During my university years, I lived on the NSW south coast with an Italian couple who were happy to share their home since their adult children had left. And while I was studying biochemistry and physiology during the day as part of my nutrition degree, during the evenings I was learning much more about the true meaning of food, especially in the context of family.
Here is what the Italians taught me:
Eat at the table, no exceptions
Every night, at the same time, the table was set and dinner was savoured for at least an hour.
There was never fast food or family members eating at different times. If it was dinner time, you were expected to be there.
Good food is simple
One thing that never ceased to amaze me was how bare the fridge was, with little more than a block of Parmesan, some garlic, a red capsicum or two and the protein of the day.
Despite this, every night, and with little more than some olive oil, garlic and vegetable stock, the most delicious smells would come from the kitchen.
Portions are small
There were no huge slabs of meat or large bowls of ice cream. Everything served was a mini version of the extra-large portion sizes we see nowadays.
The meal would begin with a small piece of fresh white meat or fish, along with crusts of fresh Italian bread. (As they were northern Italians, they didn't eat much pasta, just spaghetti marinara for special occasions or lasagne baked for eight hours!)
Zucchini or asparagus drizzled with oil and salt and fresh salad then followed. Glasses of wine were only ever half filled. Even the Italian biscuits, served daily with coffee, were tiny.
The exception was olive oil, poured liberally.
Eating is a ritual
First came the main course, then the vegetables and salad. There was no rushing off after the main meal; instead, we would sit and use chunks of Italian bread (only the chewy crusts, with the doughy middle hollowed out) to soak up the sauces.
Coffee was brewed on the stove (no instant) and enjoyed with Italian biscuits (often dunked in the coffee), wine or even grappa. The meal would leave you feeling deeply satisfied but never full to bursting.
No packaged foods
With the exception of stock cubes (imported from Italy), oil and biscotti (again imported from Italy) there were no packaged foods - they were not considered to be "food" at all.
Should "Nona" hear of any "junk" being consumed, such as snack foods or anything other than what she was serving at set meal times, then a stern lecture would promptly follow.
Quality food has flavour
Forget dry, grilled fish or steamed vegetables - in this household, even the plainest foods could be turned into taste sensations with just a few simple ingredients.
Stock was a mainstay and would be specially prepared using bones, a chicken or even vegetables days in advance if a special meal was planned.
Leeks and red capsicums were frequently used to build a strong flavour base, and olive oil and salt generally completed the meal.
There were no bottled or dipping sauces at the table.
Family first, food second
While an Italian mother spends much time and energy preparing nutritious, delicious meals for the family, the irony is that meal times are never just about the food.
Instead, the evening meal is a time for connection and for the family to come together to discuss the day's events, often loudly and argumentatively, but always passionately.
I learnt that dinner time is the most important part of the day, for looking after your nutritional needs and your soul.
- Daily Life