The Academy rewards the Ambassadors of Taste
in homage to the founder Orio Vergani
President Petroni: “Our associations share the goals of enhancing and safeguarding Italian cuisine”.
Interview by journalist Mariella Caruso
Safeguarding and enhancing Italian culinary tradition is one of the goals of the Italian Academy of Cuisine founded by Orio Vergani on the 29th of July 1953. It is in the name of Vergani, who passed away in 1960, that since 1984 individuals, organisations or associations are rewarded for honouring Italian food culture in Italy or abroad through their activities.
This year’s prize, consisting of a medal, a certificate and a cheque for 10,000 Euros, was awarded to the Italian Association of Taste Ambassadors.
“By partnering with the Association led by Cristina Bowerman in several events during International Italian Food Week, we got to know professionals who share our values of promoting and protecting our food heritage within Italy and abroad. This is why we chose them to receive our award”, explained the Academy’s President, Paolo Petroni, delivering the prize during a press conference organised at Romeo Chef&Baker, alongside the Taste Ambassadors’ annual assembly.
President Petroni, what is the current relevance of Orio Vergani?
“Vergani decided to found the Academy because he had realised that food traditions were disintegrating: he could find tortellini with cream sauce in Venice, Rome or Milan, but not local dishes, replaced by shrimp cocktails and pilau rice with prawns. We overcame that moment in history; then came nouvelle cuisine with its tiny portions and plating borrowed from French cooking, which was a disaster. Later, luckily, traditional regional cooking was re-evaluated and ingredients rediscovered which are far superior to those found years ago. Now some threat of degeneration has resurfaced: we Italians don’t understand its strength and risk following international fads. If eminent food guides praise northern Italian or South American cuisine, cooks believe that they will have success by following their methods. Obviously we don’t ban innovation, but we must be very careful to avoid straying from the standards of our cuisine in the name of standardisation, which is currently a substantial risk”.
From which standards must Italian cooking never stray according to the Academy?
“First and foremost, good taste. Then, respecting ingredients: it is useless to serve capers from Pantelleria or Cantabrico anchovies while being unable to recognise them by taste. The cook must not misrepresent or distort the flavour of the primary ingredients, and must know how to present a traditional recipe in a recognisable manner: for example, an excellent carbonara need not be identical to that found in traditional Roman inns, but must recall its flavour”.
It is commonly thought that Italian cuisine cannot be codified…
“Indeed, it cannot. Italian cuisine, as such, does not exist, which is why we are called the Italian Academy of Cuisine rather than the Academy of Italian Cuisine. Ours is not even a province-dependent cuisine, but varies over a much smaller territory, since by travelling only a few miles one encounters different recipes and traditions. I am Tuscan, but in Florence there is ribollita while in Livorno there is cacciucco. The Academy is often accused of calcifying cuisine because we have registered several recipes, but we do this only to preserve historical heritage rather than demanding that everyone slavishly follow these recipes”.
What are the aims of the Italian Academy of Cuisine?
“Those of its founder, Orio Vergani: safeguard (therefore preserve) and enhance (bring into the future) Italian cuisine. Its other major goal is to have the significance of Italian cuisine recognised at the European level and by Unesco. Unesco’s recognition of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity applies to all countries around the Mediterranean basin. We Italians have been unable to make the most of the study carried out by the American Ancel Keys in Calabria. Even the apparent recognition of pizza in fact covered only the art of the Neapolitan pizza makers”.
Given the unlikelihood of ‘Italian cuisine’ receiving recognition, what else has some chance of being recognised?
“Certainly pasta, internationally emblematic of Italian cuisine, which has supplanted French cooking in the restaurants of the best hotels. One can ascertain that a restaurant is Italian by observing that the menu is arranged by appetisers, first courses and second courses and that the dishes include pasta or risotto”.