7 Minute Read | by Gino De Blasio
There are three religions that an Italian nonna will preach. The first, an appreciation of family and how to care for one another. The second, an appreciation of food, its teachings and how it can guide you. The third, how a vorwerk vacuum cleaner (1) can be deployed at any hour, any day, as an alarm clock.
Vorwerk vacuum cleaners have been the butt of many a scared comedians jokes. The threat of a yellow glowing L.E.D affixed to the top of the “green monster” edging closer and closer to your bedroom door is something that only an Italian child can forever appreciate and fear in equal measures.
Like most Italian food, references to the day to day culture, the protection of the loving nonna, the guided company of a perfectly prepared ragu or the incumbent threat of a 6am cleaning session as a punishment for staying out too late is going to define what, where and when you eat.
This is a nation that struggles to accept modernity, yet laud the latest iPhone as a must have accessory. It goes with the Ray-Bans, the Vespa and the four espresso’s before your 10am meeting. How oxymoronic that the Italians do one thing fast, coffee.
From the slow food movement, born out of a McDonald’s establishing itself on the corner of the Roman Spanish steps to the appreciation and somewhat deity placed upon cucina povera, (2) Italy is a country that sees progress as anti-conformist, anti-religious, anti the anti.
Italy is a country that sees progress as anti-conformist, anti-religious, anti the anti.
What could happen then, if someone was to challenge the status quo? If someone took a product like parmigiano reggiano and turned it into something, more?
Massimo Bottura knows all too well what makes great parmigiano. He’s wax lyrical about the product in the first five minutes of the Netflix (3) show, The Chef’s Table. His eyes glow like a child in a sweet shop, his smile widens like that of a cheshire cat, his admiration is as contagious as a someone breaking into a fit of giggles. Laugh along because that’s how important this one ingredient is to the masterchef.
Parmigiano for those that don’t know, doesn’t come in a box already grated. It isn’t a triangular block that you aimlessly grind away at until you reach a rind, something so intriguing that you try just once to experience what the texture is like. A well preserved, well presented slice is a meal all by itself.
For the territory that is the heart of food, mechanical innovation and agricultural produce, in 2012 Reggio Emilia suffered two horrific earthquakes that nearly ended its biggest export, parmesan cheese.
There was a prospect that the hundreds of thousands of round moulds, 360,000 to be precise, damaged in the quake would be gone. Never used, never sampled, never eaten. So how, just how, do you save an industry like that of parmigiano reggiano? Enlist the mind of the ‘wild school child.’
The result was a social food gesture. Risotto caccio e peppe. Take one of the most famous Roman dishes, spaghetti caccio e peppe, and turn it into something new; something that Italians, and non italians could get behind.
Bottura and his team would create a recipe that ‘used lots and lots and lots of cheese’ and brought a community of food lovers and cheese disciples to make the dish on one specified day. October 24th 2014.
It was a major dinner party held in one evening; the whitest of white rice enriched by parmigiano. This was a global, social experiment; something that not even the hardiest of Nonna’s could achieve. It required a food alchemist to execute and elevate to a new height.
Google Massimo Bottura and you are left with adjective galore; philosopher, intellectual, artist, rock and roll maestro, maestro, wild school child and so on. The last time an Italian was lauded by the International press, the economy went south, the words ‘bunga bunga’ became descriptors of any Italian’s sex life and Italy’s football team continued to have beautiful hair but no results to match. Thank god Massimo is a chef, or the press would be jinxing Italy’s next trepidations into the shit!
As Arthur Rimbaud said, “Genius is the recovery of childhood at will.” From parmigiano to tortellini, Bottura has never shied away at the prospect of recovering his childhood vigour.
“There are 3 taboos in Italy, don’t mess with the pope, don’t mess with the national football team and don’t mess with your grandma’s recipes” as he announced on stage at this year’s MAD conference in Sydney, Australia.
The talk proved to be an inspiring one. How food can be a force of social change. How cooking is a call to act. How art, food and culture can collide to create progress. If your first impressions made you think he was the Joey Ramone of the Italian food elite, he spoke more like Kennedy, delivered like Seinfeld and smiled like the joker; if there was an adoption form, I for one would be asking to move in.
he spoke more like Kennedy, delivered like Seinfeld and smiled like the joker; if there was an adoption form, I for one would be asking to move in.
Risotto caccio e peppe is messing with your grandma’s recipe. But this is a man who has played with more recipes than a teenager who has lost days of their life to angry birds and candy crush on a smartphone.
Take chef Bottura’s “six tortellini walking into a broth”, a critique of the land where “nonna makes it best” is probably the dish that can best exemplify the chef. Put another way, I literally cringe at the size of this man’s testicles to have taken a traditional, untouchable dish, such as tortellini, in the home of fresh pasta, Modena, and turn it into a self-reflection of the Italian malaisse that is ‘anti-progressive.’
Why? Because Italy is the land of the “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t” and Bottura is a man of “why not?” In his own words, “I view Italian food from ten kilometres away.”
If his food was art, you’d call him the next Warhol. If his creativity could be bottled, you could solve world famine, peace in the middle east and Italian politics and still have time for dessert. If his molecular gastronomy was a footballer, if would be the love child of Maradona and Baresi.
Mentored by Ferran Adria of El Bulli (4), taught techniques by Alain Ducasse and with a penchant for styling his food in the essence of contemporary art, there must be a certain joy of seeing Italian cuisine from ten kilometers away and asking ‘OK, who haven’t we offended and how can we show them that they shouldn’t be.’
When Bottura opened Osteria Francescana it caused shockwaves, ‘that (Osteria Francescana) is about viewing food from under the table’ would cause concern to the land where Nonna still knows best. How can the development of molecular gastronomy be enticing to Italians that enjoy a big plate of pasta as an appetiser?
Take one look at the menu of Osteria Francescana you’d see dishes such as, “Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich”, “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart!”, “Tribute to Thelonius Monk”, “Eel swimming up the Po River” and “Five stages of Parmigiano Reggiano.” If you’re on class A drugs the names would evoke a hallucination to rival that of a Dali painting, if you’re not, you’re left smiling at the imagery each one brings to your mind.
You could say that they are paintings when you see them up close or on a TV screen. You could say that they have been through the mill and played with too much. You could say that they don’t look Italian. But they are more Italian, more respectful of Nonna than you could imagine.
All of these dishes, every single one is a reminder that Italy has an unparallelled food culture, but an under-appreciation of what it also has. It is art, it is culture, it is a conscious belief that Italian food is made from the best ingredients which allows you to do more.
Micro-gastronomy in Italy is like the embarrassing uncle at Christmas; not welcomed, edgy and confusing; yet he’s there to remind you of where you’re from and what good you can do with the madness. Like the chastised uncle, Bottura’s take of Italian food from ‘underneath the table’ or ‘10 kilometers away’ is precisely what Italy as a nation of food lovers needs.
Nonna needs to be challenged. Respected, but challenged.
If Nonna can’t be challenged, food can’t be a call to a greater thing and that is what Bottura is doing with his kitchen, creating a call to act.
We should be reminded of the old italian proverb to best summarise maestro Bottura, creativity and anything that dares challenge and excite; “the first con is when they tell you to paint between the lines.”
For more information of Massimo Bottura’s global initiative, Food for Soul visit his site and see how you can make food, a call to act.
- Vorwerk is a global brand that provides a range of electro domestic appliances. Namely vacuum cleaners which have proved to be the stuff that Italian children are scared of.
- Cucina povera is Italy’s version of peasant food
- Netflix is an online streaming service. There is something called Netflix and chill, you may want to private browser that search term.
- El Bulli was for a very long time the world’s number 1 restaurant. The brainchild of Ferran Adria the father of molecular gastronomy where ingredients are the key to success and a view of food construction is down to chemical reactions making the perfect balance and blend to each dish.