Having lived in the US for almost 20 years I know all about the taste of synthetic, engineered, hormone-injected, antibiotic-infused and preservative-laden food. Hence when I taste good food, I can most certainly tell.
Anytime I travel out of the US, the flavour of world cuisines and its authentic taste is a blessing I choose to enjoy, and Italian food is one such blessing. There is nothing that describes Italy like Il bel far niente — meaning the beauty of doing nothing, the art of doing nothing or the sweetness of doing nothing.
Yes, that’s what the Italians know how to accomplish to perfection, and somehow take their tourists on the same ride.
Sitting under the Tuscan sun as I ate my pesto pasta, overlooking the green hills and the quintessentially Tuscan cypress trees, I understood the age-old Italian saying: this has to be the beauty of doing nothing, breathing in the blue sky and living the laid-back country lifestyle.
This is how food is meant to be savoured. The bruschetta (pronounced brusketta) bread, soaked in olive oil and topped with tomatoes, is one of the best ways to enjoy summer. Capture the taste of this Italian classic, a perfect topping of tomato, olive oil, basil, salt and garlic on rustic bread; almost the taste of an Italian summer on toast.
A day trip to the Cinque Terre in the Liguria region led me on a delightful journey of taste and sight. Cinque Terra is a string of five fishing villages sitting atop the Italian Riviera. Beautiful beyond belief, authentic beyond imagination and oh so unique, the first village welcomed me with the smell of fresh focaccia bread.
1 ½ cups flour
1 cup Greek yoghurt (home-made yoghurt made in the subcontinent is a great substitute for Greek yoghurt)
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
Salt to taste
Mix all four ingredients, knead for six to eight minutes, oil the surface and form into round disc with a rolling pin. For personal sized focaccia bread or pizza spread into two nine-inch discs, spread with toppings and bake in a pre-heated 450-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes.
For a large pizza or bread, spread into one large disc, pour toppings and bake at the same temperature and length of time. This dough makes for exceptionally authentic pizza dough, use as base for all your favourite pizza toppings. It is absolutely delicious.
Chop fresh garlic, fry in olive oil, salt, a hint of crushed red chilli, spread on bread, top with chopped cilantro and a hint of cheese and bake.
Slice two pounds tomatoes, sprinkle with salt and place evenly on a baking pan in a pre-heated oven at 300 degrees, till they are almost dry and appear dark red and leathery. Spread olive oil on the bread, sprinkle sun-dried tomatoes lavishly with cheese and place in the oven. Pre-made sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil and pesto in olive oil make for a great topping too.
Get innovative with toppings. That’s the fun part about making focaccia bread. Fresh out of the oven, this is bound to become one of your household favourites. The Italian baker offered me spinach and olive focaccia bread, fresh out of the oven and melt-in-the-mouth good.
I picked up three bottles of Italian olive oil from outside the focaccia bakery and exchanged phone numbers with the baker — a good baker is hard to find, and that too one who is authentic Italian. It was at this point in my Italian adventure that I decided to embark on the ‘Tuscan cooking tour’ at the recommendation of my Australian companions. Yes, a must do in the years to come.
The next afternoon found me in the mediaeval town of San Gimignano, home to the best gelato in the world. Master Dondoli is said to be the best ice cream maker in the world, and the Gelateria Dondoli is world-famous and extremely busy. With a chocolate gelato in hand, I soaked in the feel of the authentically mediaeval town. All we needed was a change in costume to blend in with the terracotta walls of the ancient city. It stood in time, somewhere in the Middle Ages far beyond the realm of reality.
I left the city of Seina smiling. It had to be the taste of roma tomatoes on margarita pizza. Needless to say, there is no better pizza in the world than the one in Italy. Whatever it is we call pizza beyond the borders of Italy is a step-cousin to the real thing. The flavour, the simplicity, the thin crust, the organic ingredients cultivated in the Italian soil gives a taste to the Italian pizza that is like a story, or an expression of the race itself.
My Italian holiday definitely climaxed in the water city — nothing pars the magic of Venezia. What does one say about Venice: the city speaks for itself, it sings, it dances, it’s magic — it is the most romantic city in the world.
As night approached, St Mark’s Square played host to the full moon in the sky, the canals and the gondolas lit in golden hues as the soft, cool breeze carried the sound of water swaying to the music of the famous Italian song Con te partiro, meaning ‘With you I will leave’, and now famously called Time to Say Goodbye.
The song is pure romance, the music a soul-stirring emotion; it could mean anything one wants it to mean, leaving with a loved one — a loved one walking away; parting and its haunting sorrow with a promise of return, togetherness and its sweet joy. The scene was truly a perfect setting for Tiramisu while sipping a delightful cup of tea.
The Panini in Murano, the glass capital of the world, and the Quaranta nut nougat in Burano left me saying bellissimo (meaning lovely in Italian). What was more deliciously lovely? Was it the food, the boat ride, the two beautiful islands, the Burano lace, a Murano glass necklace or the attitude of the islanders, Il bel far niente, or a combination of all?
Armed with the romance and food of these beautiful cities, I headed to the larger cities of Florence and Rome, but that is a story to be told another day.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2019