rosemary and coarse salt while letting the flavor of the meat itself dominate. Amazing. Transcendental. Good f****** lord.
8th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Terrace behind the barn where they lived on Paolo’s property Food: Eggs with prosciutto and sage, bread Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: Jacoby loved cooking for people, then sharing the meal and the mutual pleasure of being together. Eating the same food; drinking the same wine; everyone on the same stage. It was like sex when sex was good and mutual. What people called “making love.”
10th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini, Antella Food: Sausage and eggs with stewed tomatoes Drink: Espresso Additional Notes: “I’ve been an ex-pat for 35 years, and the only thing I miss about America is breakfast,” – Bill
11th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Spring Minestrone (generous with pieces of artichoke, asparagus and carrots in a broth of pureed onions and leeks with a snap of garlic); fresh fettuccine with fava beans and Pecorino; rabbit loin wrapped in pancetta over polenta dotted with green olives Drinks: Negroni, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Bill and Jacoby ate and drank and spoke of their looming adventure into Florence proper, in search of a matriarch holed up in a palace marked by a cat statue. They laughed at their dim prospects, which were soothed by the magnificent meal and flowing wine.
12th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Florence, food stand near the Sant’Ambrogio market Food: Lampredotto sandwiches Wine: Chianti in plastic cups Additional Notes: The aroma out of the stand was pungent; the sandwich warm in his hand, of tomato infused broth and hearty filling tucked between the bread. The taste was super savory to the bite, ample aromatics and a soft texture from the holy trinity of bread and filling and broth.
13th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, a gazebo in Piazza Signoria Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: “Why, yes. Yes, I would,” Helen said. “There’s few things I prefer more than a glass of Prosecco.”
14th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, Il Teatro del Sale Food: Gurguglione; artichoke sformato; polpettini; fried rabbit; zucchini stuffed with ground pork; roasted chicken & sausage with potatoes, flourless chocolate cake Wine: House red, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: There was nowhere else in the world Jacoby wished to be. This was his Grand Canyon. His Hawaii. Mount Everest or Disney World. His paradise was a theater-cafeteria-commissary, sharing a table with two people he hardly knew but liked immensely, full of possibilities, in a room full of shamelessly happy people.
15th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, club Sriracha Drinks: Negronis (many)
16th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: The barn Food: Steak & eggs Additional Notes: Tears fell down Jacoby’s face as he continued to chew enough to swallow safely. The salt from the tears entering his mouth brightened the flavor, making it more clear what was happening even before Claire descended the stairs in the same clothes she wore before, a suitcase thumping beside her.
17th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Al fresco table at the cafe in Antella Food: Ceci and bread Wine: Chianti Colli Fiorentini Additional Notes: “Ciao,” Jacoby called before tucking into his plate of oven-baked chickpeas that tasted as flavorful as anything he’d ever eaten, washing the legumes and bread down with the local red wine as he sat in the cool shadows of his own private dining terrace on a Friday night in a silent village as twilight settled upon him in what felt like the most important place in all of the world.
18th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Osteria in Pienza Food: Pici with porcini; pappardelle with wild rabbit ragu Wine: Argiano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: In a shaded osteria at the end of town, Jacoby couldn’t decide between two pastas… so he ordered both, taking the mushroom plate first, followed by the gamy second course, both washed down with separate, massive goblets of Vino Nobile, which he swirled and sipped with great delight.
19th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Enoteca la Fortezza, Montalcino Food: A plate of Pecorino in three varieties Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino (2007) Additional Notes: When it was over, Jacoby felt a thread of sadness which he hoped to dash through the purchase of a case of the very wine he just drank.
20th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: A cantinetta near Antella Food: mixed antipasti; tagliatelle with porcini; roasted pork ribs; cantuccini… Wine: Colli Fiorentini Riserva, …Vin Santo Additional Notes: “That was incredible” Jacoby said. Bill made a face of modest expression and flicked a wrist in the air. “Cucina tipica,” he said.
21st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Helen Where: Lo Sprone Vinaino, Santo Spirito, Florence Food: Cacio e Pepe; charred octopus & potatoes; roasted pigeon Wine: Martinis (in the piazza out front), white wine (unnamed)
22nd Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: The meat was as tender as it was flavorful, filling his mouth with silky decadence buttressed by layers of flavor only attainable through days of preparation that precedes slow, slow cooking.
23rd Taste: Who: Claire & Dolores Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: “My f****** God!” Dolores’ voice shot from the kitchen. “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life!” Jacoby and Claire cracked up and parted their hug. “Bring it in here,” Jacoby called. “No f****** way!” Dolores called back.
24th Taste (in absentia): Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores, Bill Where: The cantinetta near Antella Food: To be determined Wine: To be determined (lots guaranteed) Additional Notes: “How’s the food?” Dolores asked Jacoby. “Decent?” “Oh, it’s way better than decent,” Jacoby said. “More like typical.”
For the first time in this blog, I have the pleasure to feature a guest post. This article is by enologist, writer, and photographer Melinda King. To know more about Melinda, check out The Premise of Italian Cuisine podcast.
Italian culture is special in ways that are delicately combined, tangible and intangible. It would be impossible to disconnect Italian culture from the topic of Italian food, and the entire nation is formed by connections of things grown and eaten. Eating evokes emotional, memory, sensory, spiritual, and gustatory reactions, which are born from chemistry and imagination. This is a proud food system made from thousands of years of place-specific combinations; exceptional raw ingredients, combined and shared at tables, are traded in markets and perfected with love. Italian flavors are a stunning collection of colorful stories that grow from field to city, within regions—after all, the country was a collection of nation-states until unification in 1861. The subject of authenticity is constant to hungry Italians, who does it best, according to the way it is supposed to be done. Although they are talented innovators, tradition is the mark of excellence and respect. Thus, we are left to wonder: what is Italian food? What is Italian? Now, the country that has been a historical crossroads is asking serious questions about identity. Thoughts on the Table is the brilliant work of a worldly Italian (Paolo Rigiroli) who is brave enough to explore these themes. What Italians eat (and how), he reminds us, is every bit who they are.
And it is the Italians who have the hardest time answering these queries. The food is a source of incredible comfort and passion, and it is very difficult to reach conclusions. In an effort to distill one singular definition for the entirety of “Italian food,” one might say it is agriculture. This reminds us that the cuisine is an honorable and humble form of hard work. It is the superlative expression of microclimate, microbiology, and sunshine. It is the Italian people, respecting the gifts of their land, who proceed to turn wheat fields into toothsome vermicelli, lemons to acrid limoncello, winter cabbage into soothing ribollita, and 140-kg pigs into rose-leather prosciutto. Wine is further example of Italian agricultural genius.
How is it possible to organize such an enormous, magnificent topic? Taking into consideration so many places, dialects, seasons, and details, what is Italian food, and where does it come from? Are we being too precious about what we eat? Does place truly matter? And how can an entire nation be world-known such a thing as flavor?
Recently, a friend of mine traveled to Rome, and wanted to buy a bottle of “authentic” Italian olive oil, to take with him back to Sweden. He found a large store, and assumed it would be a simple purchase. He tells me that it took forty minutes for him to decide on a single bottle, after asking three employees for help and making various searches on his cell phone. “There were so many bottles!” he exclaimed. “So many oils, from so many places, and so many different prices! Why do they do this?” In the end, he bought the smallest one, and left. Italy is very proud of its products, and olive oil is an incredibly critical topic. I imagine my friend saw bottles from Puglia, Veneto, Sicilia, Toscana, and Umbria, at the least, as each claims its olives to be the best. There are then the categories of oils (virgin, extra virgin, cold press, organic, biodynamic, gold label, etc.) and sizes (1 oz. flavored with pepperoncini or truffle) to 5 kg. The oils are sacred to the places they come from, and one would use local oil for local dishes. Moreover, every Italian olive has different compounds (peppery, golden, green, honey, smoky, juniper), that is tied to the environment it was grown and processed in. Hundreds of such compounds have been identified which contribute to the distinctive organoleptic characteristics that make Italian olive oil so exceptional.
Added to that, there are currently some issues in the worldwide olive oil industry, as origin is not easy to certify. Olives may be grown in Tunisia, and bottled in Spain. California olive oils companies used to quietly fly their products to southern Italy, where the plane would touch down and fill with gas, only to return to California for sale. This meant the oil bottles could be labeled with the words “From Italy.” Confusion is rampant in the marketplace, considering the brand of Italian foods.
How can Italian food protect and promote itself, and guarantee quality? This is important, more than ever, with the increasing global economy—and with new technologies (it is easier to mass produce foods, or copy ones already existing). What about Italian traditions? The individual state governments of Europe have, for the past few decades, been dealing with these issues within their own cultures. How to protect the integrity of Bulgarian cheeses, Greek wine, or German blood sausage? Italy was the second country, after France, to take action on certifying its natural food products. It was both a post-war reaction to economic and land issues, as well as a way to acknowledge the most important pieces of lifestyle. European states have since cooperated under the umbrella of the European Union, recognizing one another’s specialized products. Italy has been a tremendous example in this movement, to certify traditions in and out of its borders.
This does not mean that Italy published a list of official foods. Protected status does not cover lasagna and tiramisu. The topic is Geographical Indications (GI), and means that certain food products are trademarked as Italian, and cannot be impersonated or misrepresented. To be certified, the item must have a specific place of origin, a historically documented meaning, and production methods that adhere to exact steps and standards. They are the ingredients (animal products, herbs, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products) that make Italian food “Italian,” that they are raised in Italy, by Italians, where taste represents what cannot be verbalized. It is also a way to maintain identity, while earning a decent income. This applies to small-time producers, as well as the entire industries.
Geographical indications (GIs) is a legal status, represented with a visual package or label symbol, that identify a food as having originated from a specific place where a given attribute, reputation, or other characteristic of that good is attributable to its geographical home. GIs act like a trademark–once established, they confer certain exclusive rights to the owner. Unlike other intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, copyrights), GIs are owned collectively by all producers in a region, rather than by an individual or a single company.
Note: there are Geographical indications are over the world (China, India, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, etc.). The United States is currently trying to garner support for their own system of GI (Georgia peaches, Idaho potatoes, California avocados), but the reputations of such products, and a strong system of capitalism, prevents the need for place/product protection. This article seeks to concentrate on the Italian context.
France was the first to certify national butter, cheese, and wine products (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC). Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree in the year 1411; the modern system was reinstated in France in 1919. Italians followed with their own GI organization, post-war, as a way of naming and protecting cultural property within a delicate economic structure. Geographical indications were created by the European Union with Regulation 2081/921, seeking to solve communication problems between and within countries, for consumers and producers, while promoting rural development. Italian GI goods earned €15.2 million in production value in 2018, contributing 18% of the national agricultural economy.
There are 550 Sicilian growers certified for Sicilian arancia rossa (blood red oranges, IGP); each farm cultivates the same three arancia rossa varieties (there are three) according to the same rules, and is overseen and organized by a central ruling body called a consorzio. Each consorzio reports to the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole Alimentari, Forestali e del Turismo (MIPAAF), (Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies). These fruits are monitored by the Italian government, and have protection within the European Union.
The GI system has broad and precise stated objectives:
To promote foods, beverages, and wines with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-known or rural areas;
To improve the income of farmers who make “genuine effort to improve quality”;
Sustaining populations in rural areas;
Providing clear and “not-misleading” information to consumers regarding product origin;
Preserving cultural and historical identity.
Place-defined products connect value between food and territory, thus guaranteeing the quality for which a consumer pays a premium. The idea is to further prevent unwanted third parties from using terms, tactics, and marketing that mislead and misrepresent. Italian pride and livelihoods remain in the balance.
There are currently three European Union schemes for geographic preservation:
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, red symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced) within the specific region.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI, blue symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and at least partially manufactured (prepared, processed or produced) within the specific region.
Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG): food must be of “specific character” and either the raw materials, production method, or processing must be done in exact area (consistent for a minimum of 30 years).
Protected Italian Foods
Many of the GI items are known to anyone interested in Italian eating. The names of these items are synonymous with the places they come from, and the name alone acts as an Italian ambassador. Some of the expected items on the list: PDO Chianti Classico olive oil, PDO Lago di Garda olive oil, PDO Mortadella, Asiago cheese, PDO Basilico Genovese (think pesto), PDO Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, IGP Nocciola Piemonte (hazelnuts famed for chocolates).
Still, most of the items may be called peculiar or even uninteresting to those outside the places they are made. Some unexpected items: IGP Acciughe sotto sale del Mar Ligure (anchovies), IGP Carota dell’Altopiano del Fucino (“A carrot? That’s not sexy!”), Pane di Matera (specialized bread loaves from the Sassi cave town), three kinds of saffron, IGP Bresaola della Valtellina (dried horse meat is highly esteemed), four kinds of asparagus (Bassano, especially), five kinds of lemons, eight kinds of chestnuts, Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria essential oil, Kiwi Latina (an Italian kiwi? Yes, and it is magnificent!). Of course, this country is always surprising.
It is quite common to see the PDO or IGP acronym in a restaurant or gelateria, where the pride of place ingredients is translated to the consumer, as a promise of something real and delicious to be had. And with the force of 0 KM eating, Slow Foods, Bio, Organic, and artisanal products, GI label status is not only economic, but “cool.”
Italian wines have an exceptional portion of Geographical Indications to endorsement. GI wines are a vital element, though controversial, in the business and character of Italian winemaking. Autochthonous (native) grapes represent distinctive zones and methods of viticulture, each with unique climactic features. Nerello Mascaelese is a grape that only grows on Mount Etna, in Sicily; this grape is authorized as one of the grapes to be used in the Etna DOC red wine. Nerello Mascalese has been growing in this place for centuries. Popular international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah need no protection–nor do they have such a significant history, cultivation, or sensory connection to Italian soil.
In 1964, Italy established a series of laws to safeguard the brilliance and authenticity of their wines. The directives define wines by characteristics such as: type of grape(s) used, alcohol content, bottling, labeling, how long the wine is aged, how and when to harvest, who can work the fields, machinery and tools, irrigation, naming, and sales promotions. In the last decades, several modifications and changes have been made to original legislation, as the numbers of wines and regions grow to the list. The last addition, made in 2010, established four basic categories that read consistent with concurrent European Union wine regulations (2008-2009) — Italian wines GIs are categorized as:
Vini (also known as ‘generic/table wines’): wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU, label includes no certain indication of place origin (of grape varieties used or vintage); only the wine color is required to be listed on the bottle label (“Tavernello” often ‘house wine’). In some cases, however, table wines can have very high quality and be sought by connoisseurs that don’t need any official certifications (‘Super Tuscans’).
Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines): generic wines that derive mostly (at least 85%) from one kind of certified ‘international (grown in many places)’ grape variety (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) or entirely from two or more of them; grape used or vintage may be shown on the label (e.g. “Merlot-Raboso” blend from Veneto).
IGP (‘Protected Geographical Indication’ also known as IGT: ‘Typical Geographical Indication’): wines produced in a specific territory within Italy that follow precise regulations on allowed varieties, growing and vinification practices, organoleptic and chemical/physical characteristics, labeling instructions, among others (e.g. “Toscana IGT”).
DOP (‘Protected Designation of Origin’) which includes two classes:
DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) These wines must have been IGP wines for at least 5 years, and generally come from smaller regions within a certain IGP territory; far stricter regulations and focus on territorial personalities; a DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG after 10 years.
DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) In addition to fulfilling DOC requisites, DOCG wines meet tighter analyses before going to market; they must also demonstrate a superior commercial value, and are linked with historical development.
Currently, there exist 332 DOCs (e.g. “Aleatico di Gradoli DOC”) and 73 DOCGs (e.g. “Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG”) bringing total to 405 DOPs. The financial aspects of the wine GI are momentous; a single bottle of DOCG Brunello di Montalcino can sell for up to $550. A scandal shook the Brunello consorzio in 2008 (known as “Brunellopoli”), where select winemakers were suspect for mixing lower quality wine grapes from other regions with local Sangiovese. Vineyards were quarantined and hundreds of thousands of bottles seized by authorities, facing millions of dollars in fines and years in prison. The issue was potential violation of GI purity rules, written by the Brunello Consorzio ruling body, and approved by the Italian Agricultural Ministry. Charges were ultimately dropped, and agreements to reinforce production principles were made between the Consorzio and winemakers.
I spent a number of years working in a wine business in California. When customers asked about Italian wines, they asked for wines by company or grape. Furthermore, their purchase decisions were generally based on price; customers were fascinated anytime I gave them a back story to the makers of the wine, the place it was made, or the types of grapes used. A wine was Chianti or Prosecco, but they did not know why. I would point to the labeling below the cork, when appropriate—if the bottle had the DOC or DOCG certification. “So the government says this wine is the best?” they would ask. No, I would shake my head and give a brief description of what GI represents. “Oh,” they would continue, “so the Italian government says this wine is the best?” they would repeat. Every time.
No, the government has no sensory opinion on the wines being made. This is a label that a company pays for, in a group with other companies in the same place, in order to show you, the consumer, that they mean business. The bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano comes from vineyard lands that were budding vines hundreds of years before the pilgrims even built their boat. That is what the GI system would like us to remember. Currently, I am working in a vineyard/winery on Mount Etna, in Sicily. The DOC here is exceedingly proud of its work, and place (terra) is the language spoken in every glass. The soil changes from sandy to limestone, then lava rock, within a few meters, and vines stand fierce tests of weather and volcano. Add the salt of the sea and the shine of the sun, and it makes for an extraordinary natural beverage. The GI labels struggle to describe these things to an American wine shopper: philosophy of terra in an island borough founded by Greek settlers in 734 B.C.E.
Although GIs may promote a food or wine’s reputation, the level of quality is not guaranteed above similar food items. The perception of GIs is a matter of personal consumer taste and company/brand marketing, and this is an important concept to understand. For example, there may be six options of lemons at the local market. Two are certified GI status, from Siracusa (Sicilia) and Sorrento (Campania), and one from Spain. The other three, local fruits, do not list variety, but are stamped with the farm and city of origin. The GI status lemons cost twice as many Euros per kilo. Would you choose a locally made lemon, a higher priced GI, or the least expensive Spanish one?
How much sway does GI play, in the eyes of a shopper? Does it shift our priorities–taste preference, price, or place of being picked? Would you scrimp on lemons but splurge on cheese? How is this any different from brand name luxury Italian Gucci, Ferrari, or Armani? Normal people buy according to experience and reputation. If it works, they buy again. Italy, itself, has become a brand. The Italian GI is represented on the food or drink label with a small circular symbol (red and yellow or blue and yellow, depending on legal status), so we see as we buy. But these certifications are very expensive, and they require a long and thorough vetting process.
The symbol on the food (package, container, box, fruit seal, or wine label) will tell the buyer that it was made in according to the tradition of the area, by people who live there, with local or regional resources, in Italy by Italians. It will taste the way it is supposed to taste, according to history of the place, made flavorful by unique environmental conditions that only that place can provide. Terra, confirms that balsamic vinegar from Modena can only come from Modena. In this case, the Balsamic Vinegar Consorzio is a nearly secret society of older gentlemen who speak very little and carry out regular chemical “alchemical” analysis with small glass pipets and sensorial tastings. They meet in quiet rooms, and keep careful records. But they are extremely exclusive, and there is worry that the Modena vinegar community will soon disappear. It is not easy to pass on the legacy, or attract much excitement, as the work is difficult and unattractive to outsiders. This kind of work must be psychologically understood. But this is a common problem today, in Italy, with gentrification, separating family structures, and move towards tech jobs and city life.
The taste of Sicilian Pachinotomatoes cannot be reproduced. Heart-shaped Marostica cherries, from Veneto, are blessed by cool mountain breeze and warm sunshine. There is a cherry festival to honor the local fruits, as well as a famous chess game played with real-life human pawns in the Piazza degli Scacchi. The game dates back to 1454 when it was organized to settle a courtly duel between two noble lords competing for the hand of a lady. The history, the climate, and the science of place convene to create, in legal status, a true Italian flavor. Travelers can go to the game, enjoy the festival, and feel the life behind the GI, every September.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a prime example of a Geographical Indication, demonstrating food as an art form. Outside Italy, “Parmesan” (originally a term from France to refer to Italian hard cheeses) is used as a generic name to identify a product (cheese-like, but not always cheese), that has a flavor reminiscent of the famed nutty bite that we know from true Parmigiano Reggiano. However, this copy food lacks the origin, and artisan producers. Parmigiano Reggiano has a singular history, taste, and identity that is unmistakably Italian. The Consorzio for Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese was formed in 1934; in 1996, Parmigiano Reggiano earned complete legal status in the EU. The Consorzio states that “the secret of its goodness originates in the place of origin, in the natural feed, our types of milk cows, the wind, the incline of our hills and goodness of grass, and in the high-quality milk with no additives.” The term “Parmesan” comes from geographical origin and means “of or from Parma.”
Parmigiano Reggiano is not only a good cheese, but also healthy and nutritious (named the official food of the International Space Station). After creation, the cheese wheels are subjected to a maturation period of at least twelve months (twenty-four for the most common version, thirty-six months and more for finer stravecchio), allowing Parmigiano Reggiano to gain its characteristic granular structure. It is made from raw cow’s milk (not pasteurized; there are 245,000 cows in the production area registered to make Parmigiano Reggiano) only grass and hay, not silage. After primary creation, the cheese is put into a brine bath of Mediterranean sea salt for about 22 days and then aged. At twelve months, each cheese is inspected by an expert grader who uses a hammer to tap the cheese and by sound detect undesirable cracks and voids. Cheeses that pass inspection are branded on the rind with an inspector logo. To guarantee each cheese and catalogue quality, each cheese wheel (40 kg) is stenciled by hand with:
The Parmigiano Reggiano DOP acronym and consorzio seal;
Identification number of dairy (there are 363 certified Parmigiano Reggiano dairies);
Production month and year;
An alphanumeric code identifying every single wheel.
Every cheese is inspected by the consorzio, to verify if they are worthy of the Parmigiano Reggiano title, then fire branded when PDO standards are satisfied. There is a well-documented 800-year history of production, as it was first made by Benedictine monks in the same hilly areas. The processes are fiercely controlled by the consorzio, and every cheese is crafted with care, for excellence.
The cultural meaning for this cheese is also economic: in 2018, 149,000 tons (3.65 million wheels) of it was made by 50,000 Italians in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua (to the right of the Po river), and Bologna to the left of the Reno river). In the same year, the cheese had a €2.2 billion estimated turnover at consumption (51,900 tons of it being exported). This is a meaningful cheese! It is easy to understand how such powerful food would have imitators. The name, alone, is sacred to the Italian people.
In 2003, the EU responded to a complaint filed by the Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio concerning the improper use by certain German companies of the name “Parmesan” as a generic name, on cheeses that neither exhibited the peculiarities of Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO, nor came from the area of origin—thus manipulating consumers and damaging reputation. German authorities refused to intervene, and thus the case was taken before the European Court of Justice. However, the case was ultimately dismissed, as the EU court did not have enough evidence to demonstrate German misuse of the generic name.
However, problems arise when deciding which phrases to protect as GIs. For example, although “Parmigiano Reggiano” is a protected GI under U.S. law (in an agreement made with Italian authorities and the cheese consorzio), the name “parmesan” is not protected—and this term is ubiquitous in American grocery markets on products that Italians would find abhorrent and embarrassing. Shoppers might even see Parmesan Reggianito, a hard Argentinean cheese invented by Italian immigrants who left Italy for South America after the Wars. They wanted to make something that would remind them of their native Parmigiano Reggiano.
Every few years, the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio tries to file legal action against a company in North America, regarding “Parmesan,” but an outright purge of all such cheese products would be impossible, and expensive. The issue comes down to labeling, but mostly, quality.
In 2012, American FDA agents investigated a cheese factory in Pennsylvania, called “Castle Cheese.” They were making goods sold as “100% real Parmesan” across the country; the cheese was found to contain cut-rate substitutes, chemicals, and fillers, such as wood pulp and cellulose. The Castle Cheese president pled guilty and was spent one year in prison, with a fine of one hundred thousand dollars, but the case was made on health standards—not Parmigiano Reggiano GI name protection. Kraft, America’s well-known mass pasteurized cheese mass brand, has argued that their parmesan cheeses actually promote and encourage the Parmigiano Reggiano product, rather than compete with or mock it.
This is why a podcast like “Thoughts on the Table” is so important: there is a tremendous need for a cross-cultural conversation about Italian food, by Italians and non-Italians, in the name of taste, access, affordability, and integrity. I can only imagine what it was like for Paolo, experiencing his first visit to a Canadian grocery store. It would be like showing him a roller skate and trying to convince him it was a car. Food is passionate and evocative; what happens when it is reduced to a transaction? We want to talk about grandmother’s soothing pasta dishes, not packaging standards.
Food is grown, traded, prepared, and shared according to geographical context. What you eat, for most of human history, depends on where you live. This is a field of study known as the GEOGRAPHY OF FOOD, which includes complex patterns and relationships between “space” and “place.” Taste transforms during stages of preparation. Quality means safe and wholesome ingredients, and consistency. This is where Italy excels. It has a vast range of topography, proximity to water, varieties of microclimates, and brilliant, creative farmers and chefs. As one of my friends reminds me, “our government is terrible, jobs are hard to get, and our soccer team fails in the World Cup, but we have the best eating in the entire world to console these pains.” The Mediterranean hits the Alpine ranges, and leave centuries of collaboration, giving this nation gastronomical and agricultural superiority. Science proves this, as well as our own opinions. And while so many things did not “originate” in this country, they are respected and perfected here: tomatoes, wines, pastas, coffee, and chocolate.
Place does matter—very much. In terms of food and wine, terra is the philosophical combination of physical and spiritual “place” that gives flavor. By flavor, I mean “memory,” the kind of meal we remember years after the dishes have been washed.
Geographic Indication is a legally recognized certification of quality for place-driven taste. It happens by tradition–meaning what is produced, how, and by whom. The Italian government is very serious about protection and recognition. History is, in my opinion, based in agriculture, and agriculture reveals identity. GI status strives to keep identity, while preserving the taste of memory.
In the name of authenticity, GI hopes to maintain marketplace clarity. Every protected food is traced, tracked, and guaranteed. There are major efforts by law enforcement agencies to uphold the legitimacy of food products. Olive oil, wine, balsamic vinegar, cheese, and prosciutto are some of the Italian products that are most copied and sold by fraud, or produced in sub-standard ways. Livestock are RFID tagged, and documented from conception to market shelf, and full records of genetic breeding are kept by the consorzio. A vegetable, a cheese, or a grape can be tracked by DNA testing, to assure the place it has come from. Italy has 822 registered GI products, more than any other nation, of the worldwide total 3,036 (2018 ISMEA). “Made in Italy” is very big business.
Of course, the Geographical Indications are quite general, and work with ideals. It is basically a package of economic safeguards—copyright schemes made in a non-capitalistic system. The European Union oversees each country’s regulations, and promotes communication across the board. Italy does not always enjoy being a part of the Union, though it gains considerably from the Geographical Indication projects. Aside from the spiritual and cultural lauds from economic protection, the PDO and PGI symbols are basically there to pay people to make good raw materials (beans, sardines, and kiwis). Italy must also realize that certification means Italians competing with Italians, long before the rest of the world. As Italians are hungry for creative and economic innovation, they are, more than ever, hungry to strengthen the core of their traditions.
Nostalgia is everything to an Italian palate. So are relationships. Although larger food chains and grocery stores are trending, there is still a strong and regular desire to shop locally. How do GI products interact with everyday eating? How can we trust that the story behind the label is true? Some Italians do not support the GI system; there are many barriers to entry (certification costs, registration, legal oversight, documentation, North versus South quarrels) that prevent many from participating. Others detest the European Union. In a conversation with my elderly neighbors, Don Donato and his wife, Luciana, I asked their view on Italian Geographical Indications. Don Donato was quick to answer: “We do it because France did it, and we always have to compete with France. We have Italian food in a French system. Even the supermarkets are from France (Carrefour, Auchan in Veneto)… the problem is that Italians are very bad organizers. We have the good food, and the government doesn’t trust us with it.”
His wife does the food shopping, and said she never really noticed the food labels until last year, when she read about it in the paper. She generally keeps to the butcher, bakery, and produce shop in our small village, but goes to the shopping centers once or twice every month with her children’s families. Two things regularly astonish her: the amounts of products in the aisles, and the prices. Having choices, she told me, is very expensive. “If I want lentils from Umbria, we will go there. I am not about to pay so much for a bag of lentils. These are things that are made very well in my own area.” She told me that food is only as good as the person making it, and she can make any lentil taste Italian.
Can you taste the difference between a GI product and a non-GI product When it is late in the evening, and someone has prepared a beautiful Italian meal, simple and warm—what is the role of Geographical Indications for regional foods?
If my Swedish friend had known, at the least, to look for red and blue symbols on olive oil labels, his search would have been much simplified. He was looking for the best representation of an Italian olive oil, and those certification marks would have spoken for the people, processes, and places that make the oil authentic—as so the label would ideally have us believe. Later, I curiously asked which bottle he had selected from the large Roman grocery store. He laughed when he told me, “I don’t remember the name, but I bought an expensive one.” He continued, “But when I got home, I went to use it and saw, written right there on the backside: 100% California Olives.”
These contradictions make Italian food fascinating. The conversation continues…
Top 15 highest value (by production numbers) Italian Geographical Indications, 2018 (source: ISMEA—Qualivita)
http://www.aicig.it/ – Aicig (Associazione Italiana Consorzi Indicazioni Geografiche, Italian Association Geographic Indication Consortia) is a non-profit association between the various Consorzi that are recognized by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies. It represents 95% of Italian GI producers.
“Brunellopoli: A wine scandal under the Tuscan sun” – Tourism Review International 15(3):253-267 · July 2012 by Alessio Cavicchi (University of Macerata) and Cristina Santini (University San Raffaele, Roma).
NOTE: This article’s featured image is a view of Govone, Cuneo, from its castle. [Photo by Paolo Rigiroli].
Even though Italian food is prominent in North America as well as other English speaking countries, restaurant menus often use Italian words in ways that are not even remotely close to what would sound natural to a native Italian. And it isn’t just because of spelling mistakes, the grammatical and logical use of Italian words is also frequently incorrect.
This post started as a chat with two Twitter friends, Cecilia Razelli (@cocci_ge) and Carlo Settembrini (@csettembrini.) Cecilia found it amusing that I titled one of my articles “Formaggio Cheese,” given that she had noted a similar trend with constructs like “salsiccia sausage” and “prosciutto ham” (if you don’t see why Italians can find this amusing, keep reading!) Then Carlo joined the conversation, expanding to other types of mistakes that English speaking people make when using Italian words. We kept chatting on Twitter for a bit, then we moved the conversation to a shared Google Document, which eventually became the outline for this article. I would like to thank Cecilia and Carlo for engaging in this collaboration – literally, this post wouldn’t have happened without you!
To help illustrate the variety of errors that are commonly made when non-experienced Italian speakers use the Italian language, we grouped the mistakes according to their nature into six distinct families. So, let’s get started!
When native Italians look for authentic Italian restaurants abroad, they often assess their authenticity merely on the number of spelling mistakes they can spot on the menus. Since the Italian language is mostly phonetic (i.e. written as pronounced,) there are no spelling competitions in Italy – spelling is generally not an issue over there(1)! This is why spelling mistakes stand out even more to the Italians.
Some spelling mistakes seem to reflect the way Italian words tend to be pronounced by English natives. Take ‘focaccia’ as an example: its misspelled counterpart ‘foccacia’ is gaining popularity because it’s closer to how it sounds in English. At other times, alternate English spellings appear to reflect the dialect of the first Italian-Americans. Words like ‘Cappicolla’ and ‘Macaroni,’ for instance, bear clear signs of a southern Italian heritage as opposed to their national counterparts: ‘Capicollo’ and ‘Maccheroni.’ Other words, like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini,’ reflect a combination of causes: their dialectal origin and the way the correctly spelled ‘linguine’ and ‘zucchine’ sound when read with an English accent.
To a native Italian, it’s bad enough to hear a misspelled word, but things get even worse when the alternate spelling has a different meaning in Italian. For instance, ‘panini’ is sometimes misspelled as ‘pannini.’ Now, while ‘panini’ is a diminutive of “pane,” which means ‘bread,’ the word ‘pannini’ is a diminutive of ‘panni,’ which is equivalent to “items of clothing” or “rags.” So now you know why a native Italian may get a giggle when they read that the chef’s special is the “house pannini.”
2. Plural vs. singular
Even when spelled correctly, Italian words may be misused in the context of a sentence because of an incorrect “grammatical number.” A classic example of this mistake is using the word ‘panini’ (which is the plural of ‘panino’) to refer to a single sandwich. It’s not clear why the plural ‘panini’ entered the English language instead of the singular ‘panino,’ although one theory is that ‘panini’ is assonant with other Italian-sounding words like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini.’ Regardless, a sentence like “I’d like a panini” sounds to a native Italian as wrong as “I’d like a sandwiches.” And it goes without saying that the word “paninis” doesn’t make any sense to a native Italian since it’s a double-plural. The same mistake occurs when ‘biscotti’ is used to refer to a single cookie (in Italian it’s the plural of ‘biscotto.’) The word ‘gelati’ instead is often used interchangeably with the word ‘gelato,’ when in reality it’s its plural form and should be used when referring to two or more Italian ice creams.
When using the English language, however, nobody is expected to use Italian grammar. Therefore, words like ‘paninos,’ ‘gelatos,’ and ‘pizzas’ are perfectly acceptable. In fact, Italians do the same with English words: they adopt the singular form and use it interchangeably both as singular and as plural (“un computer, due computer” = ‘one computer, two computers.’)
3. Feminine vs. masculine
In the Italian language, nouns have gender. Moreover, articles and adjectives must match the gender of the nouns they are used with. Because of this, besides knowing if nouns are plural or singular, in order to write proper Italian one must know the gender of nouns. Luckily, most of the times it’s easy to tell if a word is masculine or feminine: if it ends in ‘a’ it’s feminine; if it ends in ‘o’ it’s masculine (this for singular words, for plural words it’s ‘e’ for feminine, ‘i’ for masculine.) So, for example, because ‘pizza’ is feminine, one should say ‘pizza classica,’ not ‘pizza classico.’ And it’s ‘pasta ai gamberi,’ not ‘pasta alle gamberi.’ Consistency is important!
4. Adjective vs. noun
Many Italian dishes bear colorful names also thanks to the use of descriptive adjectives. As an example, ‘Bolognese’ means “from the city of Bologna.” When native Italians use words like ‘bolognese’ to refer to the famous kind of ragù (a generic word for meat sauce), they say “alla bolognese,” meaning “in the style of the city of Bologna.” Although it’s acceptable to say “Bolognese sauce” (“salsa bolognese,”) it doesn’t make sense to say: “I’ve had pasta with Bolognese” (leaving out the noun.) The sentence: “I’ve had Bolognese pasta” is also likely incorrect since it means “I’ve had pasta from the city of Bologna” with no reference to its sauce. Worse yet, if you order “a Bolognese” in a restaurant, it will sound like you are ordering a person from Bologna – that would be a very dubious kind of meat sauce!
Similarly, ‘Parmigiano’ or ‘Parmigiana’ means “from the city of Parma” (referred to a masculine/feminine subject respectively.) As for the famous eggplant dish, however, it’s equally correct to say “melanzane alla parmigiana” (“parmesan eggplants”) or “parmigiana di melanzane” (“parmesan of eggplants,”) the latter using ‘parmigiana’ as a noun.
And to conclude this category of mistakes, let’s not forget that the word ‘balsamic’ is an adjective, and it means “curative,” or “having the same properties of a conditioner” (‘conditioner’ = ‘balsamo’ in Italian.) It makes no sense to an Italian to use ‘balsamico’ without a noun or a pronoun. So, you can’t have anything like “I’ll have balsamic on my salad.” Balsamic what?
5. Generic vs. specific
‘Formaggio cheese,’ ‘salsiccia sausage,’ ‘prosciutto ham’ don’t make sense to a native Italian because they are redundant. ‘Formaggio’ is Italian for cheese, ‘salsiccia’ is Italian for sausage, ‘prosciutto (cotto(2))’ is Italian for ham. So, in Italy, all you are saying when you say ‘salsiccia sausage’ is “sausage sausage,” or “‘ham ham,” “cheese cheese.” We know the prospect of Italian food is exciting, but just one term will do!
As for the origin of this construct, it may come from the North American practice to use generic product names combined with specific adjectives. For instance, people say “cheddar cheese,” or “tuna fish,” when really ‘cheddar’ or ‘tuna’ can’t be anything other than ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ respectively.
Interestingly, however, ‘gelato ice cream’ is technically correct since gelato is not exactly Italian for ice cream: it’s a particular kind of ice cream (denser, less sweet, and less fat.) Because of this, it may be justifiable to use ‘gelato ice cream’ as a marketing strategy to indicate a specialty product (likely to be sold at a higher price.)
Also technically correct is ‘espresso coffee’ since ‘espresso’ is indeed descriptive of a distinct kind of coffee extraction. In Italian coffee bars, however, people just call it ‘espresso,’ or even simply ‘coffee’ since the coffee sold in coffee bars is almost exclusively espresso. When ordering a coffee, Italians also often shorten the name when they order an espresso variation, which comes with its own descriptive adjective. Examples are ‘corto’ (short), ‘macchiato’ (stained or spotted with steamed milk,) ‘corretto’ (corrected with liquors or spirits,) etc. Sometimes they even leave out the noun altogether and order directly a ‘macchiato,’ which ironically also happens in North America.
The construct: ‘ricotta cheese,’ instead, is completely wrong since ricotta is technically not even cheese (being it made from whey, and therefore considered just a dairy product, or ‘latticino’ in Italian.)
In the Italian language, the following are generic names as well:
‘Panino’ is the generic name for ‘bread roll’ or ‘sandwich,’ whether grilled or not.
‘Biscotto’ is the generic name for ‘cookie,’ though Italian cookies tend to be crunchy, rather than chewy.
‘Antipasto’ is the generic translation of ‘appetizer.’ Not a particular kind of appetizer made of pickled vegetables, olives, and often tuna, or (worse) this “invention” from Kraft.
‘Latte’ is the generic name for milk, cold milk to be precise – which is what you would get if you ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy. The proper name for the espresso-based drink is ‘latte macchiato’ (steamed milk stained or spotted with coffee.)
6. Food vs. preparation
To end the list of mistake families, we can’t leave out one of the most mysterious ones exemplified by the Italian-American dish called Shrimp Scampi. Scampi, plural of scampo, is a crustacean similar to a small lobster. For some reason, it also became the name of a preparation (based on tomato, garlic, and white wine) that is generally used for shrimp and other crustaceans. But if “Shrimp Scampi” makes no sense to a native Italian because it’s essentially “Shrimp Shrimp,” Olive Garden’s Chicken Scampi makes even less sense, since it’s like saying “Chicken Shrimp.”
Sometimes Shrimp Scampi is instead used to refer to a crustacean, possibly just to make a dish sound more mysterious, or “elevated,” and definitely more “Italian.” Dishes like “Linguine with Shrimp Scampi” from “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten are a clear indication of how mainstream this misconception has gone. It goes without saying that actual Scampi are nowhere in the ingredients.
To make matters worse, dictionaries such as the Merriam-Webster define ‘scampi’ as “a usually large shrimp; also: a large shrimp prepared with a garlic-flavored sauce,” also reporting ‘scampi’ as a singular noun with an invariant plural form. Fortunately, heroic bloggers like my friend Frank Fariello set the record straight by correctly explaining the naming issue behind this dish.
To end the category and this article, ‘Calamari’ is another example where non-native Italians may confuse an ingredient with its preparation. Whereas in Italian it generically means ‘squid,’ outside of Italy, and especially in North America, it refers to its deep-fried ring-shaped slices.
(1) In some regions of Italy, Italians make certain kinds of spelling mistakes due to how words sound in their dialects. As an example, those who speak a Venetian dialect tend to drop double consonants. In southern Italy, instead, double consonants tend to be added where they don’t belong (e.g. Carabbinieri instead of Carabinieri.)
(2) In Italy, there are two kinds of prosciutto: ‘cotto’ (“cooked” similar to ham) and ‘crudo’ (“raw, cured.”)
~~~ This article is available in narrated version. Check it out! ~~~
Every year, when I go back to Italy to see my family, I manage to squeeze in a visit to a mercato. As you may have guessed, the word “mercato” means “market”, but what’s a mercato (plural: mercati) to the Italians? I asked several friends from various parts of Italy to help me define it – the article you’re reading includes their collective observations.
The mercati are traditional neighborhood street markets that take place in most Italian municipalities and are as ancient as the cities themselves. Small towns tend to have a weekly mercato (on alternating weekdays among bordering towns) in a designated street or square (often called “Piazza Mercato“). Bigger cities instead tend to have several neighborhood mercati, some of which may occur daily (on weekdays and Saturdays) and take place in permanent structures that are either partially or fully covered (mercati coperti).
In the mercati, street vendors set up their movable shops to cover a complete range of needs: from food, to clothes, to household items. The stores are generally open from early morning until early afternoon, but in big cities or for special occasions (e.g. patron saint feasts or Christmas celebrations) they may remain open until late. The mercati feature products for all budgets, from affordable consumables to high-quality designer items. Bargaining is acceptable though not as common as it was in the past, with the newer generations of customers being more used to posted prices.
“At the regular neighborhood market, you can buy all sorts of things, bargain, and you can also find prestigious brands and products, such as leather boots.[…] In Turin, there’s the biggest open market in Europe:Porta Palazzowhich has a covered area for meat, pasta, and fish.” Lucia
“Bologna has a covered market in the city center (The Herbs Market – Mercato delle Erbe), some permanent markets in the style of Alger’s kasbah (via Pescherie’s market […], Aldovrandi’s square’s market) and some temporary markets […], plus a number of neighborhood markets all over the city.” Nando
“In the past, all cities had covered markets. Now in the Emilia region, the only famous market left is Modena’s – a spectacular market with a lot of high-quality foods […] [which are] also sought after by tourists.” Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes
Even though supermarkets have become the main source of supplies, the mercati remain popular in Italy. One reason for their appeal is the reliable quality and competitive prices of their fresh produce. Italians are very demanding when it comes to food and select vendors based on an expectation of high quality and fair value. Since in the mercato vendors strive to form long-term relationships with their customers, they must honor such expectations.
Another reason for the popularity of the mercati is that small towns may otherwise not have enough stores to supply the local demand. This phenomenon has become even more significant in recent years since many small businesses closed due to the financial downturn and competition from out-of-town commercial centers and department stores.
Aside from the merchandise itself, however, a big part of the appeal of the mercati lies in their social function of being outdoor gathering places where people can meet. Those who visit a mercato are greeted by a cheerful atmosphere derived from the variety of merchandise and the excitement of bargaining. In small towns where the mercato only occurs weekly, the infrequency of the event intensifies the excitement.
There are mercati that specialize in a certain genre of merchandise, such as the famous “mercati del pesce” (fish markets) that are commonly seen in coastal cities, or the “ortomercati“, which are dedicated to fruit and vegetables. But the multipurpose mercati are the most common. In those, vendors are loosely grouped together by type, with fresh fruit and vegetables stands taking on the most prominent section.
In most mercati, the space next to the produce is reserved for bakeries and deli trucks (selling fresh pasta, cheese, cold cuts, olives and other preserves, roasted chickens, and pre-made dishes). A few butchers and some fish trucks are also commonly seen in that area. As we move away from the core, the merchandise switches to clothes, including pajamas and underwear, as well as shoes and accessories such as belts and wallets. Then, it’s the turn of household items, including linens, curtains, mats, as well as hardware, tools, and cleaning products. Sometimes plants, seeds, and even birds, and other small pets can be found as well. Finally, in recent years, “coffee trucks” have been making an appearance even in small mercati, offering espresso and cappuccino, as well as croissants, pastries, sandwiches, and pizza by the slice. Some even feature a dedicated seating area.
Even though the produce sold in the mercati is often local, vendors may rely on nationwide distribution chains, and as such the mercati cannot be considered as farmers’ markets. In some big Italian cities, however, actual farmers’ markets have started to appear as stand-alone venues or as distinct sections in regular mercati. Just like in North America, farmers’ markets are associated with smaller production volumes, organic farming (agricoltura biologica), fair trade, and consequently higher retail prices. In Italy, however, farmers’ markets are still relatively uncommon, possibly because the majority of the Italians consider regular produce to be just as healthy.
“In Milan, the first farmers’ market, organized by Coldiretti [a national agricultural organization] opened in 2008 in the headquarters of the farmers’ cooperative (Consorzio agrario) of Milan and Lodi. The number of farmers’ markets reached 120 in Lombardy in early 2013.” Simona from Briciole
It has to be mentioned that mercati sell new merchandise and should not be confused with flea markets (mercati delle pulci) and other second-hand markets (mercatini dell’usato), or with antique markets (mercati dell’antiquariato). Most major cities do have such specialty markets as unique venues, though generally only monthly or seasonally.
“As for second-hand/antiques, in the area of Porta Palazzo there’s the Balon market, which has some rare pieces. The “Gran Balon”, takes place the second Sunday of every month, and there you really have the chance to find treasures.” Lucia
“Then there’s the «small» antique market of Santo Stefano’s square in Bologna [the second Sunday of each month, and the preceding Saturday].” Nando
In order to occupy a spot in the mercato, vendors need to apply for a permit with the city. During each mercato day, the municipal police go through the aisles to check that every vendor has paid their occupancy fees. They also check that there are no unauthorized salesmen offering merchandise of dubious origin (brand name imitations) or simply items of little value and high return margins such as lighters, string bracelets, plastic sunglasses.
In recent years, Italy has seen a sharp influx of immigrants. This new multiculturalism affects the mercati by more imported items being sold, and new vendors taking over some of the businesses. Some of those long-term relationships with the familiar vendors have been lost, and until new ones are established the mercati in some towns must wait to regain their neighborhood identity.
Some markets, however, have strongly maintained their traditions. This is the case, for instance, in the yearly fairs that many towns hold to honor their patron saints. Years ago, these town fairs were often the setting of small cattle shows (fiere del bestiame). Nowadays, instead, they are essentially big mercati, but with an emphasis on delectable and extravagant products such as cheeses and salumi from the various regions of Italy, marzipan fruits, torrone (nougat), croccante alle mandorle (almond brittle). You can also find an abundance of ornaments, toys, and even the latest kitchen gadgets! Some yearly fairs may also host traveling funfairs (giostre), with elaborate carnival rides.
Other yearly fairs, instead, celebrate a seasonal harvest and are sometimes called “sagre” (festivals). The products that are showcased may be sampled in dedicated food tasting stands (which are sometimes equipped like full restaurants) and are generally available for purchase at wholesale prices. For instance, the world-famous white truffle fair is held every fall in Alba, near Turin.
“[There are] also fairs that are centered on seasonal products. For instance, near Turin in October there’s the pumpkin fair.” Marta“They have fairs dedicated to some specific local food and its gastronomic specialties for each area. […] These are more like restaurant-style gastronomical stands (e.g. the truffle festival – “sagra del tartufo”, the garlic festival, the festival of the pear, of the asparagus, of the cappellaccio [a pumpkin-filled dumpling characteristic of the town of Ferrara], etc. […] You order food to be cooked by locals (renowned for their traditional cooking knowledge) and you sit at communal tables to eat.”Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes
Finally, a different kind of seasonal market is, of course, the one that is held in many towns during the Christmas period. Mercatini di Natale (Christmas small markets) are especially dear to the Italians, in part for their whimsical atmosphere. Like other winter markets, they often feature warm treats including roasted chestnuts and mulled wine (vin brule). Naturally, they also focus on giftable items such as fine foods, clothes, accessories, and crafts.
“There is the Christmas market under the Portico dei Servi (which lasts from Santa Lucia, – December 8, but it opens on December 6th -, until January 6th) and the market of independent artisans [called] «Decomelart» in via San Giuseppe and one of sweets and random gadgets in via Altabella.”Nando
This is a summer dish, but if you can find ripe cherry tomatoes, then it can be made every season. And it’s one of those pasta dishes where the sauce is so quick it can be made as the pasta cooks – my favorites when I don’t have time to plan ahead. Despite its disarming simplicity, this dish is very complete and balanced – the acidity of the tomato is countered by the creaminess of the mozzarella, and the sweetness of the tomato-mozzarella base is countered by the savoriness of capers and olives. I called it “Mediterranean Pasta”, let’s dive into it!
Mediterranean Pasta with Capers, Olives, Cherry Tomatoes, and Mozzarella
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 15 minutes
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
5 oz (140 g) dried linguine or spaghetti
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons capers (brine-pickled)
3 tablespoons green olives (pitted and sliced, brine-pickled)
9 oz (250 g) cherry tomatoes, each cut lengthwise in four
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
4 oz (115 g) fresh mozzarella (e.g. 2 medium bocconcini), diced
Salt and pepper
Toss the pasta in salted boiling water. In a pan, sauté capers and olives in the oil.
Add the tomatoes and oregano to the pan, maintaining medium heat. Roast for 3-4 minutes.
While the pasta cooks, cover the pan with a lid and cook at low heat until the tomatoes wilt (about 5 minutes). Adjust salt and pepper.
Rapidly drain the pasta and finish cooking it in the sauce until al dente.
Take the pan off the heat, add the mozzarella, stir briefly. Serve immediately.
‘Insalata di Riso’ (rice salad) is an informal Italian dish that is especially popular in the summer as an appetizer or as a refreshing first course, particularly for lunch. Its main component is Parboiled rice, which is the most appropriate for this preparation as its grains remain firm and separated when cooked, and stay soft when they get cold. The cooled rice is lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and flavored with a variety of add-ins, according to personal preference, but also following the tradition.
Insalata di Riso
Yield: 3-4 servings
Total Time: 45 minutes
Prep Time: 45 minutes
1 cup parboiled rice
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
100 g mild cheese (Fontina, Montasio, Raclette, Gouda), cubed
½ cup Italian pickled cucumbers (no dill and no garlic!)
½ cup Italian mixed 'sottaceti' (vinegar-preserved vegetables, e.g.: peppers, corn, capers, carrots, olives, fennel, artichokes)
¼ cup sliced olives
2 tablespoons of olive oil
the juice of 1 lemon
pickled 'cipolline' (small onions), halved
pickled bell peppers, cut in small pieces
tuna in olive oil, crushed
cold roast beef or chicken, cut in small pieces
Boil or steam the rice then spread it over a cloth and let it cool down, by the end the rice should be dry and fluffy.
Meanwhile, hard boil the eggs and cook the peas, then let them also cool down.
Move the rice into a bowl (fig. 1) and gently mix in the olive oil. Gather the pickled veggies (fig. 2).
Gather peas, eggs (fig. 3) and diced cheese (fig. 4).
Mix all of the add-ins together with the rice, then stir in the lemon juice.
Adjust the salt and let the salad rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
Known in North America by the French name apéritif, an aperitivo is a drink meant to be had before the meal as an appetizer. To this purpose, the apertitivo is usually a moderately alcoholic cocktail based on vermouth, bitters or white wine. Non-alcoholic versions also exist.
Even though the aperitivo is technically a starter to the meal (the word comes from the Latin verb ‘aperire’, to open), Italians usually have it well before lunch or dinner, accompanied by a snack. Because of this, the aperitivo often refers to the whole experience of drink plus food (as Italians say: “fare l’aperitivo”, do the aperitif), with the actual purpose of quenching the appetite while waiting for a late meal.
As described in the article on breakfast, in Italy bars double as coffee shops and are often part of people’s daily routine. And in the bars of Milan and other north Italian cities, the evening aperitivo has evolved into its own tradition. Starting at around 6 pm (which is at least one hour before restaurants open) and continuing until 8 or 9 pm, most bars offer a lot more than peanuts and chips to accompany their drinks. For a slight surcharge on the aperitivo drink, a complimentary buffet of appetizers is commonly offered.
The best aperitivo venues overflow with customers attracted by their luscious buffets and compete in providing the best ambiance and quality. They are especially popular as social hubs, typically for after-work gatherings, while waiting for dinner time. Even though the buffets can be very tempting, generally people try not to take advantage and limit themselves to one or two small appetizer plates. However, aperitivo spots are also appreciated by students and younger crowds in general, which may help themselves more generously and even decide to have more than one round of drinks and skip dinner altogether.
As for the actual drink, all of the standard “pre-dinner” cocktails are served. These include:
Dry white wine, especially the sparkling Prosecco (see the article on wine);
Martini, which in Italy is just straight vermouth on the rocks (from the historical brand Martini e Rossi), as opposed to North American Martini – a cocktail based on gin or vodka;
Classic long-drinks, such as gin and tonic, rum and coke (also called Cuba Libre), Americano (gin and sweet red vermouth).
But the Italians favorites are bitters-based, they include:
Straight Campari (25% alcohol, created in 1860) or Aperol (11%, created in 1919), both served on ice and possibly topped up with soda water;
Spritz (Aperol or Campari, sparkling wine and soda water), which originated in the North East of Italy.
It has to be noted that none of the alcoholic aperitivo drinks are particularly strong. In North America they would all be considered “girly” drinks, also because of their bright colors. Italians enjoy them as appetizers, leaving red wine and beer to accompany dinner, and stronger liquors for later in the night.
Aperitivo drinks can even be entirely non-alcoholic and are quite popular in the morning before lunch. The most common are ‘San Pellegrino Bitter’ (more recently commercialized as ‘Sanbittèr’) and ‘Crodino’, both of which contain herb extracts that give them a bitter aftertaste. They are sold in small individual glass bottles (100 ml) and served on ice with a slice of lemon or orange, or as part of juice-based cocktails.
Pre-made low-alcohol aperitivo cocktails also exist and can be bought in single-dose glass bottles. The most important are Camparisoda (10%, created in 1932) and Aperol Soda (3%).
As for the accompanying appetizers, other than the typical potato chips and toasted peanuts, it’s common to have olives, savory tarts, bruschette, pasta salads, pizzette. Also quite standard are cold cuts (including prosciutto, mortadella, salame), mozzarella and tomatoes, grilled vegetables, cheese bites (e.g.: Parmigiano slivers, smoked scamorza), or even generous blocks of spreadable cheese (e.g.: gorgonzola or brie), and a selection of breads (small buns and sliced loaves). More rarely deli appetizers are featured, for instance ‘insalata di mare’ (seafood salad, containing boiled octopus, squid, and shrimp in olive oil and lemon), ‘insalata russa’ (Russian salad, containing diced boiled potatoes, peas, carrots, in mayonnaise).
Occasionally, warm appetizers and even actual hot courses are offered in the classic buffet chafing dishes, heated with alcohol burners. Example include first courses that don’t need to be freshly made (e.g.: butter and sage tortellini, gnocchi with cheese sauce, baked pasta), second courses (e.g.: meat stews), and sides (e.g.: roasted potatoes or polenta).
Every appetizer is served in bite-size portions meant to be eaten directly at the buffet or put on a small disposable plate and taken to the table. Plastic forks and knives are usually provided, though some places limit their customers to using toothpicks and serving spoons.
Along with wine and pasta, olive oil is one of the food items Italy is most known for. Olive oil is the only oil extracted from the actual fruit, as opposed to grains or nuts, and is one of the most ancient manufactured foods.
The production of olive oil started over 5000 years ago in the Mediterranean region, where the olive tree is native. Over time, the production technology has evolved, but the highest quality olive oil is still produced according to the same principles through a process called ‘cold press’. The harvested mature olives, along with their pits, are crushed into a paste, which is then pressed (or nowadays centrifuged) to squeeze out the oil. The resulting product is fruity and aromatic, naturally low in free fatty acids (more on this later in this article), and has high nutritional value, thanks to a high content of vitamin E and other antioxidants. Because of the limited yield of this method, cold press olive oil has a relatively high market cost. As a result, extra virgin oil is normally enjoyed raw as a condiment, more than for cooking, also because of its relatively low smoke point (the temperature at which an oil starts smoking and burning, see the table below).
When the oil resulting from the cold press method has high acidity levels or other organoleptic defects, it can be refined using a chemical process. Since the process also eliminates part of the phenols and the vitamins, the resulting product has a more neutral flavor and is considered of lower quality from a nutritional point of view. However, refined oil has a higher smoke point, which, combined with a less intense flavor and lower prices, makes refined olive oil the preferred choice for deep frying and sautéing.
With the residues left after the cold press operation, which are called pomace, more oil is extracted by the use of heat and solvents. This “second-squeezing” yields what is called pomace olive oil, which is generally not suitable for human consumption unless mixed with higher quality oils.
As per official European Union regulations, olive oil can have the following denominations:
Oils extracted using purely mechanical means:
‘Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva’ (Extra Virgin Olive Oil), if the percentage of free fatty acids is lower than 0.8%.
‘Olio Vergine di Oliva’ (Virgin Olive Oil), if the percentage of free fatty acids is lower than 2%.
Oils extracted with mechanical means and then chemically refined:
‘Olio di Oliva’ (Olive Oil), obtained with a combination of refined and virgin olive oils.
Oils extracted from pomace using heat and solvents:
‘Olio di Sansa di Olive’ (Pomace Olive Oil), obtained by mixing refined pomace oil and virgin olive oils.
Despite the substantial use of butter in northern Italian cuisine, olive oil is the Italian condiment of choice and it literally defines the cuisine of central and southern Italy. Along the coasts, olive trees are a constant part of the scenery and the production of olives and of olive oil is a central part of the economy (along with Spain, Italy is one of the largest producers, consumers, and exporters of olive oil).
Unlike in North America, where olive oil is very much an elegant aliment used sparingly (olive oil tasting classes are even held), in Italy olive oil is an everyday choice and a very prominent ingredient. Combined with vinegar, it constitutes the most common Italian dressing. On salads, other vegetable oils are also used (e.g. corn oil, sunflower oil) – especially on the more delicate greens – but olive oil is overall the most popular. A drizzle of olive oil is often added on pizza (right before serving, also in its spicy version flavored with chilies) and on some soups (as a finishing touch and not stirred in). Raw olive oil is also one of the main components in many Mediterranean appetizers, including ‘Caprese salad’, ‘bruschetta’ and ‘panzanella’, and used in ‘sottoli’, oil-preserved vegetables and fish in jars.
Olive oil is also used in the preparation of countless Italian dishes. For instance, it is central in the very commonly used ‘soffritto’ (sautéed onion, celery, and carrot), which a lot of dishes are based upon (e.g.: Bolognese sauce, most stews, and several soups). In baking, olive oil is used in specialty bread and focacce. With some exceptions, olive oil is generally not used to make cakes or desserts or used to fry anything sweet (where animal fat or other vegetable oils are preferred for their flavor).
Contrary to popular belief, olive oil is also widely used for deep-frying, especially the less pricey “refined” olive oil (which also features a lower smoke point). Certain preparations specifically rely on the contribution to the flavor that olive oil frying brings (for instance ‘Melanzane alla Parmigiana’ -eggplant parmigiana-). Other vegetable oils are also used for frying (e.g.: peanut oil, sunflower oil, corn oil). But certainly not Canola!
Canola oil is extracted from the seeds of a particular breed of rapeseed (‘colza’ in Italian, scientific name: Brassica napus) which was artificially created in Canada in the ’70s. Natural rapeseed oil is considered inedible for humans because of its flavor and its content of erucic acid (which is mildly toxic). With Canola oil, instead, a much lower content of erucic acid was obtained, as well as better nutritional values and a more neutral flavor. The name ‘Canola’ (which stands for “Canadian oil, low acid”) was chosen to commercially identify the new product and dissociate it from rapeseed oil. In the ’90s, genetically engineered Canola capable to withstand certain types of herbicides was introduced. Not without controversies, this variety of Canola became the standard in North America.
Canola oil is exclusively produced in the United States and Canada, with only small amounts exported (mostly to Mexico and China). Canola oil is virtually absent from Europe where it only exists in its original form (rapeseed) and is used as animal feed and as a source for biodiesel. Despite the North American food organizations describing its properties as remarkable, Europeans are as suspicious of Canola as they are of any genetically modified products (as reflected in the article on the Italian Wikipedia).
Italians in North America strongly dislike Canola oil and find it particularly off-putting as frying oil because of its distinct flavor and smell. Given that refined olive oil is hard to find in North America, foodies have to resort to different oils for deep-frying, or accept that they have to use the more pricey extra virgin oil, and monitor its temperature to avoid reaching its (lower) smoke point.
Aside from their different properties, are some oils healthier than others? All vegetable oils are 100% fat and provide 120 calories per tablespoon, but cooking oils can be quite different from one another. To appreciate these differences, we need to put on our lab coats. In nature, fats and oils are mostly made of one particular kind of lipids: triglycerides, a stable combination of 3 fatty acids and 1 molecule of glycerol. Small amounts of free, unbound, fatty acids are also naturally present (their percentage increases as the oil deteriorates). Since free fatty acids are unstable polarized molecules, they oxidize and cause the oil to go rancid.
Lipids, in general, can be subdivided into two main categories based on their hydrogen content:
Saturated fats accommodate the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms. Saturation causes the fatty acids to be perfectly straight and this allows them to fit tightly one alongside the other. Because of this, saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and are chemically quite stable – they naturally resist oxidation and have a relatively long shelf life. However, studies show that saturated fats are linked to high cholesterol and may cause heart diseases. Most saturated fats are of animal origin (e.g.: butter, cream, lard), but highly saturated molecules are also contained in tropical oils (e.g.: coconut oil).
Unsaturated fats contain a certain number of double bonds between carbon atoms, and consequently fewer hydrogen atoms. In unsaturated fats, the lack of symmetry causes the fatty acids to bend into more irregularly shaped molecules. As a result, unsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature and they are more subject to oxidation (to be preserved, they need to be kept away from light and heat). There is some evidence that unsaturated fats help lower blood cholesterol levels. Particularly, monounsaturated fatty acids (those where there is only one double-bond) seem to selectively lower only low-density lipoproteins levels while keeping high-density lipoproteins levels intact (the so-called “good cholesterol”). Monounsaturated fats are also preferred for frying as polyunsaturated oils tend to break down more easily at high temperatures. Canola, olive, and peanut oil are all classified as monounsaturated fats. Corn, soybean, sunflower oils are instead mostly polyunsaturated.
Finally, here is a diagram that shows the proportions of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in the most common cooking oils (data from “Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. 2nd edition (2004) – page 800″).
Even though Canola oil has the lowest percentage of saturated fats, some regard olive oil as the healthiest cooking oil because of its higher percentage of monounsaturated fats. However, the percentage of saturated fats is comparably low in both oils, leaving the ultimate choice to flavor and personal preference.
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