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By: perseus144

Italian food history IS the history of Italy.

Like I wrote on the homepage of this site, Italy and Italian people are not always just having food in their minds, despite what one may think.

That is, I, being Italian, can tell that it is not “just” food that we are talking about here: it is rather about a food culture that goes proudly along with an intimate connection italians have with the territory, the peoples and their roots.

For the foreign visitor, a villa among the hills surrounded by the rural idyll of nature and the farmers’ simple and genuine lifestyle is perhaps the exemplification of all that Italian culinary tradition represents.

It is in such places, in facts, that a number of people and friends (both Italian and non) go to discover the roots and history of Italian food and afterwards give accounts of their experiences with typical Italian food.

This is a demonstration that Italian gastronomy has nothing to envy to the one of other Countries.

But, why do Italians eat so well ?

Truth is, Italy has become a model to imitate in the way ingredients are to be prepared, cooked and then consumed in company.

There are even studies that want to prove that the Italian way of cooking and eating brings benefits to people’s health and that it is, therefore, to learn and adopt in some of its gastronomic lessons.

So, back on track: today’s cliché of the villa surrounded by olive trees, with salami and prosciutti everywhere and the farmer diligently looking after these products (I love this image!) have been accurately tailored on the (magnificent) Tuscan countryside.

This image evocates the myth of a lifestyle been built on thousands of small rural traditions and identifies the Italian food history as fundamentally linked to the agricultural and the farmers’ traditions.

This image has deeply contributed to the prominence that Italy has gained in the panorama of the worldwide gastronomy.

But, is this the reality ?

Thinking about all the different typical food products that invade the Italian tables, it’s easy to think that just everything there derives from skillful hands of people that from father to son, from generation to generation, follow the discipline that their great-grand-father used according to the farmers’ and countryside traditions of the territory and of the Italian food history.

Indeed these products are traditional and follow long prescribed preparation methods and processes, but observing more closely we will together discover that Italian food history and, for that matter, of Italy in general, is less of a “simple” farmers’ tradition as we think.


In Italy, that feeling of nostalgia for the rural lifestyle is a rather recent phenomenon: this impulse towards countryside traditions and way of living has only started after people had well behind their shoulders the difficulties of the rural existence.

Italian history and Italian food history has long been marked by the lifestyle of the rural masses: especially in the northern and central regions, the “mezzadrìa” (sharecropping) partially preserved farmers from hunger and the hard and grueling fatigues that represented the standard way of living of the rural masses throughout Italy, up to the 1960′s.

For these very reasons, it is really difficult to see how this farmers’ reality might have contributed to the creation of many of the so called “poor” dishes in the Italian food history, that really nothing poor have in them!

Think about the typical “crostini di fegato toscani” (tuscan crostini with liver) or the “bistecca alla fiorentina” (florentine steak): these dishes are far from being “poor”, and the rural masses could only dream of such delicacies!

Up to the first half of the XX century, and by looking at the first documentations produced in 1861 (just after Italy’s Unification) to give an account of the status of the Italian population, endless accounts can be read of how precarious and poor the dietary conditions of the common people in the countryside were.

The poverty of farmers’ diet is still today echoed in many of the proverbs that have been handed down.

One of my favorites is “La salsa di San Bernardo fa sembrare i cibi buoni” (San Bernard’s sauce makes the food taste nice).

This sauce has been one of the main ingredients of the farmers’ diet throughout the past millennium and its recipe, thankfully, is only traceable in the memory: that sauce means “hunger”.

A history of Italian food that only covered what farmers used to eat in the countryside would risk to sound a bit monotonous and awkward, to the modern passionate: long chapters on vegetarian soups and breads prepared from lower quality ingredients would be present and this is not what I want to give you here.

(end of Part 1)

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