Arguing about food with Italians. Do I have mad cow disease?

Well, I have been here for a number of years now so I am, I feel, partly qualified.

Obviously, I have not tasted everything this wonderful country has to offer. For example, I learned today that there is such a thing as tomato mostarda – and, what is better, is I am promised some by a colleague :-). Mostarda is usually made with fruit (pear, fig, etc.) and has a special, very slightly mustardy taste.

The reason that I learnt about this is that we were having an argument about food.

Yes, an actual argument which, even if I am English, I didn’t lose, by the way. Even if there is a lot of English food that is really good, people here still think of English food as it was in the 50s, 60s and 70s which, to be honest, was not really great, in general. Then we found things like garlic and our cuisine improved at breakneck speed. However, I digress.

For lunch, in the works canteen, there was, for the main course, goulash with polenta. I do eat polenta but, when I sat down with colleagues at the table and one of them said something out my choice of main course, I couldn’t help but make some snide comment about polenta.

Polenta is, after all, as I pointed out, a “filler” in that it fills you up. What it does not have is taste. Nor, for that matter, a decent consistency. Imagine, if you will, some lumpy, badly mashed potato that has been allowed to get cold and then warmed up – but without any real taste.

I did say that “rough” (i.e. unrefined) polenta is much better in that it does have some taste (and mixed with a good Gorgonzola it is quite remarkable). However, I think “tasteless stodge” would be the best description for polenta.

I’m guessing that this was “poor people” food. You didn’t need to have much or any meat but some sort of sauce to give it taste and then, bingo, you had a filling meal!

The person in front of me couldn’t really disagree but tried. I explained again that it was, basically, a filler.

I then added (as I was in my stride) that Italians, who think they know something about food are, in fact, quite crazy and can’t really talk about “food” in that they have meat with fish – a very popular dish here. A number of years ago I would not have dared to do this. Now, I know what I’m talking about.

He knew what I meant. He said “You mean vitello tonato?” I did indeed. He then tried to say that it wasn’t really like that as it was only a sauce. I replied that it was a fish sauce ….. with meat. He agreed but said that there was only about 10% of tuna and mostly mayonnaise. I retorted with the fact that containing fish and tasting of fish, meant that it was, in fact, a fish sauce – and that insane Italians had it with, of all things, a piece of meat.

He then decided to try a different tack.

“Chutney,” he said.

“Mostarda,” I came back with. I think he knew he was beaten.

He didn’t like mostarda even if his wife comes from the place that makes “the best mostarda in the world”. He promised to get me some.

I Said how much I liked mostarda, especially with cold meats. He then told me about tomato mostarda and promised me some of that.

To be honest, rather than chutney, he could have come back with a lot of things but I’m getting better at this lark and can think up things to come back with.

The problem is that everyone think that Italians = food and English not= food which, of course, is too much of a generalisation and therefore, is always open to attack. In my case, whenever anyone comes out with something like “the English don’t know how to cook”, I have a number of things to hit back with – including vitello tonata and polenta. Italians don’t really equal food after all ;-)

Then again, it’s really all a matter of taste.

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