Among the rich experiences and emerging insights that living full time in Italy for a year and a half has afforded is a deeper appreciation for Italian Cuisine. It goes without saying that what appears superficially as a cooking style thought to be inspired by economically disadvantaged, subsistence farming is anything but ‘impoverished.’
The contemporary American inclination to simplify complex matters does a disservice to the term ‘Italian Cuisine.’ An Italian would ask, “What part of Italy are you talking about?” Italy is a very rich mosaic of very localized sub-cultures, each with their own unique identity. Local cultural identity is expressed not only in language dialect but also in what comes to the table. Many Italians find amusing what passes for ‘Italian Cuisine’ in the U.S.
Here in Italy, each unique, community is tied very closely to their surroundings. The products of local agriculture and what is locally available in the way of seafood and game are the basis of the local cuisine. Discerning Italian kitchens express preference for particular agricultural products based on the characteristics of the ground and even the farm that produced them. At its very best the Italian table presents very carefully selected fresh, seasonal, locally produced ingredients prepared with very close attention to detail.
With that very special skill that is learned at the elbow of a practitioner of the true art of Italian regional cooking, a meal preparation is less an exercise of repeating a mechanized and closely quantified formula but more like an exercise in increasingly delicate flights of improvisation. If you ask a very successful Italian cook how to prepare a favorite dish, the reply you get might sound more like obfuscation – “just some of this then some of that.” When you persist and ask, “But how much of that?” The standard reply will most likely be, “Quanta Basta” – “Just Enough!”
That response is deeply authentic. In the preparation of the meal, there is a total engagement with a goal in mind and a derived skill in understanding how to successfully move in that direction. At that level of involvement, there is an appreciation there will be subtle differences in the fresh local ingredients from one preparation to the next, that need to be carefully factored in determining proportions. This direct, improvisational engagement in the task at hand brings a broader understanding of the multifaceted word – taste.
Here in Ascoli Piceno, the Christmas season has gotten off to its official start with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary on December the 8th. Although a very few subtle indications of jumping the decoration starting gun in store windows may have shown up in mid to late November, there is nothing in evidence that reflects the trend in the U.S. of Christmas overrunning Halloween.
The two principal Piazzas, Popolo and Aringo, have been strung with festive lights (as above). The Christmas Market ‘chalets’ have been erected in Piazza Aringo along with the community Christmas Tree in addition to the holiday ice-skating rink. Loudspeakers play Christmas music.
The routes of the community gathering points in the central areas have also been decorated with lighted garland arcs. But here again, Quanta Basta is in evidence. The mood is festive and pleasant but the ‘Las Vegas,’ extremis approach to festive illumination is, very fortunately, absent.
We are also in a festive mode here in our Ascoli Piceno apartment. Our artificial tree, thank you IKEA, has been decorated and sits on a table in the large bay window at the south end of our living room. It not only brightens our apartment, it can be appreciated from the street below. Arlene has been busy in the kitchen and home baked treats are being distributed to some of our friends and our favorite people who kindly have provided us with services. And to further our true ‘Italian status,’ Arlene produced two batches of very creditable, homemade Lemoncello using the lemons from our own lemon tree on the terrace. To one batch she added a delightful taste-touch of Basil.
We will share a traditional Christmas Eve seafood centered dinner at the home of Grace, our Australian-Italian friend. And then on Christmas Day we will join our wonderful friend, Serafino, and his family at their home. The traditional tortellini in brodo will be in evidence. Then the next day, we will have a few friends over for a traditional San Stefano (December 26th) meal of timballo, the Ascolani version of lasagne. On New Years Eve, we will again host a party at our home as we did last year. The traditional dish of lentils will be on the table.
The commercial aspects of Christmas are in evidence but here again it seems to not have the same intensity and intrusive presence that prevailed in America. Some of our Italian friends are vocal in their hope to avoid what they consider to be a crass commercialism of Christmas in the land we are from. Christmas consumerism is encouraged in the advertisements on Italian television but with nowhere near the intensity or inducements to extravagance we have been used to. The Quanta Basta principle appears to extend to more than just the Italian kitchen.
As it seems to be the case in the Italian life that surrounds us, these are a gregarious people drawn to come together to celebrate. Above all, celebrations reflect and extol life centered on family and friends. Rather than playing seasonal lip service to the concept of caring, many Italians we see make it a practice year-round. Yes, the gift giving incentives are here too but at this stage of our acclimating to this place, it doesn’t seem to dominate the scene to the extent that it did in our past American experiences of Christmas.
The past year and a half has been a learning experience in many ways for us. We have discovered what we suspected at least some of the time – we spent much of our lives under too much influence of commercial consumerism. Consumerism is obviously here in Italy too but at this stage, I seem to sense it is perhaps a more Quanta Basta consumerism. It is a fine art of living in knowing when something is done Just Enough to achieve a positive result without going to excess and, in effect, ruining what you set out to achieve.
But there are some areas of life that work better without restraint and being held in moderation. Going beyond the material side of life into the realm of how we feel and act toward each other is another dimension. From what we are seeing and experiencing, when it comes to warm, interpersonal relationships, one should never get to the point of enough. Caring between people is self-reinforcing; it seems the more you experience of the giving and receiving of it, the greater the incentive to continue the practice. This is one area of life where we should use all the extravagance we can bestow on each other.
We sincerely hope the coming year provides you with an extravagance of sharing love and affection.
So may Arlene and I simply say –
A very Merry and Meaningful Holiday Season to all of you and those you hold dear,
from a wonderful little city in Italy.