Italian cuisine is widely known and popular around the world. Its characteristics are in simplicity, focusing on two to four main ingredients. Although simple in preparation, the flavours and quality of ingredients play into its popularity. The history of Italian cuisine is as old and interesting as the country itself.
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Origins of Italian cuisine
It’s easy to group all the food in Italy into one category; however, many factors have played a role in the origins of Italian cuisine.
Italy is a relatively young country. The official Kingdom of Italy formed in 1861 by merging existing city-states. The whole process took a number of decades as not everyone was on board with one unified kingdom. It wasn’t until 1871, that the capital moved officially from Florence to Rome, that we got a unified country. The Italy we know today emerged after WWII when it became a republic.
It’s easy to see how each state’s own culinary style has been influenced by various geographical, social and political factors. Over the centuries, as individual states evolved so did their culinary style.
External factors and availability of ingredients often played a role in dish creation. The origins of Italian cuisine have many Arabic influences that have changed since antiquity. Further introduction of ingredients from the New World also added variety to the dishes and styles of cooking.
Historical influences on Italian cuisine
Many elements influenced what we know today as Italian food. Some of that influence came from other cultures and the various discoveries of distant lands.
How the Romans ate
The Romans, known for lavish feasts that included elaborate dishes and copious amounts of wine, did everything in excess. The rich hosted over-the-top banquets experimented with different dishes and flavours that often required elaborate preparation and complex ingredients.
The Roman culinary style was a fusion of different flavours, often brought from conquered lands. Middle Eastern spices, grains from Northern Africa, fish from the Mediterranean and all kinds of meats dominated Roman tables. With the ample availability of wine, olive oil and grain, the three became the staple of the Roman diet. The fertility of the soil also provided a healthy mix of vegetables, cheeses and legumes.
As the Roman Empire neared its end, invading northern Barbarian tribes introduced their own flavours. Butter and beer entered the culinary spectrum, mainly in the north. This led to new flavours and ingredients entering what eventually became known as northern Italian cuisine.
Italian cuisine and the Middle Ages
The rise of Christianity influenced the views on acceptable behaviour and food consumption. As the church imposed strict rules on its subject, meat became associated with sin and immorality. Gone were the lavish banquets of the past and all associated excesses. Abstinence and fasting, especially among the clergy, became the norm.
While the rest of the peninsula bowed under the rule of the Catholic Church, things were different in Sicily. Invaded by the neighbouring Arab conquerors, the people living on the island became exposed to a very different influence.
Exotic spices, dried fruit and dried pasta made their way into the Sicilian diet. While the Arabic rulers brought pasta with them because of its convenience, the Italians made an art of it. Pasta spread throughout the land and into Europe.
A new way forward
Over time, religious austerity gave way to more moderate celebrations that combined both fasting and excess. As the city-states became prosperous and wealthy, food once again became a symbol of wealth. Traditions of the past were rediscovered in culinary preparation and consumption.
While lemons, oranges, sugar cane and almonds became part of southern cooking, there was more experimentation happening in the north. Newly wealthy classes saw food as a status symbol and demanded new creations and refinement.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that tomatoes entered the scene, forever changing what we know as Italian cuisine. Potatoes, cabbage, sugar beets and peppers became the new staples along with meat and fish. Tuscan hills became the source of wine and olive oil, infiltrating the kitchens of the time.
New culinary delights
The history of Italian cuisine became even more regionalized as time went on. Lavish banquets and culinary appreciation became the norm. Even the papal court didn’t shy from extravagant shows of culinary and entertainment displays.
Sugar was a symbol of wealth and Venice led the way. As the major port for commerce, Venice was a wealthy and influential state with sugar control. Access to oriental spices also played a role in localized flavours.
With the introduction of new foods from the colonies, Italian cuisine took some time to embrace them all. Potatoes, corn, beans and even turkeys graced the tables and appetites of Italians of the time.
Modern age of Italian cuisine
The quintessential combination of pasta and tomato sauce didn’t really catch on until about the 17th century. Various trial and error experiments also produced tiramisu and pizza, foods we equate with Italian cuisine today.
During both World Wars scarcity of food forced creative cooking by rationing portions. Cooks of the time were forced to work with what little was available. Once again, the Italian cuisine had to adapt from lavish and elaborate to simple and creative.
Italian cooking continued to alternate between the two ends of the spectrum. While there was a need for change in the past, this new period experimented with the new as much as it brought back the basics. Modern cooking even takes on fusions of other cultural styles, making this an even more fascinating culinary style.
Characteristics of Italian cuisine by region
No trip to Italy is complete without sampling the local culinary delights. Depending on where you are, there are different options to satisfy your cravings.
Influenced by the invaders of the past, the culinary style of northern Italy includes fish and seafood specialties, complemented by buttery risotto, polenta and meat dishes. Here you’ll find sweet and sour tastes and spicy, pickled dishes, a nod to neighbouring cultures.
Friend zucchini flowers and tiramisu also hail from here, as do well-known wines like Masi, Valpolicella and Soave.
Based on the diet of the peasants, the cuisine of central Italy is simple and hearty. Here you can expect lots of tomatoes, beans, olive oil and ham. Excellent quality cheeses, hams, salamis and game in rich sauces and many flavours. Let’s not forget the mushrooms, truffles, lemon tort and olives.
A throwback to the Roman cooking, the dishes in this area are done with seasonal ingredients and heavily seasoned with garlic, onion, sage and rosemary. Here you’ll also find meat dishes, especially bacon and pig’s cheek.
Local specialty is dry white wine, complimented by a range of digestives and aperitifs. Coffee, in all forms, is also an important part of life here.
Southern Italian food is versatile and the flavours depend on the region. From the famous Neapolitan specialty, the pizza, to robust flavours of Sicily. The dishes are packed with olives, all kinds of fish and seafood, cheeses and stuffed pasta.
Infused with the spices and seasonings of the past, sun-dried tomatoes, ricotta cheese and artichokes also play an important role. Home to finest olive oils and wines, this is also one of the places with the healthiest diets in Europe. It’s easy to see why.
Brining it together
The history of Italian cuisine is versatile and intricate and beloved by many. Italy is one of the best culinary destinations for variety and flavours. It is hard to pick a favourite, so the need to keep eating your way through the country is a necessity.
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