Cuisine in focus... Italy

| March 23, 2015

Do you dream of exploring the world by taste bud? Today, we will introduce you to one of the world’s finest culinary destinations: Italy.

Lemon tree. : Photo credit: Thinkstock/ iStock

Truly a destination synonymous with food, Italy is veritably drenched in culinary culture. From the rich and varied produce and stunning regional specialities to dishes that have transcended the taste buds of the nation to become worldwide staples, the country is an absolute must-visit for the avid gastronome.

Today, we will take a close look at Italy's cuisine, beginning with its status as the core of the nation's culture and character as a whole, before delving into notable regional products and dishes.

Cuisine: Italy's cultural core 

Of course, Italy is by no means the only country for whom food is an integral part of its culture. Indeed, by the very nature of its relationship to the land and the tastes of the nation, cuisine always offers an insight into the heart of a destination. However, the Italian relationship with food goes beyond that; you might say that the country's cuisine is its culture.

Certainly, the rituals around meals are just as important as the food itself; in Italy, the two go hand in hand. Dining slowly over conversations with family and friends is central to this principle - particularly during traditional Sunday lunches. Perhaps the only exception to this trend is coffee culture –  coffee is virtually always drunk very quickly, standing up; this is so ingrained that your espresso (or caffe, as it is known locally) will be served at a temperature that you can drink at once.

This conviviality is combined with a joie de vivre when it comes to both cooking and eating – the Italians prepare food and dine with great gusto, which is part of what makes culinary discovery here so exciting for the traveller.

Classic Italian produce

One of the real joys of Italian cuisine is that there is substantial regional variation. Explore the north of the country, for instance, and you will find an abundance of polenta dishes that you will not find in the south. Typically, these differences stem from the land itself – the produce that is cultivated in each area.

There are countless examples to draw on, but perhaps one of the nation's most important and characteristic products is buffalo mozzarella. Mozzarella di Bufala DOP Campania, as it's known locally, is a true Italian delicacy. Its DOP designation means that it has a controlled designation of origin - so, it has to be produced in Campania to bear this name. Made according to strict rules with water buffalo's milk, buffalo mozzarella undergoes several inspections – right from breeding the buffalo – to make sure this delicious cheese is 100 per cent authentic. Visiting a buffalo mozzarella producer is a must for foodies travelling in Campania.

Another celebrated Italian product is olive oil – a foodstuff that possesses almost as much variation as Italian wines. If you are interested in finding out more about the nation's olive oil production, Liguria is the perfect place to go. The rich and fruity olive oil produced here is primarily made from the Taggiasca olive, which possesses a hint of saltiness too – a characteristic that renders it ideal for fish dishes.

Perhaps one of the most charming things about discovering the local olive oil (no matter where exactly you do so) is seeing just how integral it is to the Italian way of life and landscape. Olive trees are liberally sprinkled throughout the scenery of the country, and tied to its history.

Down on the immensely picturesque Amalfi Coast, another important variety of tree flourishes: the lemon tree. Indeed, they are as much a part of the local landscape as its dramatic cliffs and pretty gardens. As well as simply observing their effect on the coastline's scenery, it is, of course, essential to taste their impact on its cooking – something you can do in the limoncello of Positano, or ricotta-filled ravioli with mozzarella and grated lemon peel, a real local delicacy.

Regional Italian creations 

As important as the produce itself are the meals, sauces and snacks created with it. In addition to international favourites such as pizza and pasta are an abundance of culinary delights – from delicious breads to indulgent liqueurs.

Among the must-tries is pesto, and there is no better place to go to taste and learn about it than its birthplace: Genoa, Liguria. Pesto Genovese is the quintessential pesto, made with a marble pestle and mortar, and created using the finest Italian basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan, salt and extra virgin olive oil.

Another traditional Ligurian speciality is focaccia al formaggio. Served hot, this focaccia is made with melted stracchino (a slightly sour cheese) and is absolutely outstanding. A staple in local bakeries and restaurants, it is easy to find during your time here.

Should you be travelling to the Amalfi Coast, don't pass up the chance to try some delicious limoncello made with local lemons. This lemon liqueur is made by steeping lemon zest until the oil is released. This is then mixed with syrup to produce a sweet, tangy liqueur that offers a true taste of Italian sunshine and culinary creativity. It provides the perfect way to round off any meal – and, indeed, your time in Italy.

See Cox & Kings holidays to Italy here.

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