Yes, I really did discover this. Of course, to Italians, they’re not eating Italian food; they’re just cooking and eating what has been traditional. Well, I love Italian food–don’t get me wrong. And back in the States, I cooked Italian dinners many times per week and growing up, we enjoyed Italian dinners almost every night (except Sunday which was beef roast day). I even made my own pasta and bread on a regular basis.
When I first scoured the local grocery stores on arrival in Puglia, I was in heaven to see that there were multiple aisles of different pasta! Bread galore! A whole aisle of different flours. Abundant produce. Yippee.
But also back in the US, for variety (notice the word ‘variety’), I would also cook Mexican foods, Chinese foods, some good ole barbeque with hot dogs and burgers, baked beans, corn bread, and corn on the cob.
After several months here, I started craving a taco and some chips and salsa. Egg rolls and hot/sour soup invaded my dreams.
And that’s when it hit me: because Italians eat Italian food, that’s what you get to eat, too! And pretty much all the time. I missed the variety.
No huge aisles of ethnic foods in the grocery store. Not a jar of hoisin or soy sauce to be found. No fresh salsa and tortilla chips. No tahini to make my own hummus. No nutritional yeast for my tofu!
Not a problem, I thought. I’ll make my own tortilla chips and fresh salsa since tomatoes and peppers and onions are plentiful. Wrong. Not a bunch of fresh cilantro hiding anywhere in this village. You can’t cook Mexican without cilantro, a basic herb. And I also couldn’t find cornmeal. Polenta, yes. Not cornmeal. So, no homemade corn tortillas or tortilla chips.
I quickly realized, as the number of food products I couldn’t buy started increasing, that if the item isn’t used in Italian cuisine, it’s either nonexistent here or sparse and costly.
That goes for something as simple as baking powder–a staple in my US pantry because I like to bake short breads as well as yeast breads. I did find tiny and expensive packages of ‘lieveto’ mixed with vanilla in the store. But I enjoy having biscuits with my eggs, and vanilla doesn’t work for plain biscuits. I mean, not everything calls for vanilla! And what the heck–can somebody tell me where the vanilla extract is anyway?
Powdered sugar, cornstarch, baking powder, cilantro, molasses, mayonnaise. mustard, vanilla extract, almond extract, nut butters…the list is constantly increasing. Granted, I can find a few of these items locally, but they’re prohibitively expensive. One hundred grams of powdered sugar here cost more than a half kilo of sugar back in the States.
We’ve had to resort to buying some of these ingredients online, mostly from the UK (and hope our local Post Office delivers! haha–see my post about the Italian Post Office and package delivery). I still haven’t figured out how to get fresh cilantro, though.
I also realized why there are no Mexican or Chinese restaurants in this town: there wouldn’t be enough patrons besides me and my husband to economically support the enterprise!
With all the flour sold here, I was going crazy trying to find yeast. I mean, a lot of people are baking bread, so they must sell yeast here, right? I looked high and low for anything resembling active dry yeast and came up empty for a month. Finally someone told me it was in the fresh dairy case–I had not considered that since, in the US, it’s sold dry and in the aisle with the flours and sugars. And bingo. Small cubes of fresh yeast, not dry, were waiting for me. I must say that I’m now a convert to fresh yeast, so this particular difference has been a blessing for my breads.
We hosted a party for all our newfound friends who have been so helpful to us. We asked what they would like for the dinner that I was preparing. They all enthusiastically said ‘American-style barbeque’. I took them at their word. Great. Hot dogs (but no sweet pickle relish or chili available in this town, but at least I found a small jar of mustard), Old-Fashioned Barbeque Baked Beans (made with the molasses I had ordered online), potato salad, cole slaw, and banana chocolate cake for dessert.
My food bombed. The guests had one teaspoon of the baked beans, grimaced and said, ‘eeww, it’s sweet’, and put it aside like it was poisonous. We ate leftover beans for a week. My ‘famous’ potato salad with creamy mayonnaise that I had to make from scratch? Big bowl of that left over. And the cole slaw wasn’t touched. I thought I could redeem myself at least with the chocolate banana cake; I mean, who doesn’t like chocolate and banana? Well, I can name twenty people who don’t. Each spoonful was held up to the light, inspected suspiciously before tasting a crumb and setting it aside. My culinary expertise took a beating that night . But at least my husband was doing well mixing Aperol Spritzers!
Coffee. I love my coffee. My morning routine used to be to turn on the Keurig machine, brew a cup of Sumatra, and savor my first java while reading my emails.
Routinus interruptus! Fifty flavors of brands and types of coffee in the grocery store to choose from but only if you want espresso. They’re all espresso. An entire aisle of espresso. Reminds me of that old Henry Ford saying that you can have any color car you want as long as it’s black. You can have any coffee you want as long as it’s espresso. Oh, I’ll have a cappuccino once in a while, but it doesn’t satisfy me like a cup of brewed Sumatra or Kenya coffee. That Americano-style coffee is just plain awful–I think it’s for people who don’t like coffee or espresso!
So, for the first three months, I reverted to drinking tea (not the same as all coffee-lovers know!) until we found a drip coffeemaker online. Oh, sure, we could buy a keurig-type machine online, but no k-cup coffee to be found locally. And the online prices were ridiculous–probably tied to the price of gold.
We bused to a nearby town, and there we found some ground coffee in a bag for not too bad a price. Not too good, but not too bad. Well, the coffee is not too good, either. But at least it’s coffee! I will say that this dearth of ‘real coffee’ choices has incidentally prompted me to cut back on my daily two cups of coffee. One cup of the non-tasty, non-espresso coffee I can find here is all I can handle.
So, the prospect of eating the same type of cuisine every day did not occur to us who were used to having multi ethnic foods in easy reach. As weird as it sounds, we really were shocked to learn that Italians (at least the Italians here) eat Italian food to the exclusion of other ethnic foods. That has been a tremendous cultural adjustment. And if you haven’t guessed by now, I love to cook, and I love to eat!
Some food products I can buy online and sometimes I can even get them delivered. I’m making more things from scratch than ever before (creative uses of the 50 kg sack of soybeans we bought online!). Still haven’t figured out what to do about the cilantro, though–can’t even find a plant to grow it ourselves. And if I had known certain foods would be so hard to come by, I’d have left clothes at home and filled an entire suitcase with jars of salsa, cornmeal, baking powder, herbs and spices!
Does this lack of other ethnic foods make me regret moving to Italy? Not by a long shot. But, if you’re considering moving to a small village in Italy, be prepared to either adjust your tastebuds to an exclusively Italian diet (which is delicious, don’t get me wrong!) , or expect to do some grocery shopping online if you need variety in your food choices. And tell your family what foods to bring when they visit you.