Jamie Oliver: Cracking A Regionalized Culinary Italian Mindset

Until last week, I’d never heard of Jamie Oliver. Stumbling

and flipping through channels during the intermission of a

hockey playoff game, I landed on the foodnetwork where

British Chef Jamie Oliver (a British chef? Who knew?) was

in Italy in search of true and pure rustic regional Italian

cooking; Italy is regional on many social levels. The episode

intrigued me since I not only cook but also consider myself

a purist in the Italian kitchen. Brave kid. I had to watch.

It’s difficult for North Americans to get into an Italian mindset

when it comes to demanding refinement. We’re not a

society devoted to food. It’s more a chore in our day. We

often, in some cases, eat like depraved gluttons.

It’s in Italy where I came to observe a dietary habit that was

subtle in its near perfection. Everything from the times they

eat to how they serve and compliment their food, Italians

know what they’re doing. So subtle even world famous chefs

who regard Italian cuisine as simplistic overlook it. Until they

pay closer attention.

I have often lamented about how I wish people would spend

a week in an Italian village. There they would learn to

appreciate that food is a serious part of the human

experience. They would also come to see why the

sophisticated culinary diet of Italy is first rate. It’s not all

about spaghetti and meatballs. In some parts of Italy rice is

consumed more. Betcha you didn’t know that, eh?

Jamie Oliver learnt what I learned the first time I went to Italy.

There are laws of food to observe. Just like there are natural

and economic laws, there are culinary laws. Not in the

haughty French manner (a society first introduced to high

cuisine by Catherine De Medici who was known as

L’Italienne in France) but in an understated Italian way.

When it comes to food, tasteful conservatism and

minimalism prevails.

In any event, you can’t just mix and match ingredients.

Fusion cuisine is all the rage and trend among chefs and

diners these days; but don’t tell that to the Italians. In fact, it’s

what frustrated Oliver during the show. He explained that

while he wished he had been born Italian, he could not

understand their utter stubbornness and lack of

open-mindedness when it comes to different interpretations

of cooking. He submitted that the British were more open to

other cuisine’s whereas the Italians were less predisposed

to try, say, Thai food.

He’s right. On the other hand, it’s easy for nations without a

national diet or cuisine to be open. Then again, while the

McDonald’s experience has been lukewarm in Italy at best, it

seems to be doing fine in France – a people with a long

established culinary heritage. Extending into other cultures,

it would be interesting to see the results in places like

Lebanon, Japan and China. I deliberately leave out the

regional Mediterranean diet at large in the interest of time.

Suffice to acknowledge the region has often been regarded

to have a healthy lifestyle and diet plays the largest role.

I digress. For years, I wondered about Oliver’s astute

comment. Simplistically, therein lies why Italy is, well, Italy. If

they weren’t so single-minded and devoted to their art, they

would cease to be Italian. It’s a trade off of sorts. Italy is one

of the last of the Mohicans among nations (especially

among the G7) in that artisanship and craftsmanship of the

highest quality -whether in shoes, machinery or furniture

making and of course food – prevails. In economics they call

it opportunity costs. Sure, Italy could attempt to

mass-produce in their typical chaotic fashion to make more

money but that would not be fair to the rest of us. Italy

remains a land ruled by dynasties who focus on one or two

products and master its contents; just like how Charlie

Parker mastered the saxophone without ever reading a

single note; it’s in the Italian blood to make beautiful things.

Though not the first, I’m glad Jamie Oliver educated and

brought Italian cooking to its roots. Italian know-how takes a

backseat to no one. He evidently underestimated the will of

how Italians do things. He did a great job – and service –

from where I stand. I’m sure Italians would approve. – The Commentator

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