Friday, 26 October 2012

Matthew Fort explores the flavours of Italy on a Vespa

An encouragement to book your own 2013 cooking adventure in Italy

Food writers contribute so much to our understanding about what passes our lips. Sometimes we underestimate their power to persuade, inform or entertain.

Occasionally they simply enthuse about some delicacy or regional gastronomy in a highly infectious manner and suddenly the supermarket shelves are cleared of a specific ingredient (I remember Delia and Cranberries one Christmas!)

Italy has had its fair share of distinguished writers who have waxed lyrical about its varied and inspirational food culture and anyone who has experienced making lunch in the Flavours holidays kitchen will know how seductive Italian food and the backdrop against which it is lovingly prepared can be.

Matthew Fort is one such person who has done much to educate us about everything from Lancashire delicacies, in his book ‘Rhubarb and Black Pudding’ back in 1998 to Italian regional cooking in’ Eating Up Italy: Voyages On A Vespa’ which appeared back in 2004.

He is a distinguished food writer and critic and up until January 2012 was Food and Drink Editor at The Guardian, having begun as a food writer for the newspaper in 1989. Matthew commands serious attention whenever he writes and has won the now defunct Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year Award in 1992 and Restaurant Writer the following year. So when he decides to turn his attention to Italy one immediately suspects his book will give you far more than recipes alone.

‘Eating Up Italy: Voyages On A Vespa’ has been in print since 2004. As an aside, a sequel to this popular book appeared in 2008, entitled: ‘Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons’ which flavours will review separately.

Anyone who has developed or is developing a passion for Italian food would do well to beg, borrow or steal a copy of ‘Vespa’. Nigel Slater would agree too as he waxed lyrical in his review: ‘Lemon blossom and freshly baked bread waft up from every page. The most intensely greedy, fragrant and sensuously written travelogue I have ever read. A glorious, glorious feast.’ So, now you know.

Fort starts his journey in the south at Melito di Poro Salvo and gradually makes his way through this extraordinary country. Matthew offers significant insights as he passes through one region and then another. It is stunning to see how the differences in regional proclivities are kept alive and celebrated without losing their no nonsense, pragmatism; you want to live well? Then eat well, it’s that simple.

For Italy to be in the hands of someone who imbues all aspects of gastronomy, from its impact on culture, humour, outlook, politics and self-belief, we know it is in tender and knowledgeable hands. Fort ensures that nothing is missed; he ferrets out experts and characters on his tremendous journey that ends up in Turin.

The reader begins to understand the Italian creative spirit which has always dealt capably with ingredients that arrive in a glut while eking out rations in a time of hardship; whether that was as a consequence of politics and war, or simply a bad season’s harvest.

How a country’s soil dictates so much about its philosophy and what is produced doesn’t pass Matthew by. He celebrates the thrift evident in the mountains where scarcity is compensated by fiery blots of taste in the form of chillies and juxtaposes luxuriance, just a few kilometres away, where inhabitants are enjoying lush cheeses and fragrant fleshy herbs.

Readers learn to anticipate some of his culinary adventures, whereas others are a surprise. You may be familiar with pizza but do you really know its deep connection between cuisine and history? Thought you didn’t, neither did I!

As his trusty Vespa (groaning under the increasing weight of the author) rolls into Emilia- Romagna most of the clich├ęs of Italian cooking can be found but that is not a reason to ignore this book. Matthew searches out producers and ingredients and makes you feel as if he really has offered up new observations about familiar names. This is a revelation and Fort revels in describing and accurately transcribing recipes, specifics of gastronomic occasions, the people who enjoy eating, shopping and cooking and the producers who take their work so seriously. Those who ventured on one of Flavours cooking courses in Puglia, Tuscany, Umbria or Sicily will know just how important the trips to visit local producers were in assisting with a truer understanding of just what goes into Italian food.

If you have missed out so far, then this book is essential homework for a future trip. It’s a wonderful winter companion as the nights draw in and we wrap ourselves in our favourite armchair and plan next year’s culinary adventures. Be warned though, as these will be punctuated by quick trips to the kitchen to rustle up Ravioli, Zamponi and all points between. Packed with facts and observations you will be hard pressed to find a more beguiling travelogue documenting Italian food.

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