At a themed food and wine pairing evening a couple of weeks ago I was asked where was the home of food and wine? In a split second I answered ‘Italy, of course’ but that set me thinking - why is Italy the country that is synonymous with food and wine – there are many countries that have long established food and wine credentials so what is it about Italy that means it is accepted as being the home of food and wine?
I think some of the answer lies in Italy’s unique history. The Italian peninsula operated as a hotch-potch of different kingdoms, city-states and duchies until unification in 1871 and the Italian nation-state was formed. This history of regional separatism created a very strong sense of local identity. The Italians are fiercely protective of their local culture and traditions and as their love of food and wine is second only to their love of family, local food and local wine is an intrinsic part of their local identity.
Italy’s unique geography also explains why there is such a rich and diverse food and wine culture. While we all think of Italy as being a hot county, its climate varies hugely on a regional and local level. The north is much cooler than the south while Sicily is scorching! The interior is mountainous and more continental in climate but the long Mediterranean and Adriatic coastlines are kept cool by sea breezes. This huge variability has, over time, led to the development of regional foods and wines that are suited to the specific conditions of the local environment. In the north the cuisine tends to be heartier and based more around dairy and meat. The wine styles are more acidic with high tannin in red wines which work well with more robust dishes. In the hot sunny south, the cuisine is a little lighter based around fruit, vegetables and olive oil. The wines are riper, fruitier and a little less austere. Fish and seafood feature strongly in cuisine found along the coastline and the cooler grape growing environment means you will find piercingly dry, fresh white wines that pair perfectly with fresh fish.
This geographical and environmental fragmentation meant that for centuries native grape varieties flourished at a local level across Italy. Today Italy is blessed with hundreds of indigenous grape varieties which means it offers a hugely diverse range of wines within which there is the perfect pairing for every pizza, pasta, meat, vegetable or fish dish and just about any other food you could imagine.
Finally, the Italians consider every mealtime to be a special occasion. Over a meal the conversation flows, the old interact with the young and the time is cherished. The food and wine on the table is respected as families and their guests take their time to savour and enjoy the meal that has been prepared for them. They enjoy the shared experience of family, food and wine as only the Italians know how.
As a visitor, you can travel the length of Italy and experience unique food and wine combinations that you might only find in one town or region. You will not experience the same food and wine anywhere else in Italy, let alone anywhere in the world. This is for me what makes Italy the true home of food and wine.