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The Historical Regional Cuisines Of Italy - Part I

Updated on March 29, 2009

Unlike any other nation on Earth with the possible exception of China, food in Italy is inextricably intertwined with its long and magnificent history. It is well nigh impossible to take a culinary tour of this peninsula jutting out into the turquoise Mediterranean sea without taking into consideration the powerful historical dynamics which shaped and formed the gastronomic traditions of the varied and superlative dishes to be found in each and every region of the country.

One of the most astounding aspects of Italian culinary tradition is that Italy as a single nation is just over a century old. Through most of its history, the country has been subdivided into a crazy quilt of competing and often warring city states, each with its own customs, culture, and even dialects which often cross over into actual separate languages: Even in the modern day, when “formal Italian” is drilled into every citizen through schools, businesses and television, the average Milanese cannot understand a word of Sicilian dialect and vice versa.

This rainbow of co-existing cultures has created a situation whereby Italy benefits from cultural and culinary riches beyond measure. Get in your car, drive for an hour, and you're in what could be a completely different country, with its own traditions, standards, and most importantly, delectable food specialties. In order to enrichen your understanding and enjoyment of the marvelous gastronomic delight on the plate in front of you, it is necessary that you grasp at least the basics of Italy's astounding culinary history.

The Roman Empire, during the descending spiral of its power in Europe that would end with the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 A.D.), exhalted the banquet as a long moment of relaxation where complicated dishes could be savored. Some of the Roman aristocratic favorites included dormice, tongues of flamingos, and the livers of various animals and rare birds covered with costly spices or drowned in fermented fish sauce, to be enjoyed while the feast was accompanied by the music of harps and flutes. These banquets were exclusively held for the haughty representatives of a Roman political and military power that was about to immolate itself, at a time when the common people and the slaves had to fend with the leftovers or eat mainly vegetables and herbs.

The Barbarian invasions destroyed virtually every Roman culinary tradition and food product to the point that when the Lombards arrived from the Alps in 569 A.D. the Italian population had lost from its collective memory any semblance of gourmet cuisine.

A wide variety of differing historical events affected the more peripheral areas of Italy, especially in Sicily where from the ninth century onwards the island began to be colonized by the Arabs, who greatly influenced the culture and customs of all Sicilians. For example, the invaders introduced dried pasta, which was probably developed as a food for the nomadic Arab population due to its ease of storage. In Sicily dried pasta found favorable conditions for its Italian development and its subsequent dissemination to the port cities of Genoa and Naples, and then onwards to France, and Spain.

In the era of Charlemagne, the dilemma of reconciling the excesses of Roman memory with the privations of the Christian ascetics was resolved: fasting and abstinence alternated with days of celebration in which even the religious meal was plentiful and varied, designed to be offered up to God as a form of respect and prayer. Thus was born the profound traditions which live on to the present day throughout Italy: Periods of magnificent, plentiful culinary feasts, or sagres, which have been held on those exact dates for many centuries.

Continued in Introduction Part II

Check out the entire tour of Italy's Historical Regional Cuisines!

Emilia Romagna - Coming Soon
Friuli Venezia Giulia - Coming Soon
Lazio - Coming Soon
Liguria - Coming Soon
Lombardia - Coming Soon
Marche - Coming Soon
Molise - Coming Soon
Piemonte - Coming Soon
Puglia - Coming Soon
Sardegna - Coming Soon
Sicilia - Coming Soon
Toscana - Coming Soon
Trentino Alto Adige - Coming Soon
Umbria - Coming Soon
Valle d'Aosta - Coming Soon
Veneto - Coming Soon


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