Wandering and Wondering

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Dinner with an Italian Family (Cena con una famiglia Italiana)

Last night I had the privilege of having dinner in the private home of an Italian family in Florence. The dinner was arranged by the school and together with Kelly, another student, I was invited to the Mascalchi family's apartment. We arrived at around 8.15pm and were introduced to 3 generations of family members: the grandmother, her daughter (the only one who could speak English), and her grand-daughter (who at a guess was around 7 years old). Over the last 10 years the grandmother has hosted countless overseas students and visitors from the USA, Canada, Japan and Sweden. I was the first Australian.

Dinner with an Italian Family

We were invited to sit down at the table for the "primi piatti" (first course), which was a simple but delicious pasta. During the meal, I asked the grandmother "che cosa fai in tuo tempo libero?" ("what do you do in your free time?"), to which she responded with a laugh "non ho tempo libero!" ("I don't have any free time!"). She then went on to explain that all of her time is spent cooking, helping at the family owned market garden and helping look after her grand-daughter. For her generation this has always been the norm.

"Secondi" (second course) consisted of some thin pieces of beef in a delicate crumbed batter. This was served together with fresh salad from the family market garden, bread and pecorino cheese. I knew that pecorni cheese was a specialty cheese of Tuscany, but what I hadn't known was that it is made from sheep's milk. It all made sense when the daughter explained that the Italian word for "sheep" is "pecora". When I mentioned that I haven't seen any sheep in Tuscany, she explained that they are raised in the southern part of Tuscany between Sienna and Rome, and that because most Italians consider the work too physically demanding, the job of raising the sheep was taken over a long time ago by Sardinians (Sardinia is that largish island a couple hundred kilometres or so west of the Italian mainland).

By this time both Kelly and I were feeling rather full, but there is always room for "dolce" (desert). The grandmother brought out a huge chocolate torte (seriously, the plate must have been half a metre in diametre) with a similar texture to brownies. However you call it, it was delicious, with Kelly finding room for a second serving. We started talking about the changing culture surrounding family meal-times. In the grandmother's generation, the family would always return home for a big lunch together. In the daughter's generation, however, very few women stay home to cook during the day, so the main family meal is at dinner time. And even though she didn't like to admit it, the daughter believes that the next generation of Italian families may even end up losing dinner as a family meal time as well, following the trend of many American and Australian families where family members are often too busy to eat together and instead end up eating alone in front of the television. I think it would be very sad if this does end up happening.

At the end of the meal, I asked the grandmother if this was a typical family dinner for them and she said that it was. Personally it was the best meal I've eaten so far in Italy (yes, even better than the 70 euro dinner at Sabatini restaurant). It just goes to show that to make a good meal the main things you need are fresh ingredients, simple recipes, a little time and care, and warm hearted people to share it with.

With my stomach content, on the way back to my apartment I was struck by the realization that after 3 months in Italy I can now partake in a simple conversation in Italian.

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