#116 | Tasting Italy
A Culinary Journey
By National Geographic & America’s Test Kitchen
Foreword by Jack Bishop
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cooking New York City sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Jack Bishop: My name is Jack Bishop and my cookbook is Tasting Italy: A Culinary Journey.
Suzy Chase: You're the Chief Creative officer of America's Test Kitchen. How did the collaboration between America's Test Kitchen and National Geographic come together for Tasting Italy?
Jack Bishop: Editors were just chatting, believe it or not, at a publishing conference. We thought, wow, as we were talking, if we teamed up National Geographic and America's Test Kitchen we could create a unique book. You think about National Geographic photographs, maps, travel essays to take you there, and then to be able to bring Italy to life in your own kitchen with recipes from America's Test Kitchen, it seemed like a really unique way of bringing the cuisine of Italy to life in a book.
Suzy Chase: The beautiful photographs in this cookbook really transport us to Italy. Talk to me about your relationship with Italy and its food.
Jack Bishop: I have a very long relationship with Italy. It began as a child. My Italian grandmother, who is the most talented home cook I ever knew. I grew up eating a lot of Italian foods, Sunday suppers. I lived in Italy when I was in my early 20s. I've traveled throughout Italy. Could we just say, they have the best food on the planet in Italy, at least in my opinion.
The book is also just a personal passion because the food of Italy is really tremendously different than what we think. I still recall my first trip to Italy. I'd taken an overnight train from Germany and had gotten off the train in Florence, and went to the first restaurant, and there was nothing recognizable. None of the dishes that my grandmother had made were on the menu, which makes sense, once you think about it. Which is that my grandmother's relatives were born in Calabria in the south. Like many of the immigrants that came to the U.S., they came from the south and brought that cuisine with them.
The rest of Italy has very different dishes. The climate's different, the geography, the history. The cuisine is different. The food of Florence is very, very different than the food of Calabria.
Suzy Chase: How did you figure out the recipes for this cookbook. Did the locations dictate the recipes?
Jack Bishop: We decided that we were going to structure the book in three large areas. Northern Italy, Central Italy and Southern Italy. Then within each of those, do a chapter on the administrative regions in Italy. They're kind of the equivalent of a state in the United States. Tuscany would be an administrative region, which is the area where Florence is. For each chapter you begin with an essay and photographs that brings you there. Tells you about the history, the topography, the major ingredients, the food traditions.
Then we selected what we thought were the distinctive regional dishes. That was really hard. We ended up with a hundred recipes. The original list had 400 recipes. We really had to pare it down and say, "What are the dishes that really define Veneto or Liguria or Sicily? Most of the sections of the book have five or six recipes that really give you a taste of the unique, authentic local cuisine. Some of them are dishes that will be familiar to Americans.
In the Lazio chapter, where Rome is from, you see spaghetti carbonarra, which is a classic Roman dish. But a lot of these recipes are things that frankly I'd never seen because I had never been to that particular part of Italy. So I wasn't familiar with the dish.
Suzy Chase: So this cookbook is structured from north to south. Let's start off with northern Italy. The one word in the book you use to describe the food of Italy's northern region is rich. Why the word rich?
Jack Bishop: The climate in the north is more like the climate perhaps in the northern United States. It's cold and snowy. I think of maybe the great plains. In the summer it's very fertile, so there's a lot of dairy, a lot of cattle. There's a lot of cheese. The fresh pasta is made with eggs. The influences are really Germanic or Austrian, as a way of describing it.
So you see dishes with savoy cabbage, with speck which is a German ham. It is done in an Italian way, but it is a very rich, hearty cuisine. When you get to the far north, you're in the Alps, so it is hearty cuisine that makes sense in that cold weather. Buckwheat, polenta, they're used throughout this region. It is in many ways the most undiscovered part of Italy for many Americans because this cuisine isn't that well known in the United States, isn't really well represented. Most Americans don't end up going to this part of Italy. Lots and lots to discovery in northern Italy.
Suzy Chase: Moving on to central Italy, the most significant influence on foods in central Italy comes from the Etruscans. Talk a bit about them and the influences on the cuisine.
Jack Bishop: This is the region that sort of spans from Florence to Siena, further south down towards Rome. This is probably, for Americans that have traveled to Italy, the region that they probably spent the most time in. The interesting thing here is how many of these dishes really have their roots in the Middle Ages or earlier. One of the great shifts in Italian cuisine occurred in the 1500s after Christopher Columbus's voyages to the New World and all of these ingredients that came back to Italy and then influenced the cuisine.
So, for instance, tomatoes didn't exist in Italy until roughly 1500. Older dishes that have their routes in Etruscan culture, which is really from nearly 1,500 years ago, 2,000 years ago, don't have tomatoes. They're spices. They're beans. They're lots and lots of ancient grains that end up influencing the local cuisine.
Suzy Chase: Almost every part of Italy grows olives. But a few locales are famous for the aromatic, rich, extra virgin olive oil. Tell me about Lucca's liquid gold.
Jack Bishop: Lucca is in Tuscany. I would say that Tuscany and Umbria, which is the region just to the south, make my favorite extra virgin olive oils. They're often very green and peppery. They're big, bold, exciting olive oils. There are a lot of small farms, which means that they're growing the olives, pressing the olives, and bottling the olives all on site. Which is really a premium extra virgin oil, that it is a boutique product, rather than the semi industrial product of a lot of the extra virgin olive oils that end up in the supermarket, where they're mixing oils from, it could be a dozen different countries. It's a commodity. They're really choosing oils based on price. In Tuscany and particular in the Lucca region, they're just some of the most beautiful olive oils that are made on the planet.
They've been growing olives in Italy for centuries and entries and they make amazing oils.
Suzy Chase: Now Samin Nosrat has her new Netflix show, and the fat episode was totally focused on olive oil in Italy. Does that surprise you that she chose olive oil over butter for her fat episode?
Jack Bishop: No. Let's say this, first of all, olive oil is 100% fat. Butter is fat and water. It's not that I don't love butter, but I think olive oil has way more flavor. You think about the cuisines of the entire Mediterranean basin, not just Italy but Spain, Greece, the eastern Turkey, north Africa. Olive oil is the fat of choice. Those cuisines are remarkably diverse and fabulous. Southern France it is olive oil. I think it is the fat of choice in my home, and certainly in most parts of Italy it is the primary fat that is used in the kitchen.
Suzy Chase: Now onto southern Italy and the islands. The air is hotter, the conversation is hotter and the cooking is hotter. The three pillars of southern Italy's diet are oil, wine and grain. Talk a little bit about that.
Jack Bishop: The climate is more like it is in perhaps North Africa. It's hot and sunny. It's wonderful for growing olives. There's a lot of oil that is produced in southern Italy. It's more rocky, hilly, mountainous in places. Not great for cattle. So there really isn't a whole lot of dairy, and certainly not a lot of butter, and really not a lot of cheese in this region. It is the sunny south, the land of olive oil.
It is also where a lot of grains come from. Sicily has an amazing tradition of growing wheat, a lot of ancient varieties of wheat that we aren't that familiar with. The agriculture there is hard scrabble, but it is diverse and quite different than in central or northern Italy.
Suzy Chase: Despite the wealth of food in southern Italy, poverty has been persistent. Even after the foundation of the Italian nation, the south was neglected leading to emigrants to form little Italies all over the United States. As many of these Italian restaurants and various Little Italies cropped up, they put things on their menu that you never see in Italy like garlic bread, fettuccine alfredo or caesar salad. How did that happen?
Jack Bishop: It's funny. You can't find spaghetti and meatballs in Italy. They make meatballs, but they usually don't serve them on spaghetti. A couple of things happened. People who emigrated from southern Italia, Naples, Calabria, Puglia, Sicily were generally leaving because of poverty. They were hungry. While they brought their traditions with them, suddenly in the United States there was a wealth of ingredients. There was much more affluence. Meat which was scarce was plentiful. Many of the immigrants went from being quite poor to, in a matter of a generation or sometimes less, being fairly affluent.
There was the ability to afford things they couldn't afford. The availability of ingredients was different. For instance, many of the traditional cheeses would've been sheep's milk cheeses of southern Italy. 125 years ago, when my relatives emigrated from Italy, you couldn't really find them here. So there were substitutions. The fact that the ingredients were different in the United States, and suddenly the level of affluence had changed, meant that the cuisine changed. So you got things like the Sunday supper which my grandmother would prepare, which is a very traditional Italian-American celebration with pasta and meatballs and braised sausages and braciole.
They don't really eat that way in southern Italy even today.
Suzy Chase: Calabria, the rugged toe of Italy's boot is Italy's poorest region but finds respite in the joys of food. Bread has been the antidote for hunger for centuries. Describe the filling Calabria dish called mirstew.
Jack Bishop: It's amazing what they're able to do with bread in Italy. Left over bread gets recycled in many, many different ways. For instance, bread salad in Tuscany gets created from basically something that we would throw out in the United States, which was stale bread and rehydrated with tomatoes and vinegar. In the south, there's a lot of flat breads in Calabria. They're more what we would call pizzas in a sense that they are lightly topped, perhaps with some tomatoes, some chilies. They love their chilies in Calabria. They might sometimes be folded and filled, more like what we would think of here as a Calzone.
Suzy Chase: Why does the tomato salad taste so extraordinary in capri?
Jack Bishop: The climate is great. The volcanic soil has something to do with it. The fact that it's a local tomato. The tomatoes that we generally eat most of the year in the United States are grown far, far away. Tomatoes really don't well with travel. I think it's mostly about the climate and the fact that they are local tomatoes grown and enjoyed within one region.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal. If you had to place an order for your last supper on Earth, what would it be?
Jack Bishop: I think I want my grandmother's lasagna. She made this beautiful lasagna, it was a tomato based lasagna that had teeny little meatballs tucked between the layers with a lot of ricotta cheese and parmigiano. I make it once a year. The smell of lasagna takes me back 50 years, 45 years, and I'm a kid again, sitting on a stool in my grandmother's kitchen. It's just an amazing way to bring family history back to life.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Jack Bishop: We're at americastestkitchen.com. You can come to our website and learn more about what we do here at America's Test Kitchen. You can learn more about Tasting Italy. You can also find us on Instagram, our Facebook pages and see the work that I do and that my colleagues here to on America's Test Kitchen.
You can also watch our shows on public television. America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country are both shown on stations all around the country.
Suzy Chase: Wonderful, thanks Jack for talking Italy with me. And thanks for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Jack Bishop: Thanks Suzy, you have a great day.
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