The Italians take food and cooking very seriously; hardly surprisingly Italian cuisine is renowned world-wide.
What could be more welcoming and comforting than a perfectly cooked risotto with its layers of subtle flavours, or a simple bowl of pasta with a rich tomato sauce; an oozing Mozzarella; slices of succulent Parma Ham; or tangy salami with slightly granular Parmigiano Reggiano? Heaven on the plate for many of us.
Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli is passionate about the quality and authenticity of the ingredients he uses in his London restaurant Locando Locatelli.
But for him it is not enough that the ingredients ‘appear’ to be Italian he needs to know that what he is using is the genuine, authentic, product.
With so many Italian ingredients in our shops and supermarkets these days it is something of a minefield for us shoppers to follow in Locatelli’s footsteps.
How do we know that we are buying the best possible products?
Look out for PDO, PGI and TSG labels
The answer is to look out for products which carry the authenticated PDO, PGI and TSG logos: PDO – Protected Designation of Origin; PGI – Protected Geographical Indication and TSG – Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. These are products that have to have either a specific link to their region of origin, and/or they have been produced the traditional way.
With over 810 Italian certificated agri-food and wine products there is plenty of choice. During the course of an evening, whilst some of his chefs cooked dinner, Chef Locatelli talked us through some of his favourite products.
He explained that genuine Parma Ham can only be made from Italian pigs and salt, plus air and time; nothing else – no colourings, no nitrates and no nitrites. To maintain the ham’s special tender, sweet flavour the leg has to be cured using only pure sea salt for a week before being washed and air dried for about three months.
The ham has to come from the hills around Parma from specially bred Large White, Landrance and Duroc pigs which have been reared on a special diet. They have to be at least nine months old and weigh a minimum of 140kgs before being slaughtered.
Mozzarella di Bufala Campana
And what about Mozzarella di Bufala Campana we wanted to know. It is noted for its easily digested quality and limited lactose and cholesterol content.
It is also a valuable source of calcium and phosphorus, as well as several B vitamins.
This mozzarella is made from the milk of water buffalo from regions such as Campania, Lazio, Apulia and Molise to high, technical, specifications; it also has to be pre-packaged at its place of origin.
Another, and possibly even more famous cheese, is Parmigiano Reggiano; that hard, granular cheese with a distinctive flavour.
The milk this time is unpasteurized cow’s milk from cows in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of Mantua and Bologna that have grazed on locally grown fodder.
Making it is a complicated process involving skimming, heating, curdling, straining into moulds and eventually soaking in brine, before being left to dry and mature for some 18 months.
Gragnano Citta della Pasta
Pasta today is as synonymous with Italy as bacon is to eggs. There is one theory that it was brought to Italy from Asia; however, a kind of pasta had been made in Italy centuries earlier.
The town of Gragnano located between Monti Lattari and the Amalfi coast has been making pasta commercially since the late 16th century.
Today it is home to many pasta factories, several of them forming part of the Consortium Gragnano Citta della Pasta which was set up in 2003, with the aim of protecting the ancient tradition and method of pasta making. The production method is strictly regulated and Pasta de Gragnano must be made from durum wheat and the calcium-poor water from Monti Lattari.
Chef Locatelli spoke in detail about pasta and the complexities of different pasta shapes and of Gragnano’s climate with its perfect mix of wind, sun and humidity.
Conditions that are needed to dry the pasta ensuring that it is firm yet supple, and with a slightly textured surface making it perfect for cooking and holding sauces.
Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio
Fruit and vegetables too can have DOP and PDO protection.
Visitors in July and August to the area close to Vesuvius will almost certainly have spotted great bunches of small, cherry-red slightly elongated tomatoes hanging up to dry.
These tomatoes, known as Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio, are highly prized for their pronounced flavour – deliciously sweet but with a hint of acidity which intensifies as they dry.
They take their unique flavour from the rich, fertile volcanic soil. And be they fresh or preserved they must be packaged in the vicinity of their growth.
And whilst we are about it, think – balsamic vinegar from Modena, lemons from Amalfi, asparagus, salamis, almonds, pistachios, olive oil, etc to say nothing of Italian wines (wine alone hold 543 certifications of origin).
Shopping will never be the same again
We may not be able to emulate the delicious meal that Chef Locatelli’s team of chefs cooked for us that evening but we all agreed that for us shopping for Italian ingredients will never be the same again.
From now on we shall carefully be examining the packaging making sure that it carries at least one of those distinctive logos telling us that we will be experiencing the authentic and delicious taste of Italy.