Italian food is the best in the world. This is quite possibly true. More than that however, it is a deeply held, almost religious, belief here. Most Tuscans know that Tuscan food is actually the best, just as every other Italian region is convinced that their cuisine takes the prize. I once felt like punching an Italian man at Gatwick airport when I was returning to Pisa. On hearing that I spoke Italian well he launched into a diatribe about how lucky I was to be going back to good food and wondered how I had managed to live before!
Well, I love Italian food too. However, after a long time without other types of cooking I begin to get fidgety and crave Indian, Mexican or Chinese delicacies. In England I used to take it for granted that I could eat whatever ethnic food I fancied but here it is not easy to find shops that stock even simple staples such as soy sauce or curry paste. I think that maybe Italian food is so good that they have never been tempted to sample foreign food, unlike us Brits who got a bit tired of cottage pie or sausage and mash when we had the Empire and swiftly absorbed some of the delicious food on offer around the world into our own diet.
There are a few ethnic restaurants and shops in the bigger towns such as Arezzo and Montevarchi but when I first moved to Italy, twenty five years ago, if I wanted to eat anything that was not Italian, I had to make it myself. Luckily for me, my husband, Guido, worked for Alitalia at the time and so whenever he had a flight to Peking or Delhi I would send him off with a shopping list of spices. My English and American friends love ethnic cooking but it is rare to find Italians who welcome the idea of a dinner invitation if I mention doing something out of the ordinary.
I was rather brave recently and cooked Indian food for a group of friends from the tiny village where I live; a light Singapore curry, lentils and potato dosa. Everyone was very curious. They politely sampled everything, declared it “not bad” and “different” but declined second helpings. Knowing how much they usually eat when they come to dinner, my husband offered to make a quick plate of spaghetti in case they were starving! Fortunately I had make a classic cheesecake for dessert which went down well. However, that evening, everyone’s favourite dessert was the huge platter of cenci which one of the guests had brought.
Cenci, deep-fried sweet pastry pieces sprinkled with icing sugar, are a carnival delicacy. These ones were doubly rich, being filled with Chantilly cream and they disappeared very quickly. Another carnival delicacy which you must be sure to try, if you are here during that period, are the Frittelle di San Giuseppe which are deep-fried, sweet rice balls. Carnivale here in the Valdarno is not as important as in Venice but every town and village puts on some kind of entertainment during that period for the children and every weekend you can see mini witches, fairies, knights and pirates running wild around the streets. There is a very beautiful carnival at Castiglion Fibocchi, where people dressed in exquisite costumes and masks pose along the narrow side streets of the old town.
Going back to the rude man at the airport who was so disparaging about British food, I was tempted to remind him of some of the less tempting Italian delicacies such as Zampone, pigs trotters or Lampredotto, made from the fourth and final stomach of a cow. Unfortunately I have learnt to enjoy even these rather unglamorous sounding dishes. One of my husband’s favourite spots for lunch is a caravan near the Valdarno exit to the A1 motorway. Here, at Trippa di Lillo, beneath the ghastly sign of a lardy, naked man, you will find the best street-food in the Valdarno. Gather all your courage and ask for a pannino with lampredotto or a vascetta (plastic dish) di trippa alla fiorentina. At first I would watch Guido aghast as he munched happily on cows stomach, then ask for a cheese sandwich instead. Now I join him enthusiastically, dipping my bread into the delicious Florentine tripe stew, just like a local!