Can we build a European identity on food?
If there’s one thing that we’ve all gained during Covid is weight.
Gyms are closed, outdoor activities are limited by lockdown restrictions, boredom has taken over.
In the western and privileged countries, many have responded with a sudden metamorphosis into creative chefs and bakers, stocking up on yeast and flour.
Italians simply cannot cope without pizza.
I have to admit that I did go down the baking route, albeit only buying the amount of yeast I actually needed. While the sourdough is rising, my thoughts wander off to the wider concept of food, of sharing it with loved ones on special occasions, of roots and traditions.
Italians take food traditions very seriously.
When we think of traditions, though, we often forget that what we consider traditional today is but the result of a long cultural process of becoming, made of exchanges and influences.
I mentioned pizza. One of the main ingredients is obviously tomato sauce. The tomato plant however was imported in Europe from America around 1540-1550 and was cultivated only from the second half of the 17th century onwards.
My Italian traditions, and my wider European traditions, stem therefore from a melting pot of civilizations1: the Roman Empire with its tradition of wine, bread and oil; the Germanic invasions bring beer and animal fat to the table, while the Arab peoples, also converging towards the Mediterranean Sea, refuse wine and pork meat as impure foods but contribute to our diet with rice, sugar, citruses, aubergines, spinach, spices, etc. To this we need to add a pinch of the rich jewish flavors, made almost iridescent by centuries of diaspora: onions, herring, cabbage, carp, duck from the Central European jewish peoples, but also chickpeas, beans, lamb and mutton from the Middle Eastern jewish peoples. The maritime republics expand trade and contacts beyond all borders and along the Silk Road and European colonial efforts connect the Old Continent to the rest of the world, completing our contemporary diet with coffee, tea, potatoes, tomatoes, etc.
In the words of Massimo Montanari, Professor of Medieval History at Bologna University: “Food traditions are and express the culture of the people they belong to. They are the repository of traditions and group identity. Cultural identities [however] are not genetically determined; they change and redefine themselves continuously, adapting to new situations arising from the contact with different cultures and other identities. […] Identities therefore do not exist without exchange” (Montanari, 2015). And as the brief nerdy history lecture in the previous paragraph2 shows, “the flow of ideas, products, people from one region to another, from one continent to another influenced the construction of food identities” (ibidem), so much so that in Middle Age, modern and contemporary cookbooks from all over the European continent we do find similar recipes, with even similar names.
I am not going to conduct a detailed gastronomic analysis to come to absolute conclusions here, but I can draw some examples to prove the point from my personal experience.
Remember when travelling was a thing?
I love traveling through Europe and part of my preparation routine is compiling a list of the most interesting food stands, markets, and kiosks where to savor local delicacies.
Needless to say, my travel companions are barred from even thinking of Italian food or comfortable (albeit questionable) McDonald’s burgers while abroad.
Here’s what I noticed.
Sausages are everywhere. My favorites are definitely Polish Kiełbasa, but how can I forget the amazing Bavarian Weißwurst, the very English Toad in the Hole or my regional speciality, Cotechino? More peculiar versions with blood or liver can be found in almost all European countries. Meat on a stick is also popular; we can order Arrosticini in Italy, Souvlaki in Greece or Pinchos Morunos in Spain.
I found that the passion for wrapping filling in pastry brings Malta (Pastizz) and Neaples (Panzerotto) close to Trakai (Kibinai), Cornwall (Cornish pasty) and Galicia (Empanada gallega). There also seems to be a very wide variety of dumplings, a word that does not render the difference between “ravioli” type dumplings (filled pasta – ranging from Italian Ravioli to Polish Pierogi) and the “gnocchi” type dumplings (bread or potato based mixture, usually served in the shape of a ball – Czech Knedlíky, Lithuanian Cepelinai, Slovakian Halušky, German Knödel).
One could hop on a ship and travel following cod from Venice to Lisbon, then on to The Hague, the coasts of England and further north to Norway, retracing both the intended and deviated routes of the Venetian explorer Pietro Querini (1400? – 1448).
Finally, potatoes are extraordinary, everybody seems to like them.
If I may bother Prof. Montanari again, “food is an amazing […] communication tool: […] eating other’s food seems easier […] than learning their language. More than words, food acts as a mediator among cultures” (ibidem). Europe encompasses 27 nations, each one of them with its own food and its own language, and both show signs of contamination as loans happened both in vocabulary and in grocery shopping lists.
It is interesting to consider however that if in the past the tendency was towards exoticism (the stranger the food, the richer the host), globalized Europe is now witness to a tendency towards protection of local specialities, which finds a legal realization with EU Regulation No 1151/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 November 2012. This Regulation ensures that only products genuinely originating in a given region are allowed to be identified as such in commerce by specific and recognizable markings known as protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and traditional specialities guaranteed (TSG).
The balance between these two extremes, embracing other cultures while preserving and promoting one’s own, is I believe the key to developing a European identity, and food seems to be a powerful trait d’union. This is a difficult and ambitious goal but also a possibility that makes Europe unique.
The whole continent is presently preoccupied with vaccines and lockdowns, and during a crisis, it is only natural that people retract inwards and look for safe refuge within a comfort zone of known references, but Europe offers us the great opportunity of learning and evolving through encounter and exchange, so I’m very much hoping that we’ll soon be able to celebrate this around a big dining table.
Infographic by Blanca Marabini with some key points of this article
(1) A few dates, for reference: the Roman Empire falls in 476 A.D.; Germanic invasions take place between 176-476 A.D.; the Arabs conquered Spain around 711 A.D. and were present in Southern Italy (CousCous is actually a typical dish in Sicily) roughly between 652 and 1061 A.D.. The Republic of Venice, a good example of a maritime republic, existed between 697–1797 A.D. and Marco Polo’s travels happened between 1271 and 1295 A.D.
(2) See Montanari, 2015.
All websites: latest visit on 28 Mar 2021.
Montanari, Massimo, “Il mondo in cucina. Storia, identità, scambi”, (a cura di) (Laterza 2002); e-book edition: 2015. Available in Italian only; I translated relevant sections, taken from the Introduction chapter, for citation in this article.