I’ve been pondering culinary heritage for the past week or so, ever since Rachel Laudan posed this question on her blog: "What is culinary heritage and is it always linked to tourism?" I'm paraphrasing the question, but this is what I’ve been thinking about as I shell another batch of peas.
After turning this over and over, and using Italian cuisine as fuel for thought, it came to me that if the indigenous people eat a certain food all the time, like prosciutto and melon, then it's heritage. If a particular dish appears only on restaurant menus or is served up just for a photo shoot, then it's tourism. This could be a simple answer to a complex question.
Now that I'd resolved Rachel's query, and had some artichokes to clean, I was free to wallow in a query of my own. Is the Italian culinary heritage a prison or a platform? Please feel free to insert any nationality into that question.
When we were busy opening the new Erba Luna ristorante here in town, all of our Italian friends assumed I would be cooking hamburgers. The ubiquitous hamburger defines the rich US culinary heritage with all of its glorious regional quirks. That's a culinary prison.
La Locanda al Gambero Rosso is the finest example I know of using culinary heritage as a platform. They are deeply, totally bound to all things Romagna. There is a passionate confidence that comes with knowing they are absolutely eating delicious food. The beef comes from the locally raised Romagna cow, the wild herbs are foraged from the hills in the early morning, the cheese is so local you'll never find it in your Whole Foods, and I won't even be able to find it in Umbria.
The Italian word for history is 'storia', and at a recent lunch at Gambero Rosso, each dish was presented with its storia. Moreno, the 'babbo' or papa of the restaurant served us a deep green wild herb soup, studded with tiny cheese pearls. It was an herbal cornucopia, but so balanced, so nuanced...a hint of bitter, a subtle mingling of herbaceous flavors, finishing with a mild, refreshing, persistent note of mint. Yeah, it was that good. As we are swooning over our bowls of soup, Moreno comes by with a flat of the fresh wild herbs to explain to us what they look like, since he’s the one who was up this morning doing the gathering. He let us know that he hated this soup when he was little. It was a chore to go out and forage for the greens and it made him dislike the soup. It was poor people's soup. Now he loves the morning forages and the soup and laughs at his own childish dislike. That is culinary heritage preserved and honored.
As a final course, we had a meat dish that involved the entire barnyard; it had eight different types of meat, cooked in a delicious broth and served with pieces of hard toast for sopping up the juices. Moreno explained this was something that was usually only served at an important festa dinner, and then he confided that they made it a little different than the traditional recipe and that he liked his version of the dish better than the old fashioned way. That is using culinary heritage as a platform.
Tell me, what do you think about your culinary heritage? Is it a prison or a platform? Is it evolving or devolving?