Culinary Heritage: Prison or Platform?

“What is culinary heritage and is it always linked to tourism?” Is the Italian culinary heritage a prison or a platform? Please feel free to insert any nationality into that question.
Tell me, what do you think about your culinary heritage? Is it a prison or a platform? Is it evolving or devolving?
Prosciutto & melone

I’ve been pondering
culinary heritage for the past week or so, ever since Rachel Laudan posed this
question on her blog:
"What is culinary heritage and is it always linked to  tourism?"  I'm paraphrasing the question, but this
is what I’ve been thinking about as I shell another batch of peas.


After turning this over
and over, and using Italian cuisine as fuel for thought, it came to me that if the
indigenous people eat a certain food all the time, like prosciutto and melon,
then it's heritage. If a particular dish appears only on restaurant menus or is
served up just for a photo shoot, then it's tourism. This could be a simple answer
to a complex question.


Now that I'd resolved
Rachel's query, and had some artichokes to clean, I was free to wallow in a
query of my own. Is the Italian culinary heritage a prison or a platform?
Please feel free to insert any nationality into that question.

When we were busy opening
the new Erba Luna ristorante here in town, all of our Italian friends assumed I
would be cooking hamburgers. The ubiquitous hamburger defines the rich US
culinary heritage with all of its glorious regional quirks.  That's a culinary prison.

 Friday night we sat with
friends and laughed about the Umbrian government-issued menu. Virtually every
trattoria and most ristorante will offer the same 6 or 7 pasta dishes. The
starter menu always includes sliced salumi, cheeses and crostini, and for a
main course there is always a grilled meat selection.  This is another sort of culinary prison, everything is good,
and there are no surprises whatsoever. Sometimes that is comforting, sometimes
its just plain dull.

Locanda al Gambero Rosso There is a marvelous ristorante
in the Emilia-Romagna region, about 45 minutes north of Montone, called Locanda
al Gambero Rosso
. Open since 1951, it's been in the family for three
generations, and they are expecting the fourth generation to show up some time
this summer. The debate has already begun if the baby will be in the kitchen or
working the front of the house. 

La Locanda al Gambero
Rosso is the finest example I know of using culinary heritage as a platform.
They are deeply, totally bound to all things Romagna. There is a passionate
confidence that comes with knowing they are absolutely eating delicious food.
The beef comes from the locally raised Romagna cow, the wild herbs are foraged
from the hills in the early morning, the cheese is so local you'll never find
it in your Whole Foods, and I won't even be able to find it in Umbria.

 The Italian word for history is
'storia', and at a recent lunch at Gambero Rosso, each dish was presented with
its storia. Moreno, the 'babbo' or papa of the restaurant served us a deep
green wild herb soup, studded with tiny cheese pearls. It was an herbal
cornucopia, but so balanced, so nuanced…a hint of bitter, a subtle mingling
of herbaceous flavors, finishing with a mild, refreshing, persistent note of
mint. Yeah, it was that good.
Zuppa di erbe  
we are swooning over our bowls of soup, Moreno comes by with a flat of the
fresh wild herbs to explain to us what they look like, since he’s the one who
was up this morning doing the gathering. He let us know that he hated this soup
when he was little. It was a chore to go out and forage for the greens and it
made him dislike the soup. It was poor people's soup. Now he loves the morning
forages and the soup and laughs at his own childish dislike. That is culinary
heritage preserved and honored.


Fresh herbs and greens As a final course, we had
a meat dish that involved the entire barnyard; it had eight different types of
meat, cooked in a delicious broth and served with pieces of hard toast for
sopping up the juices.  Moreno
explained this was something that was usually only served at an important festa
dinner, and then he confided that they made it a little different than the
traditional recipe and that he liked his version of the dish better than the
old fashioned way. That is using culinary heritage as a platform.

 There is honor and
respect paid to the origins of the dish, but no one felt the need to be a slave
to the recipe. I've never eaten at any of the Spanish culinary palaces, like
iBulli, but from what I've read, the Spanish chefs also seem to embrace their
heritage as a platform, not as a prison.

 There is another aspect
to the culinary heritage as a prison, that should be explored, and that is the
jailbreak phenomena. Modern chefs thumb their noses at history and vie for
extreme flavor combinations, extreme preparations and presentations. It's all a
part of the mix and flights of chef fantasia can be touched with the divine or
be just plain silly. And silly is in the eye of the beholder.

 Here in our little corner
of Umbria, I'm literally watching a culinary heritage melt away.  I just came back from the COOP
supermarket and the refrigerated section carried no less than 5 variations of
Kraft pre-sliced flavored cheese products.  Above that was pour and bake sacs filled with batter for a
lemon cake, or a chocolate cake, etc. These products didn't exist two years
ago.  Our usual cheese offerings
are mostly pecorino (sheep cheese) variations, parmigiana, maybe Gorgonzola or
some mild cow cheese.  All of these
cheeses are delicious, but when a friend shows up with cheese from France, we
melt with happiness, as we taste these wonderful cheeses. Our friend Brent, of Valle di Mezzo has
so much trouble selling his goat cheeses because the locals won't even taste
them. Culinary heritage as a prison that leads to the jailbreak: Kraft cheese


Tell me, what do you
think about your culinary heritage? Is it a prison or a platform?  Is it evolving or devolving?



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  1. John Sconzo on May 25, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Brilliant post, Judith. I think you hit the nail on the head with excellent examples. What has set Spain apart in recent years has been the ability to reclaim their culinary heritage without being prisoner to it. That has allowed for the best of both worlds from a culinary perspective.

  2. JudithKlinger on May 26, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Ciao John. I was thinking of you and all that you’ve written about Spain when I was working on this post. We haven’t been to San Sebastian yet, and I really, really want to go. One day…!

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