As Authentically Italian As A Banana Pizza
Cheeky chappie celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s been attracting the combined wrath of Spaniards and foodies with his take on that Spanish institution Paella.
“Good Spanish food doesn’t get much better than Paella,” he chirped, “and my version combines chicken thighs with chorizo.”
Not especially contentious you might think, but it’s been the equivalent of lighting the fuse and waiting for the firework to explode.
The thing is that while Paella has a wide-ranging list of ‘traditional’ ingredients, spicy chorizo sausage – while indisputably Spanish – doesn’t happen to be one of them.
And always quick to seize the opportunity of giving a celeb a bit of a kicking, the online community wasn’t slow in getting stuck into Jamie O.
Rather wittily in fact…
OK (tee hee). Point taken. Proper Paella of the type you’d get in downtown Valencia doesn’t contain chorizo. And while you may think the purists are being a tad anal in their protests about a dish that while not traditional, probably tasted fine, I think they have a point.
While what I know about Spanish cuisine could be written on a pinhead, after nine years in Italy, you get a pretty good idea of what’s authentic and what isn’t.
And going by stuff I’ve seen named and shamed online, Italian food is bastardised, kicked around and generally screwed up perhaps more than any other.
And yes America, I probably am talking about you as the prime suspects here.
There’s a Facebook page called Degrado Italo-Americano which names’n’shames the worst atrocities committed in the name of ‘authentic’ Italian cooking, and if you’ve got a strong stomach
take a look at this photo-gallery published by La Repubblica.
Spoiler alert: You will see a Banana Pizza; and you will see Spaghetti alla Kiwi Fruit; and you will see whatever the hell this is. Luckily, you won’t have to eat it.
And once you’ve…er…digested all this, you’ll maybe understand why the cast of the hit US TV show ‘Jersey Shore’ complained – while on a location shoot in Italy – that nowhere served ‘real Italian food’ like they were used to back home.
The vituperative comments this provoked in the Italian press made what was directed at Jamie Oliver’s Paella look like a mild slap on the wrist, and while I never thought I’d find myself sticking-up for the ‘Jersey Shore’ cast, I did feel just a little sympathy for them.
Because if you’ve grown-up in an Italian-American environment where Chicken Parm; and Pasta Alfredo; and Spaghetti and Meatballs are touted as what Nonna used to make back home in old Napoli, you’re not going to know any different – are you ?
Same – to a degree – to what I was used to at Italian eateries in the UK.
Does Pollo Sorpresa ring any bells with anyone ?
The ‘surprise’ was that this tasty dish of molten garlic butter sealed inside a bread-crumbed and deep-fried chicken breast – (bearing an uncanny resemblance to that other 70’s stalwart Chicken Kiev) – turned out to be as authentically Italian as a kilt.
Back in the day though – who knew any different ?
But I’ll tell you what’s worse than trying to pass-off something outlandishly bogus as ‘authentic’ Italian food.
And that’s when someone does a Jamie Oliver and turns a dish that really is 100% genuine Italian into something that isn’t.
One of the equivalents of making Paella with chorizo is adding cream to Spaghetti alla Carbonara. And you’d be surprised how many recipes instruct you to do this.
And just who suggests you do…
Like Nigella Lawson in the UK…
…and Martha Stewart in the USA…
…or if you really want to push back the culinary frontiers, you can follow the lead of those nice people who make Philadelphia Cheese Spread.
By all means add cream or a dollop of Philly if you want. But don’t kid yourself that what’s then on your plate is authentic Spaghetti alla Carbonara.
Like all classic Italian recipes, Carbonara is very simple and has just a few ingredients: Spaghetti…Guanciale…Eggs…Grated Pecorino…and a little oil.
Guanciale is pig’s cheek and not widely-available outside Italy. But nobody will die if you use pancetta – or even bacon at a pinch.
Ditto the substitution of Parmesan for Pecorino.
But that’s it. Nothing more or less. And Antonio Carluccio’s perfect treatment – (with a little gentle side-swipe at those who advocate the use of cream) – needs no embellishment or further comment.
And while we’re on the subject of authenticity, let’s tackle another of my major irritants.
This sublime Ligurian accompaniment to pasta is made of basil; pine nuts; parmesan; and olive oil. A clove or two of garlic are a completely acceptable optional extra.
Substituting parsley; or rocket; or sun-dried tomatoes for basil is up to you – but the end result won’t be real Pesto.
Neither will it be Pesto if you leave out the pine nuts and use walnuts or almonds instead.
“Ah…” you’ll say, “but these are just our takes on those old classics.”
No. They’re not. Your take would be adding a bit more of one ingredient – or a bit less of another. Not switching ingredients around completely.
What you’re doing is taking the basic premise of a particular dish – and changing it to provide a different taste, texture or appearance.
Following the ‘my take’ argument, I might as well point to our house in Abruzzo and tell you it was our take on the Empire State Building – only shorter.
Am I being just a bit pedantic here ? No. I don’t think so.
Hark back to earlier in this blog where Jamie Oliver’s inclusion of chorizo in Paella is mercilessly parodied by a ‘version’ of fish and chips combining aubergines with duck; and a picture of a piece of cod topped with prawns captioned as a ‘new take’ on roast chicken.
A line in the culinary sand has to be drawn. Authentic, classic recipes from any food culture have to be respected, be they for Spaghetti alla Carbonara; Crepes Suzette; or even Philly Cheesesteak. (Provolone ? Or Cheez Whiz ?)
And if you feel inclined to add to; subtract from; or change any of these recipes, please – have the courage of your convictions and call them something else.
ps. Did you think I was kidding about Banana Pizza ?
No. I wasn’t.