The Essential Italian Cuisine
by Lisa Bonet
When I think of Italian food I am instantly whisked away in my mind’s eye to a vineyard in Italy, sitting on a terrace in a sun baked valley with a glass of wine, good company and mouthwatering food. I can almost feel the somnolence of the day, with the cicadas in the olive groves and see the views across the countryside. Enjoying an Italian meal means experiencing a subtle blend of flavours created by some of the best natural ingredients to be had.
It is no wonder that Italy has such a great reputation for cuisine. The combination of extra virgin olive oil, garlic, herbs and fresh ingredients culminate in a gastronomic experience not to be missed.
I don’t have to go to Italy though to enjoy their marvelous food. The migration of Europeans around the globe over many generations means that I am able to experience the authentic taste of Italian cooking right here in Cape Town.
While I used to believe that pasta is the only thing on offer, although pasta is to Italian cuisine what rice is to Indian, this is not the case. Neither is Italian food unhealthy. Having looked more closely at some of the ingredients that are customarily found in Italian kitchens and form part of Italian diet, I understood their contribution towards a healthy lifestyle. The primary ingredient in the preparation of many dishes is olive oil. This helps to lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, as well as containing antioxidants, which help combat aging. Garlic is a member of the onion family and is a natural antibiotic. It also helps in reducing cholesterol, lowers blood pressure and benefits the body’s anti-oxidant status. The use of basil, particularly fresh, helps to fight inflammation associated with conditions such as arthritis; and like garlic, basil is a strong anti-oxidant and antibiotic. This glimpse into the beneficial properties of just a few of the many wonderful ingredients to be found in Italian meals demonstrates perfectly just how Italian food is a healthy choice to make. Another herb that is widely used in Italian cookery is oregano. Like basil, it has antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties; it has traditionally been used in the treatment of skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis and is high in many of the essential vitamins and trace elements we need for health; oregano contains Vitamins A, C and E complex, as well as zinc, magnesium, iron, copper, calcium and potassium.
While authentic Italian cheeses have in the past been difficult to source in South Africa, a growing demand for them has led to the nascence of an artisan cheese industry. Combined with the aegis of the import market, my meals have been made more enjoyable by the accompaniment of authentic Italian cheeses that any Italian cheese maker would have been proud to make. Societi Bistro’s Pumpkin or Mushroom Risottos, for example, are made with Grano Padano and just wouldn’t taste the same made with any other cheese. Italy boasts more than 450 varieties of cheeses, many of which are famed around the globe and are intrinsic to any authentic Italian dish.
Wines of course are plentiful here in South Africa and we have no need to import from Italy when there are so many Italian varietals and blends here at home. The Bianco de Stellenbosch in Societi Bistro’s Tour Through Italy, for example, is produced from 100% Pinot Grigio grown in the Stellenbosch region. Known sometimes as Pinot Gris, this is considered to be derived from the Pinot noir varietal and is produced across Europe, including Italy, having spread from the Burgundy region since the Middle Ages. The red Sangiovese offered on Societi Bistro’s artisanal menu is another Italian red wine varietal; made from grapes that mature late in the growing season, this is a rich full-bodied wine. Drunk young, it has a fruity flavor and when matured in barrels develops a beautiful oaky bouquet.
Try the Lenticchie con Salsicce (lentil stew with sausages); or perhaps the Spaghetti all’Aglio Olio e Peperoncini (spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and chilli); to mention but a few of the wonderful dishes available in the Societi Bistro culinary Tour Through Italy.