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22 June 2005

The big cook-off: Italy vs. France

As arguments go, I realise that the "Which country does food better: Italy or France" is a bit old hat.  But, following my recent purchase of Escoffier; reading Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef and my visit to Italy this issue has been playing on my mind.  I was mulling over the virtues of writing about it when I opened up The Times today and saw two articles, one about Italy and the other about France, under the joint headline "France and Italy are left dreaming of the glory days as times change and they grapple with an uncharacteristic period of self doubt."  This long-winded and no so snappy headline made me realise it was meant to be and so I decided to put finger to keyboard.

First I need to make something clear: I am fully aware that there is no such thing as Italian or French cooking, in each country cooking styles vary between regions and the differences within countries can be staggering.  But, we can't ignore that received wisdom has it that there is such a thing as Italian or French cuisine and so, being a follower of fashion I'm going to use these catch-alls for the purposes of this post.  If for no other reason than I'd be here all year trying to weigh up the pros and cons of each terroir.

For years I've been a strong believer that French cooking, in particular haute cuisine, is overly fussy, too many sauces, too much reduction and a failure to let ingredients do their job.  My conclusion may be as a result of too many soggy sole meunières or bordelaise sauces with a thick skin.  Although, it has to be said that when eating at the food of a top chef who's been classically/French trained, the food is wonderful, MPW at The Mirabelle, in particular springs to mind.  In general though, I've preferred the simple staples of Italian food, with what seems to be a reliance on letting great ingredients speak for themselves and a more relaxed (but by no means ignorant) attitude towards food and eating.

However, I recently sat down to read three books that might have changed my opinion and surprisingly two of them are American: The French Laundry Cookbook and The Soul of a Chef, both of them sharing Michael Ruhlman as an author and Auguste Escoffier's: The Guide to the Fine Art of French Cuisine.  What came through in all three books was that I'd fundamentally misunderstood French cuisine.  In fact, it is simple and it's not overly complicated, you don't use lots of ingredients, just a few of the best quality.  Thomas Keller's treatment of foie gras is an ode to simplicity. 

So with this grudging reassessment of French cookery I thought I should take stock of my views on Italian.  My conclusion is this: as everyday, enjoyable food it simply can't be beaten.  I was tempted to write that Italian food has a bit of a problem when it comes to more impressive dishes, but that's not correct, for impressive you'd be hard pushed to beat bollito misto.  Rather, Italian food is generally simple which means that it is relatively easy to do well.  French food is more involved and less care-free and therefore for a cook presents greater challenges, but once you've got your basics (as defined by Escoffier et al) down to pat, life becomes easier. 

For me Italian still wins, if for no other reason than because of what it represents, la dolce vita: the laid-back, chilled out approach that centres on big families and big food - two things I hold dear.  Having got a bit more cooking under my belt I can now appreciate the beauty of French cooking and a few of Escoffier's staples are going to be my next culinary challenge.  But on balance, give me Italian food any day.


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