Every Italian, it seems, has an anecdote about the uncivilised culinary habits of foreigners, usually at the expense of the English or the Germans. Foreigners, so the tale goes, will put pasta in a pot of cold water and then bring the water to the boil (while, of course, every Italian knows that you must wait until the water has boiled before adding the pasta). I've heard variations of this anecdote on at least half a dozen occasions. Italians seem to take comfort from the belief that northern Europeans are uncouth when it comes to culinary habits and behaviour.
Like most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth in this one and the British, it must be said, have certain culinary habits which, when viewed through the prism of Italian logic, are somewhat baffling. Brits, you realise, when you return home, snack constantly. Meal times are fluid. Basically you can eat what you want, when you want, where you want. One of my regular dinners back home was a jacket potato with pizza and pasta. Yes, that's pizza AND pasta AND potato! On the same plate! More often than not, washed down with a large mug of milky tea. Now I cringe when a guest orders a latte with their lasagne or has a side salad with their pizza. I have become, I'm sorry to say, an Italian food snob.
Italians will often tell you that Italian food is the best in the world. When I politely suggest that it might lack a bit of variety, they are incredulous, pointing out that every region has its own local cuisine. Yes, I counter, but it's still just pasta. And here's the thing. For Italians, pasta from Veneto, lets say Bigoli con l'anatra, is not the same as pasta from Emilio Romana (like Strozzapreti al ragù). While I would categorise them both as pasta dishes, for Italians they are as different as chalk and cheese. They could eat pasta 5 days a week, but if it's a different shape, it's not the same thing!
So, is the Italian sense of superiority when it comes to food well-founded? Yes, it is good. Very good. Invariably fresh, wholesome and satisfying. But, how can I say this without causing great offence? Italian food can sometimes be quite bland.
There, I've said it.
Now I'll be shunned wherever I go. I'll spend eternity in the raging fires of Dante's Inferno.
But it's true. Italian food often lacks that spark of flavour provided by external influences. I once asked a class of 20 Italian adults how many of them had tasted a curry. Only one had! And he didn't particularly like it! For me growing up, the local curry house was a regular family treat. We were exposed not only to the rich flavours and language of the Gulistan, our local curry house, but also, and I think this is crucial, to the warmth and charm of Asian hospitality. To a palate accustomed from an early age to korma, biryani and jalfrezi, the very localness of Italian food can sometimes make it appear flavourless. In the UK, ethnic influences have trickled down into every aspect of our native cuisine. In the UK, pub and cafés menus all have a richness and diversity that simply doesn't exist in Italy.
In Italy, bars and cafes often lack the imagination to provide anything but the most simple panini. It is difficult to imagine a bar in Manchester or London serving up a slightly stale looking bread with perhaps just a couple of slices of salami or a simple toasty with just cheese and ham on it. No salsa, no dressing, no grains, no spice. No flavour. Nothing. But that's how Italian's like it. Plain and simple. Try offering a coronation chicken sandwich to an Italian, see what kind of response you get!
When I first moved to Verona, I once made the mistake of ordering a mixed grill. Apart from the sheer volume of meat, it's absolute plainness left me cold. And don't get me started on bolito. If ever there is a bland way to cook meat, it is to boil it in water for hours on end. Yet somehow this is considered to be delicacy here in Verona. Give me a vindaloo any day!
Observations on the Italian weather (spring 2018)
After a winter that seemed longer, darker and colder than usual, summer arrived uncommonly early in Verona this year.
The first signs of spring, the burgeoning green trees on the wide city avenues, the cherry blossom, the early evening chorus of thrush and blackbird, the annual battle with invading ants, the reappearance in the parks and gardens of the city's children who, after their annual winter hibernation, are once again allowed outdoors to play. The Mayor of the City has even issued his annual directive requiring the residents of the city to switch off their central heating systems.
All of these indications of the changing season are routine enough. What caught most off-guard though, was the remarkable change in temperature that occurred almost overnight. On Easter Sunday, we were skiing in the mountains to the north of Verona. The following day we are sunning ourselves on the banks of Lake Garda. We seem to have switched from winter to summer without the intervening spring, causing our concerned neighbours to observe in grave tones that "qualcosa non va" [something isn't right].
Perhaps paradoxically given the high temperatures and absence of rain, the Adige (pronounced "a dee-jay") - the meandering river that winds its way from the Reschen Pass high in the Tyrolian Alps though the city and beyond to the Adriatic Sea on Italy's east coast - is swollen and murky, a thick cappuccino brown. The explanation, I suppose, can be found in the mountains to the north of Verona, where the high temperatures are rapidly melting the snow that feeds the city's ubiquitous river.
This year we seem to have skipped that mild, variable spring period (during which Italians stubbornly cling on to their scarfs, sweaters and jackets, even as the temperature rises well into the 20s) and proceeded directly to that latter phase of early summer, typically around the beginning of June, when the locals transition into their summer wardrobe and it becomes socially acceptable to wear short sleeves, shorts and sandals (for women at least).
Unlike our concerned neighbours, I wasn't complaining about the early onset of summer, especially as it conveniently coincides with that joyful period in which it seems that every week has a public holiday, often elongated into what the Italians call a ponte [bridge]. May Day this year, for example, falls on a Tuesday, and when this happens, the authorities, in their infinite wisdom, see fit to grant a further days holiday, in this case the Monday, creating a "bridge" between the weekend and the public holiday.
Coming from Glasgow, one of the things I appreciate most about life in Verona is the climate and, in particular, the four distinct seasons. A warm, bright spring, where an occasional sudden downpour may catch you by surprise. A long hot summer during which the city becomes virtually uninhabitable and it's residents flee to the mountains, beach or lake. A late autumn in which temperatures gradually fall and the days shorten, but without the constant wind and rain and gloom that is generally associated with the season. And finally, a bitterly cold, but mercifully short winter.
Perhaps because of its distinct climate, Italians tend to live in greater harmony with the seasons. The dominance of supermarkets is less pronounced here and people are, for example, much more likely to eat fresh, seasonal and locally produced fruit and vegetables.
Anecdotally, most Italians recognise that their climate is changing and are concerned about the consequences. In a more mild and variable climate, like central Scotland for example, it's perhaps harder to detect, on a day-to-day basis, that something is happening. But here in Verona, most people seem to instinctively understand that the climate is changing. This is born out by the statistics. A 2008 Gallup Poll found that, despite lower level of awareness of global warming and climate change in the Italy compared to the UK (84% and 97% respectively), the proportion of people who view climate change as a threat is higher in Italy (76%) than it is in the UK (69%).
As I said, one of the things I love most about living in Verona is the weather, and the wealth of opportunity and choice that each season provides. This year, the transition from winter to summer, skipping spring, was a bit of a shock. Hopefully normal service will be resumed in the autumn.
At the end of our road lies a path.
Although at the time I had no idea where it led, it proved to be a clincher when we were house hunting in Verona 7 years ago.
It was a balmy day in late spring. We had spent the weekend viewing apartments across the city ahead of our planned relocation later that year. We were hot, tired, stressed and slightly deflated by what we'd seen so far. Finally, we came to a modern complex in a quiet green cul de sac on the northern periphery of the city. We were shown around a bright and spacious apartment. It ticked a lot of boxes.
My wife and I exchanged approving nods and asked the vendor for a moment or two in private. We stepped outside onto the street to confer. The apartment was at the top end of our budget and there was another place that I had a slight preference for. Then I noticed the cycle path, and that sealed it for me. I had a clear vision of our 3-year-old learning to ride his bike here.
It turned out to be a good decision. Seven years later we're still here. And my second son (now 4) has inherited his big brother's bike.
On Saturday morning, as Number 1 sped off for his swimming lesson and Number 2 was meandering contentedly along himself, I had a rare moment to reflect on the significance of our pista rossa (red path).
The path provides a pedestrianised link between the northwestern tip of the city and the neighbouring villages of Avesa and Quinzano. It's a modest affair, all told, probably less than a kilometre in length. But from here the world (or at least our neighbourhood) is our oyster. The swimming pool, the pizzeria, the butcher, the local football team, are all within few minutes cycle.
Cutting its way alongside a babbling brook, which mysteriously disappears underground as it reaches the road, the path then breaks left, playing fields on one side and a well-maintained vineyard on the other. Another couple of hundred yards and you can choose to continue straight ahead towards the swimming pool, where the path abruptly ends, or take a right turn towards the sleepy village of Avesa.
Whether it's for football, groceries or pizza, Avesa is a regular destination. In the late spring the leisurely stroll with neighbours to the village Sagra is cherished annual ritual.
In the high summer, afternoon trips along the searing path to cool down at the local swimming pool are an essential feature of our daily routine.
Beyond the path itself lie the Veronese foothills - ideal territory for a run, cycle or hike.
And so, on Saturday , as I soaked up the warm morning sunshine and breathed in the clean fresh air, I reflected on how lucky we are to have this modest strip of pathway on our doorstep. A green space where children can learn to walk and run and cycle. And parents can relax, if only for a moment, and be thankful for the choices they've made and the small pleasures that life brings.