Recently I happened to read a couple of articles about the gastronomic autarky of many countries with a strong culinary tradition, established over the centuries. Since I have been born and raised in Italy, one of the most conservative places on Earth for many aspects, I would like to express my point of view upon this subject.
First of all I think a general introduction of the general mentality of the average Italian is mandatory, especially for those who never came into real contact with any of us, but only by things read or seen.
Like I wrote before, Italy has always been one of the most conservative and close-minded places of Europe, essentially due to its troubled History, which has led its people to be suspicious of everything and everyone, to refuse any authority and to consider themselves as the best in everything, especially compared to the direct neighbors.
Indeed the sociological concept of the good neighbor, so dear to the US tradition, in Italy has never existed, if ever there was the opposite: the closer they are the more dangerous they are, because they know us and our weak spots, they can attack us and steal our things.
This mentality has led, through the centuries, to consider themselves suspicious and superior to all, closed to any type of change (which would have cracked the quiet established order) and jealous of their knowledge.
If all of this could have had a reason to be over the past centuries, in which Italy has always been a prey to foreign powers that have regularly conquered it until the long-awaited political unity, which took place in 1861, nowadays it has no reason to exist anymore. Today we live in a highly developed and highly intertwined world in which almost every country is virtually linked to every other, that is quite impossible not to be willing to accept others’ as part of our reality.
If we consider then the culinary world, it is the same. Culinary autarchism is wrong and uneconomical.
Autarky is the quality of being self-sufficient. Usually the term is applied to political states or their economic systems. Autarky exists whenever an entity can survive or continue its activities without external assistance or international trade. If a self-sufficient economy also refuses all trade with the outside world then it is called a closed economy.
Cooking styles and traditions from distant countries join with local ones to create something new, mutually improving each other from the relation, making people happier to have new opportunities to choose from and creating new forms of competition that, by definition, bring higher quality and, possibly, cheaper prices.
So it seems rather anachronistic to me the fact that we should still argue that the ancient Italian recipes are not to be altered by impure foreigners that do not even know how to properly read the word linguine, as if these recipes have ever been the same over the centuries. Totally wrong indeed! I am going to submit a clear example of this statement.
One of the signature dishes from the region of Italy I come from (le Marche) is called Vincisgrassi. Even if they are part of the same family, you don’t want to call them Lasagne (which come from another region, Emilia), or Marche’s inhabitants would get angry. There is a major difference between the two: the rich filling of vincisgrassi is done by adding to the meat sauce chicken giblets. The recipe also includes the use of different kinds of meat (including the sweetbreads), onion, butter, grated cheese, herbs and spices.
Although they may look the same, they are not, but everybody (outside Italy) knows Lasagne, just a few also Vincisgrassi, and I doubt that anybody could say the real difference between the two. Because, all in all, not even we do!
According to some sources it seems that the name derives from the Austrian general Windisch Graetz, who was in the region at the end of 18th century, because of Napoleonic occupation, there are others who believe it to come from the recipe of the sauce for princisgras, found in an old cookbook published in 1779. The recipe itself changes from area to area, to city to city, even from person to person, because, over the years from mother to daughter, unaware modifications and improvements have always been made, since there has never been an official recipe to be followed, and moreover no rule that forced anybody to follow it, should it have been existed.
So talking today of maintaining traditions when tradition themselves have never been maintained, it’s simply nonsense. In recent times in Italy there has been a huge argue about the growing number of ethnic food vendors against the traditional ones, i.e. pizza, pizza, only pizza. Up to the 80’s there has never been any fast-food of any sort in Italy, I grew up seeing only pizza places, if you wanted to have a snack while you were not at home there have always been no other choice than pizza.
God bless variety! If it was true that Italians didn’t love other food than their own, then all these non-Italian food vendors should have been closed one year after their opening, at max. But since it’s not the case, it means that Italians want to have something different under their teeth, they want to be able to have options to choose from. It’s curious that the ones closing are the most traditional ones, and the one surviving are the ones that included other menus to their classic ones. The ones that adapted and improved their offer.
The ones that constantly warn against dangers and cast anathemas over foreign food competitors are the ones unable to open their minds up to the World. World is not their Homeland, World is made of a lot of different entities who coexist and, at this stage, are impossible to separate from each other.
There is no harm nor danger in welcoming foreign styles of cooking into our countries and, at the same time, allowing foreign ones to manipulate our traditional recipes, because in the end, the final consumer is the judge and will decide what he likes most, and where he likes to have it. As if simply following a recipe would be a guarantee of 100% replicating the same flavors, aromas, taste and, in general, the experience of food?
Will sushi in Hamburg ever taste the same as Tokyo’s? How different would taste a slice of Camembert cheese made elsewhere than France? Or, in this case, a dish of Carbonara made in New York and one made in Rome?