Eating Rituals While Traveling in Tuscany

'Turning Tuscan' author and tour guide Sam Hilt discusses unwritten eating rules


New Jersey-born Sam Hilt is a seasoned tour guide for Tuscany Tours, who recently wrote Turning Tuscan: A Step-by-Step Guide to Going Native, a book that changes the rule of what a "guide" should be.

The book itself has a certain casual and friendly prose, almost as if Hilt himself were reading to you and walking you through various places in Italy. His first-person style gives it a genial tone that never sounds like braggadocio.

As an expert in Renaissance art, Hilt will take you on narrative walks with him, not just through museums and countrysides but to local families sharing meals. In fact, his chapter on Eating Rituals has some amusing and insightful moments that The Daily Meal has excerpted below.

"The chapter doesn't deal with specific recipes or rave about how wonderful Alfredo's lasagna was," said Hilt. "My focus is on the rituals surrounding food in Tuscany: the unwritten rules around when, what and how people relate to their meals."

"Much has been written about the glories of Italian cuisine,” he goes on to add. “And the passion that all Italians share for eating very well whenever possible is hardly a secret. What is less well known are some of the rituals that Italians observe around what, how and when they eat. Since virtually everyone follows these unwritten rules, it's something that native Italians never notice and certainly couldn't tell you about. As a foreigner exploring this terrain, it's when you unwittingly commit a faux pas that you begin to discover that there actually are rules. Welcome to the ritual mysteries of eating in Italy."

Turning Tuscan is literate, gracious, and touching at times and feels like a very well-written, nuanced journal.  There are even poems by his wife, Pamela.

Excerpt from Turning Tuscan: A Step-by-Step Guide to Going Native:

Eating Rituals
In many of the places that one travels, it seems that people enjoy similar things: music and films, food and wine, and the other good things in life.  Certain people, however, may take a special interest in one of life’s pleasures.  For example, people who can tell you the names of supporting actors in a movie you saw fifteen years ago along with the names of other films by the same director might be described as “film buffs”.  What’s unique about Italy is that the percentage of the population that might be described as “food buffs” is probably somewhere around 99.6%.

In the bigger cities where there are tourists aplenty, you can find some mediocre restaurants.  They know that as long as they keep their doors open, the flies will come in and the day-trippers are quite likely to follow.  In the smaller towns and villages, and in the countryside, the restaurants are always good.  If they weren’t, no one would come to eat there, and they would go broke in the course of a season. 

Even the chain restaurants along the freeways often have delicious entrées.  Imagine having a shrimp risotto at an Autogrill where the shrimp are sautéed and blended with the rice and broth right before your eyes in few minutes for a mouth-watering dish.  It may not be quite as good as a first-rate restaurant risotto, but it beats a fried clam sandwich at Howard Johnson’s any day of the week.

There’s a little town near us of about 1500 people where I often stop for my morning coffee after dropping off the girls at school.  The proprietor of the local café-bar was a gracious woman named Bruna whose untimely passing was mourned by the whole town.  I remember the first time I complemented her on her coffee and asked if it might be possible to purchase some to take home with me.  She told me that they were running a bit low, but that she could order some extra for me for the following week.  I asked if it was a particular brand that I might be able to buy at the market.  She smiled and grabbed a scoop, then returned a moment later with her scoop filled with coffee beans. There are the four different beans that I mix.  The dark ones give the coffee its kick.  These are the ones that give it body.  The little ones like this one give it a pungent flavor.  And then I mix in a sprinkling of these to sweeten it just a touch.” I’m standing there in a mild state of shock and astonishment when she adds the kicker:

“And of course I vary the grind every day based on the barometric pressure.  When it’s raining or about to rain, the moisture in the air makes the coffee less absorbent so I always use a finer grind.”

This is small town Tuscany.  Think about having a cup of Bruna’s coffee.  Then, think about that pot of Farmers Brothers that was made for lunch and is still on the burner at 4 pm when you walk in.

Rather than continuing to rave about the marvels of Italian cooking and the sophistication of Italian appreciation of food, I want to veer off into a less explored direction—the rituals surrounding preparation and eating of foods.  It’s one of those areas that requires a certain depth of cultural immersion before it begins to become visible.

***

"Breakfast served 24 hours a day”.  It’s a sign you’ll find in small cafés and truck stops all over America.  You won’t find a single one in Italy.

Breakfast is eaten only in the morning and typically consists of coffee and a sweet roll.  By noon many of the bars have been cleaned out of their pastries except for a few odd strays.  It’s not like Starbucks or Peets where you can get an apple-walnut muffin to go with your whipped-cream mocha any time you like.  In our part of Italy, near Siena, people have lunch starting between 12:00 and 1 p.m., and dinner starts any time between 8:00 and 9:30 p.m.  By and large, everybody from pierced-lip teenagers to tottering elders eats at these times.  If you walk through our village at 1:30 on a summer afternoon when the shutters are closed but the windows are open, you’ll hear lively conversation and the scraping of spoons on plates from every kitchen window.  At that time, and for the next couple of hours, no one is outside.  An elderly woman who is hard of hearing has her television set turned up rather loud, but apart from her the streets are empty and silent.  

In addition to broadly shared mealtimes, convention also embraces the ways in which food is prepared.  Unlike French cuisine, with its intricacy and intellectual complexity, Tuscan dishes are based on the use of very few ingredients, simply combined.  What makes the food wonderful is the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the careful balancing of flavors, and the perfect timing with which everything is prepared and served.  The menus that you see in restaurants throughout Tuscany are virtually interchangeable: mixed crostini, gnocchi with pesto, tortellini in broth, grilled sausage, torta della nonna.  People generally patronize a particular locale because they prefer the way they make their favorite, familiar foods. 

The conventionality of cuisine very much resembles the carefully honored conventions in Tuscan religious art.  The artist’s ingenuity, like the chef’s, lies in taking the familiar elements and creating a variation on the theme, one that honors the tradition while bringing a special flavor to it.  In the light of this discipline and restraint, one begins to appreciate T.S. Eliot’s description of radical originality as the hallmark of a second-rate mind.
When we come back to California and go out to eat, we always chuckle when we read the menus in our native language where each entrée description has at least one or two words that we’ve never seen before.  As the name implies, our Nouvelle Cuisine caters to our insatiable appetite for novelty.

***

During one of our first seasons in Tuscany, we ate panzanella at a friend’s house and asked how it was made.  We were given a careful summary of the basic ingredients and how they should be put together, along with the explanation that this was a traditional peasant dish.  With the help of some diced up tomatoes, sautéed onions and a bit of parsley, our dried-out bread could be recycled to provide a tasty summer salad.   

And so, my wife, Pam, threw some rock-hard bread in a large bowl to soak, sautéed the onions and garlic, tossed in the parsley and other ingredients and made a delicious panzanella.  The next day, as we sat with the others under the chestnut tree, she shared the news of her success.  Everyone was interested to hear the details of how she made it.  They followed along, blow by blow, nodding and smiling, until she mentioned the garlic. 

“Garlic?” they asked in disbelief. “You put in garlic?”

“Yes, I did.” she confessed somewhat taken aback.  “Is there a problem with putting in garlic?”

But everyone just laughed and shook their heads.  “You don’t put garlic in a panzanella!” 

We tried to explore the whys and wherefores, but it was a fruitless endeavor.   They seemed to be vaguely amused about being pressed for an explanation, the way you might feel when your two-year-old asks why she shouldn’t use her sleeve for a tissue.  “It’s just not done.”

Cappuccino after dinner was another one of the local taboos we violated regularly until our friend, Angela, quietly took us aside one day.  She asked how we could possibly want to have such a heavy, milk drink after a big meal.  And hadn’t we noticed that Italians never drink cappuccino after dinner?  Coming from the land of Starbucks where people order grande vanilla lattes or venti frappuccinos whenever they damn well please, I was a bit incredulous.  But once we began to pay attention, we did in fact notice that Italians drank cappuccinos mostly for breakfast and occasionally in the late morning.  And no one, absolutely no one, ever drank them after dinner—except for the foreign tourists.    

You could challenge the logic behind this rejection of cappuccino after dinner by pointing to the rich creamy desserts like tiramisu or panna cotta that Italians certainly do eat after dinner.  But that would be to miss the point.  The reason no one drinks cappuccino after dinner is really because “it’s just not done”.

When we compare and contrast the cultures, we realize that, as Americans, we very much like to make up the rules as we go.  We aspire to define our own style and follow our own inner guidance systems, and we’ve learned to be generally disdainful of social conformity in matters large and small.

Many of our images of the human collective, particularly out in the West, have been appropriated from herding and ranching practices.  The cowboy and his horse are the solitary ones who have the intelligence and the upper hand.  The sheep and the cattle huddle close together, look to each other for cues, and wind up in the slaughterhouse.  We’ve learned which side to identify with in this contest between the individual and the collective.  And since the horse is our ally in this quest, we could never imagine eating horses.  Our rituals support individualism and initiative just as other cultural practices strengthen the sense of being an integral part of the collective.  

Instead of seeing them as sheep or cattle, I prefer to imagine the Tuscans as a flock of birds. Though they might fly off occasionally on their own, they usually stay close and take comfort in one another’s presence.  They enjoy the feeling of being connected, of facing the world in a shared stance, of having a safety net of community to catch them should they fall. 

After our seasons in Tuscany, whenever we return to the States, we poignantly feel the ruggedness of our individualism.  We’re on our own in America, for better and for worse, in ways that are still unknown and unimagined in the villages of Tuscany.

Excerpt courtesy of Tuscany Tours.


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