Thursday, October 26, 2006

Life in Italy

My life in Italy is not like "Under the Tuscan Sun." That's author Frances Mayes' story about buying and remodeling an old farmhouse in the Italian region of Tuscany. Her words paint vivid pictures of agricultural areas with olive groves and vineyards, give us glimpses of medieval towns, and offer us a taste of the natural rhythmic lifestyle of the region, complete with local recipes.

It's a way of life that many of us dream about, and an experience travelers happily pay for during their visits to this hot-spot destination. Yet Tuscany is only one of Italy’s twenty-one varied regions, each with its own semi-autonomous government, culture, architecture, language, and food. A one-week vacation in Tuscany will be vastly different than, say, a one-week stay in the northern Alto-Adige region. Awareness of this diversity, especially the knowledge that not every meal in Italy involves pasta, is key for a person with celiac disease.

In order to understand how a country the size of Arizona can be so diverse, it is helpful to know a little bit of its history. Similar to the famous Italian fresco paintings seen in churches and museums around much of the country, which were created by applying numerous layers of plaster one over top of the other before the image and pigment dyes were applied, so too is Italy's history a composite of layers.

Italy’s first layer, or known civilization, was the Etruscans, dating from the 7th century BC. Tombs and museums housing their artifacts are found chiefly in Italy’s central regions. The next layer, the Roman Empire, was the only time until recent history that the country was united. Vestiges are evident all over Italy, with the most famous sights found in Rome. The Roman Empire split into the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire in the 5th century. The Western Empire was subjected to foreign invasions and control from the north, while the Eastern Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, was controlled from Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, Turkey.

Layers of foreign invasions continued to plague Italy throughout the medieval ages, coupled with power struggles among popes and emperors. This led to the rise of influential independent city-states. Venice was the most powerful, known for its trade with the East. The Republic of Florence also grew in strength, and led by the wealthy Medici family, spurred the Renaissance. In the early 1500’s, parts of Italy came under Spanish rule, and even Napoleon had his time in Italy.

In 1870, an etching of the recognizable shape of modern-day Italy became evident when the country freed itself from foreign rule and united under a monarchy. Then, the colors of World War I, Fascism, and World War II were applied, and the nation’s outline was redrawn several times. The new colors of a republic were painted in 1946, and land exchanged hands a couple more times. Numerous coalition governments and political scandals have splattered the canvas over the past half-century, and continue right up through modern times. The result is a colorful and flavorful leading European economy.

These layers of history - equivalent to the marble dust, sand, and paint of frecoes - and where they were applied, have resulted in regional differences that encompass language, customs, and food. So vast are some of these differences, that Italians generally identify with their home region, its history, and its cuisine more so than with the country as a whole. In some regions of Italy, travelers could think they really weren't in Italy! Travel book writer Rick Steves sums up this mind-set even more succinctly: Loyalties are to family, city, region, soccer team, and country – in that order.

To illustrate: The city where my family lives is called Cordenons. It has a population of about 16,000, and is located in the province, or county, of Pordenone. Pordenone is one of four provinces within the region called Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. A region is comparable to one of the U.S.’s fifty states. Often just called Friuli, or FVG, it is Italy’s most northeasterly region. Austria lies on its northern border, Slovenia stretches out from the east. The south of the region embraces the Adriatic Sea, while in the west the Carnic and Julian Alps grow into the Dolomite Mountains that reside in the neighboring regions of Veneto, Trentino, and Alto-Adige. Scattered between the cities and small towns of the region are vineyards, fields of corn, and crops of industrial areas. It is a region that was under Austrian rule during the 19th century, returned to Italy after World War I, but divided again after World War II, with portions awarded to the former Yugoslavia. The present version of the region was created only in 1963 and it is a mix of ethnicities and languages, with its own local langugage known as Friulano. Allegiance is to the Udinese soccer team.

The cuisine of the region where I live is a direct reflection of the Friuli's history, along with its geographic location. For example, in Friuli and the other northern regions, Austrian-style meats are common. As well, polenta, made from corn flour, is more popular than pasta. Potatoes are also common. Fresh seafood is plentiful near the coast, and figures into the coastal cuisines, while dried fish is a staple in the inner mountainouse areas. Dried meats, such as Prosciutto di San Danielle, ham cured by mountain air, are a specialty of the area, as are specific types of cheeses, such as Montasio. In contrast, beans and grilled meat are typical of Tuscan cuisine. The poorer southern regions often dine on vegetable sauces rather than meat sauces, while Sicilians, due to Arab influence, flavor their meals with saffron, pomegranates, and nuts.

One of my favorite local dishes is frico, a cheese entrée, or secondo, found only in the Friuli region. It is a dish with a long history, traditionally considered a poor-man's meal. Usually made from a combination of varying aged local Montasio cheeses, typically a young cheese, a slightly aged cheese, and an aged cheese, they are melted together with butter until the desired consistency is reached. That can range from gooey to crisp. A local Friulian osteria in Cordenons, an osteria being a small family run restaurant, offers frico several different ways: cooked with onions and herbs, with speck (an Austrian-style meat that is on the Italian celiac society’s “questionable” list), with arugula, with sausage, or with pears. Served with a salad as an antipasto, and polenta on the side, frico is a savory meal. A glass of local wine, maybe a red Refoscoe, is the perfect accompaniment. This osteria also routinely stocks gluten free pasta, even though it is not on the Italian celiac association restaurant list.

Pasta and pizza are still synonymous with Italy, however, and are found throughout the country. Fortunatly, there is an active celiac group in Italy that has worked hard to help people with celiac dine out safely. (Italian Celiac Association, This group has identified and trained restaurants all over the country to prepare gluten free meals, including even gluten free pasta and pizza. While many of these places routinely stock gluten free pasta, getting pizza often requires advance notification.

So, is my life in Italy the same as "Under the Tuscan Sun"? Mayes and I do share some of the same pastimes, such as exploring small towns, sampling local wines, and learning to prepare regional foods. It's even been suggested to me (by a local no less) that I should purchase an old house, remodel it, and settle in for a while. It's a rather appealing thought. Still, my life in Italy could never be the same as Mayes. The regional history, geography, and the people themselves dictates that. More poignant, though, is that I have celiac disease. (August 2005)

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