Tomatoes Taste Better Here

Not much to report on yet today, as we took a nearly four hour ride from Rome to Florence on the train.   The Eurostar could have gotten us here in less than two hours, but students were tired, needed to write in their journals, and with the money saved we can have enough to pay for a day trip to Venice later on.  Once we got to Florence, we were met with the tail end of some rainy weather — the first, and according to the forecast likely the last, rainy weather we’ll encounter.

We’re staying at a wonderful hotel, Hotel Abaco.  It’s within site of Florence’s great Duomo, and inexpensive.   It’s beautiful, located in a building built over 500 years ago.  You do have to climb a few flights of curvy stairs to get here (the building is so old they  aren’t allowed to put in an elevator), so no wheelchair access, and probably not good for those who dislike stairs.  But the people are friendly and it’s really pleasant — plus, we have the place to ourselves, we occupy every room.

We took the students to a self-serve cafeteria two blocks away to show them where they can go to get Italian food that is quite tasty, but also cheap.   It’s basic — tortellini in crema, lasagne, cutlets, etc. — not the fancy fare of restaurants.  But it’s very good, the students loved it.  I got a plate full of tomatoes (thought I was getting tomatoes and cucumbers, but I must have grabbed the wrong plate), tortellini, and bruschetta (the ‘ch’ is pronounced like a hard ‘k’ – brusketta).   Bruschetta is bread with olive oil and tomatoes, so I had a massive amount of tomatoes.  I ate them all.  I don’t really eat tomatoes a lot in the US, unless they are in ketchup form.

Simply, tomatoes taste better here.  So do oranges and most fruit.   I am not a fruit lover in the US.  Here I attack fruit cups as well as tomatoes with a vengence.  The reason, I think, is that we get our fruits and veggies from so far away, or they are grown in such unnatural environments that they lose their flavor.   I’m not the only one who thinks this, one girl on the trip who doesn’t like tomatoes at all at home likes them here.  I think our desire in the US for cheap veggies and fruits of all kinds at all times of the year has given us subpar products, and most people don’t notice it because they don’t compare.  I mean, how many people fly to Italy for a bruschetta and compare that with their tomatoes at home?   I have had good home grown tomatoes in the US, but even the fancy “on the vine” sold at the local grocery store just don’t cut it. 

At restaurants here the portions are reasonable; one can eat a pasta, a meat dish, an appetizer, and desert — and not feel stuffed.  In the US, they hurl massive amounts of fries and meat at you, meaning you either gorge, leave it, or bring it home.  Since it takes awhile for the brain to register that the stomach is full, people often feel a bit stuffed and uncomfortable after eating out in the US.   I have never left a restaurant here with that feeling.   Not only are the portions smaller, but when you go out for a full meal it’s an evening affair.  Two hours minimum if you do it right.  And the waiters don’t try to pressure you to leave, they leave you alone.  Americans have at times gotten irritated because no one is bringing them a bill or checking on them.  But that’s the Italian (and European) way: you go out to eat, it’s an event.  It’s more expensive to be sure, but far more satisfying.    The only time I’ve encountered pressure is when dining in touristy areas where the menus are in English — those are places to avoid anyway!

So for convenience and variety we sacrifice the quality of the taste of our food, and then we put quantity over quality with gigantic portions but pressure to eat quickly and leave.   That makes it cheaper — more table turnover, more profit — but is it worth it?   Oh well, it is what it is.  So I’m just going to eat lots of  fruit and tomatoes, enjoy the experience of dining out, and ask the students what they think  about the two different food cultures.  That might make for a good long diner conversation tonight.

We also spent some time today at the Duomo and talking about Brunelleschi and the renaissance.  More on that later!

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  1. #1 by Tyler "Hrafn" Noyes on February 17, 2009 - 17:59

    Not sure why I am not showing as logged in. Regardless, the experience so far sounds extraordinary! Italy sounds like a fantastic place and it is surely going near the top of my “places to travel in the near future” list. In terms of food culture, comparing Italy to America was one of the topics in Barbara Kingsolver’s new book, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’. You seem to have made the same conclusions, and it is exciting to know that places exist in the world where food is so much more appreciated. Keep writing and safe travels!

  2. #2 by henitsirk on February 17, 2009 - 22:36

    I was going to make a comment the other day about bruschetta and how you hopefully would not hear that horrible way most Americans say it: “brooshetta”!

    I’d be interested to hear how it is for the average Italian these days — I’ve read that the tradition of daily shopping for fresh food has largely been abandoned for refrigerated and processed grocery store fare. though I imagine the tomatoes will remain superior! Are you not able to get freshly grown fruits and vegetables in Maine? You should be able to get some darn good apples and berries, at the least.

    “…with the money saved we can have enough to pay for a day trip to Venice later on” That sentence is so incredibly enticing! I’ve always wanted to visit La Serenissima.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on February 17, 2009 - 23:10

    It’s hard for me to judge what the ‘average Italian’ does. But supermarkets are less prominent here, and small stores are still abundant. A student here for the semester told me she thinks Italians still tend to shop frequently and haven’t adopted the supermarket culture.

    Yes, in Maine we have awesome blueberries and apples, we pick them locally each year and they are great. As for Venice, Carnival is next week, which is why we couldn’t actually visit for a real stay — at Carnival time it’s too expensive. But we will do a day trip. Yikes, it’s after midnight and tomorrow is another busy day. Buona Notte!

  4. #4 by Katie Boucher on February 18, 2009 - 18:26

    Scott – I think youre right about the quality difference. Just read this article this morning – it backs up your theory! http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1880145,00.html?xid=rss-health

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2009 - 21:51

    Thanks Katie. I’ve been hearing here to about a “slow food” movement, sort of the opposite of fast food to eat local products and enjoy the food.

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