July 22, 2008

Taranaki Compares Well to Everyday Italian Eateries

By JURY, Abbie

TRAVELLERS are an optimistic lot, in the main, especially on the eating front. Daughter and I headed off to the south of Italy and I vaguely thought that by very origin, Italian food would be better there than at home. Yes and no, is the answer. Some aspects are decidedly better, but restaurant meals at the lower end of the scale can be pretty average, whether tourist-oriented or not.

I have had better meals at Arborio and Magnume.

No doubt if you go top end, you can find sensational food, but even lower end is expensive in New Zealand dollars. We could see our budget blowing out after just a few days and, as we were booking accommodation as we went, chose instead to go into self-catering apartments. I don't mind paying for special meals, but everyday food cost us a fraction of the price when prepared and eaten at our accommodation and we could still enjoy local produce.

Daughter is a splendid shopper and really likes foreign supermarkets, so she set about finding food outlets. The Italians, she suggested, were not predictable. In Palermo (a large city), we found markets but no food stores. In Cefalu, there were no markets and everything was sold from tiny neighbourhood stores. In Sorrento, there were two supermercato and many little shops but no market. In Rome, it was a small supermercato but no neighbourhood stores. I just let her go for it.

So the highlights of food in Italy? The cheeses were divine. Pecorino was my favourite, but all the cheeses we tried were really tasty and made even our upmarket options at home seem a little pale.

The olives were as good as you would expect. The tomatoes were a revelation. I have never eaten such tasty toms and we have been discussing it here. Even the little cherry tomatoes were sweet and flavoursome and I am not convinced that it is just the varieties they grow and the climate. It was only the beginning of summer, after all. We are gently exploring the theory that the soil composition can dramatically affect taste, too. It would be worth altering the soil to grow tomatoes like the ones I ate daily in Italy. The dried and preserved meats are delicious - and fish. In Sicily, they do fish well. Apparently the seas around there have not been fished out to the same extent as Greece's, where you are lucky to ever be served anything much larger than a sardine.

There was a whole range of different fish, including some exceptionally large critters, and each time we ate fish, it was super fresh. I don't think that we have got to grips with fish as well as we could have in our nation surrounded by seas. Frozen terakihi just does not compete with fresh fish landed that morning and on your plate by evening.

The Italians do antipasto platters well, too. I like antipasto, but in New Zealand it tends to be an assemblage from jars - caper berries, capers, olives, artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, hummus, maybe tapenade served with breads. Only Table @ Nice has ever served me up an antipasto platter locally that was better than I ate in Italy and which is not assembled from jars, most of which I can buy at Toops. I figured that the antipasto platter is more or less the sophisticated version of a ploughman's lunch, at least when it is ordered in the middle of the day. It is a collection of tasty cold foods served with breads.

Considering how awful Italian bread is (they must use the best wheat for pasta and pastries, because it sure does not go into basic bread), the quality of the accompaniments more than made up for it.

Pizza has its origins as a street food in Naples, but is widely offered on tourist menus. I had a dreadful doughy pizza in Monreale and a delicious crispy, tasty one in Rome. I think the one in Rome may even have been cheaper.

Coffee tends not to be a drawn- out sociable affair, at least not once the breakfast cappuccino and croissant have been consumed. It is more like a legal drug to be tossed down for medicinal purposes. I watched one man served his very short espresso (think half an egg- cup full, served in a mini plastic tumbler of the type we get wine samples served in supermarkets here). He drank it in one gulp, paid the equivalent of $5 and the entire transaction took about three seconds. Preferring a longer cup of coffee, I had to resort to ordering Americanos.

Olive oil was surprisingly expensive (though very good), but local wines were astonishingly cheap. Indeed, on really downmarket days, one could resort to litre casks that retail for around $2.70 in our money and were a great deal preferable to the retsinas of Greece. Limoncello was the local drink on offer around Amalfi. It is a lemon liqueur and with free samples on offer at innumerable outlets, I thought the truly cheapskate traveller could progress from sample to sample and get quite pickled. We were not being quite so economical.

In New Zealand, Italian food tends to equal pizza, pasta and risotto. These are essentially peasant food - a means of getting cheap carbohydrate bulk with only the bare necessities of flavouring - and are usually served as a precursor to the main protein dish of meat or fish. Italians, I observed, consumed large meals. Fortunately, for those of us with sensitive dispositions, we have never embraced the passion for obscure offal. Daughter and I both had to banish the somewhat disgusting inclusion on one platter that may have owed a very close debt to the inner workings of some poor pig.

Before we flew out to Italy, we ate Chinese in Soho (London's Chinatown) but the meal we had on my return here at Laughing Buddha was hugely better. It is time to banish provincial cringe. While I am sure we do not and cannot compete with Michelin star dining and cutting-edge international cuisine, for middle of the range dining options, we are pretty well off here in Taranaki if you know where to eat.


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