Cooking lessons from the heart of Italy

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I didn’t get to travel when I was young because I had to work at a family business. Nor did I get the chance when I had my own family, because my kids were triplets. I’m making up for lost time now…

I’m hoping you didn’t realize I’ve been in Italy with my husband for the last month.

I felt slightly guilty about taking such a long trip but I needed the break after 21 years of raising triplets and 17 years of running my own business.

To remedy my guilt, I wrote the last four Tuesday blog posts in advance. I also had some invaluable help from colleagues Casey Hibbard and Kate Zimmerman  who helped support my Extreme Writing Makeover and Get it Done groups while I was away. Thanks, Casey and Kate!

In any case, the trip was divine. We saw so many interesting places and ate so much fantastic food. I’d never been to Italy before so we started in Venice and worked our way south to Rome,  seeing Cinque Terre,  Florence, Pisa and rural Chianti in between.

Not everything went swimmingly. We had disappointing weather. Lots of grey skies. A fair amount of rain and cooler-than-usual temperatures. No swimming. I think I was able to wear my shorts for only four days. The rest of the time — because I pack light — I was stuck with my single pair of black pants. (Rest assured we did laundry several times.)

In Chianti, we even suffered a flat tire three hours into our one-week car rental. It was a bit scary because it was 6 pm and we were in the middle of freaking nowhere and spoke no more Italian than grazia (thank you), buon guirno (good day), and conto perfavore (could we have the bill please). Thus, I was both relieved and impressed when my unfailingly kind and indubitably smart but not-terribly-handy husband (his brother likes to call him the “wood butcher”) managed to change the tire to the spare in less than 15 minutes.

I was even more relieved that the flat happened on a Monday so we were able to get it replaced in two days. And that relief turned into incredulity when the car rental agency gave us a full refund for the cost of the tire, no questions asked, the moment we returned the car.

Other highlights? Finding an interesting and beautiful trail to hike between Vernazza and Corniglia when many of the trails in Cinque Terre were still closed as a result of freak storms in 2011.  Seeing the magnificent statue of David, in the Accademia  in Florence. Being welcomed into a private wine tasting (thanks to a quick-talking friend, also named David) in Villa Arceno with master vintner Pierre Seillan and Jackson Wines CEO Barbara Banke. Getting a new pair of reading glasses at a chic boutique in Rome. Seeing St. Peter’s Basilica,  the Sistine Chapel and the Great Synagogue of Rome.

But there was one discovery that outshone all the others and that made me realize a connection to writing: the food. When we arrived in Chianti and, at last, had the opportunity to cook for ourselves, I was overwhelmed by the bounty of fresh ingredients. Food really is different in Italy. It’s fresher, sharper, richer, deeper.

I started cooking at a very young age — about nine — and have had a passionate interest in food ever since. That said, I’ve had more than my share of screw-ups along the way: Sauces that curdled. Chicken that tasted bland. Pie crusts that struck the fork like lead. Cakes that refused to rise.

In Italy, however, I could do nothing wrong. Everything tasted magnificent. And trust me, it wasn’t my skill as a chef. It was the ingredients. Fresh vine-ripened tomatoes really do make a different sauce. And you can augment them with the most delicious capers you’ll ever taste: salty, acidic, and bursting with flavor. A blob of Genovese pesto goes with just about anything, from homemade ratatouille to eggs, to potatoes (which I sautéed for breakfast many mornings.)

What we call sun-dried black olives in Canada look the same in Italy but taste entirely different — sweeter, less bitter, more flavourful. The cheese is incredible beyond words, especially the Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino. Even eggplant, which I adore, tastes better – fresher and more eggplant-y.

So how does this make me think of writing? Well, one of the things I’ve noticed, especially in the corporate world, is that executives often believe the preparation is more important than the ingredients. They assume that “pretty language” is an all-purpose problem-solver. It’s not. Pretty language does nothing unless you have something to actually communicate.

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. With some skill and training, of course, you can make anything better but you can’t change its fundamental nature.

Just as you shouldn’t try to cook until you have excellent ingredients, don’t try to write until you know and understand the message you want to communicate.

As the Italians will tell you, you don’t want to make gelato out of cow’s liver.

Which do you think is more important: the ingredients or how you prepare them? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below.