If there is one thing I have learnt living in Italy for nearly a year and being in close contact with the original Italian food culture is that they are very protective of it and very very attached to the past and the old, traditional way of doing things. Which means, limited to zero tolerance to changing their beloved dishes.
Let me tell you a story. A couple of weeks back, I was doing a workshop for my client in Parma with some Italian chefs. It was one of those 'Chopped' style ones where you make a plate with ingredients we are given. It was baed on pasta and was meant to Italian inspired. We had eggs, garlic, pancetta, cream, spaghetti, lemon and parsley. So, the group, which, to note, was all Italian other than me, decided to make..... you guessed it.. Carbonara! So we did. with minced garlic, and, a creamy carbonara sauce nested inside a pancetta bowl! We were rather proud of it and presented it to the chefs as a deconstructed and inspired carbonara. Interestingly, the first thing I hear back is "Carbonara never has garlic!!!" accompanied with this blasphemous expression. It was all I could do to hold back laughter. Oh well... the same chef then took me aside after and said, there cannot be cream in the carbonara and it must be made with guanciale (pork cheek) and not pancetta!! To note, guanciale looks like pancetta in being fatty and streaky but has a very different flavor. So, I get his point. Yet, it highlighted how protective the culture is of their tradition that they could not accept the changed boundaries, even for the short term and with disclaimers. Funny that...! :)
The question in my mind is where is the line between innovation and tradition? When is it unnecessary to tinker with something that isn't broken and when is the need or desire? These are not questions just about food. This is the question of life. Candles were just fine enough to light up a place after dark; but thanks to Benjamin Franklin we have more homes with light than without. His curiosity gave us something none expected to be so valuable or far reaching. In a way, it also democratized the world more, allowing even more progress.
Of course you can say, isn't innovation in the context of food rather trivial, and, therefore unnecessary? We could focus on other more important things. But, is it? Is it really trivial? The history of Italian food culture itself a schizophrenic answer to that. Tuscany, the original Italy, that later annexed the North and the South, has always been a peasant land. Yet, today, it is the hot bed of "Slow Food" and all things expensive!
For that matter, all of Italy is not particularly well-off. Most of them struggle and for those coming from much bigger cities, the Italian way of life and happiness with little money is befuddling! Here one can live a good life with 2000 Euros a month. I cannot imagine that in NYC or SF or London or Istanbul or heck, India! Of course, what matters is definition of good life...Yet!
Traditions here unlike many other nobler parts of Europe were created from need than choice. Pigs were all that were happy in the Emilia Romagna region. And, there were not abundant. So, they had to be stored for Winter and leaner times. Hence, came Proscuitto di Parma, culatello, guanciale and so many many Italian products. Same with the cheese. But, along the way, the Italians have figured out that their traditional necessities are highly marketable at significant premiums. And, so they have catered to it... with discretion! (more on that in a later post!). So, that was an innovative approach that was adopted because it was profitable.
So, is monetary value enhancement sufficient cause for innovation or is it just necessary?
I suppose that is the core of my questions.. I am not sure. I think about this more and more these days as we seeing unexpected human and societal behavior around the world. What will tomorrow bring? What do we need to do to embrace the inevitable change?
Meanwhile, I present to you an ultimately blasphemous dish to you... Mushroom Carbonara. Which, is one, vegetarian and two has rosemary in it! Shhh! Yet, the mushrooms offer a earthy groundedness similar to what the guanciale would. If you are an orthodox Italian, I beseech you to try it before you turn your nose up at it. :)
Spaghetti alla Carbonaro con Funghi
handful of cremini mushrooms
2 egg yolks
1 sprig of rosemary, leaves chopped fine
1 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
spaghetti for two
Bring a large pot of water to boil and generously salt it. Add and cook the pasta to al dente. Cool and stop the cooking by running under cold water.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk together the yolks, salt, pepper and cheese. Set aside.
In a pan, heat olive oil (be generous) and caramelise the mushrooms. Add the pasta to the pan along with the rosemary, and turn to coat and heat, adding a little of the pasta water to keep it hydrated.
Turn out the pasta and mushrooms into a serving bowl. Pour in the yolk-cheese mixture onto it and toss the pasta to coat evenly. Add a little of the pasta water to make it slightly saucier.
Serve immediately topped with lots of parmagiano reggiano and some sprinkles of rosemary!