Those who follow me on Twitter will have been unable to miss that I recently went to Bologna, and that I had a really good time!
Although the city is remarkable – the entire mediaeval city is intact, and you can walk around all day without seeing a modern building – for me it is always about the food, and the food in Bologna is truly special. I didn’t eat a bite of food that was disappointing, or even ordinary, from the time I got off the plane to the time I got back on it (whereupon, naturally, it became deeply disappointing), and I can’t remember the last time I said that about time away from home. I wasn’t eating anywhere fancy or expensive either, or following any restaurant guide. I was just stopping at streetside cafes, trattorias and bars. I think you could go into any establishment that isn’t actually a kebab shop (although, who knows, I didn’t test the one kebab shop I saw!) and get good food, freshly made and served with pride.
There were a few things that struck me about Bolognese food culture. Apart from a few teenagers eating crisps, I saw no one grazing on ready-made food in the streets. In fact I saw no processed food whatsoever. Even in the One Stop minisupermarket, there was a big section for fresh meat, cured meat and cheese, another for loads of fresh fruit and veg, and a small stand for bottled sauces, etc., with none of the processed junk that dominates UK supermarket and convenience store shelves whatsoever. Even on 2 days’ acquaintance with the city, it was really easy to buy fresh fish, meat and cheese, and there were glorious fruit and veg stalls everywhere I went.
Another thing that struck me was that, even though Italians eat pastries and cake for breakfast, I saw very few overweight people. The people with weight problems tended to reveal themselves as American when they spoke, probably the same ones who were picking at muesli and low-fat yoghurt over breakfast in the hotel and making lunch rendez-vous at MacDonald’s. (The MacDonald’s strikes a very incongruous note in the city centre, and seems mostly patronised by foreign tourists. There is also no Costa or Starbucks, and no litter, which may not be a coincidence.)
We are always being told how healthy the Mediterranean diet is, but the Mediterranean diet we are presented with bears little resemblance to the one you see in reality in the region. It’s all bottled pasta sauces, cous cous ready meals, no red meat or cured meat, olive oil not butter, and guilt over dairy fat (I ate loads of butter, cream and cheese in Bologna). Guilt is the dominant feature of our food culture, in fact.
What I saw was cured meat and cheese with every main meal, and fresh food cooked from scratch in every eating establishment. Even the bar snacks were usually a board of cured meat, cheese and preserved vegetables, with proper bread. There was no smog of overheated vegetable oil from deep fryers around the restaurants either, which so typifies UK eating establishments, and no chips anywhere. And there were those fabulous fruit and veg stalls – the population must be eating vast amounts of fresh produce judging from its availability.
More than anything else, food and its traditions are taken seriously, as is enjoying food. If Italians are going to have a coffee, they sit down at a cafe and enjoy it, they don’t grab it from Starbucks and slurp it scalding from a paper cup in the street. If lunch is only a sandwich, it will be freshly made with proper bread and plentiful filling, and eaten sitting down, not made in a factory, packed in plastic and bolted down between meetings or behind the wheel.
This I think is the key, and missing, part of the ‘Mediterranean diet’ – taking good, local, fresh ingredients, granting food importance, and taking time over its cooking and eating. Ditch the obsession with whether this or that food is healthy or virtuous, ditch the guilt, focus on the provenance, the taste, the quality, the ‘story’ of food.
It is really difficult to do in this country. If I had veg stalls like the Bolognese ones available, I wouldn’t bother to grow my own, but in this country, with a few exceptions, growing your own is the only way to get good produce. Good meat is easier to buy, but good fish is elusive, and finding cured meat and cheese by a named producer with a transparent process of manufacture without a sky high price tag is extremely difficult. Good food shouldn’t be only for the wealthy.
It’s vital though, to our health and quality of life, to change our food culture. Growing our own veg, cooking from scratch and seeking out and supporting producers, sellers and cookers of proper food (and shunning the junk) is what will encourage the birth of an Italian-type food culture in this country. After all, as much as we’d like to, we can’t all move to Bologna!.