A Vegan in Italy

I was introduced to the Italians’ love of good food at an early age. Not by my mother, god knows; with a few exceptions, she was of the Campbell’s Soup/Minute Rice School of Casserole cuisine. But I grew up next to my Italian grandparents, heard the stories of my grandfather and his brother’s working as chefs for years in hotels, and ate the simple-yet-tasty home cooking of my grandmother.

The fields of Monferrato, a part of Piedmont where grains, grapes, rice, and hazelnuts grow

The fields of Monferrato, a part of Piedmont where grains, grapes, rice, and hazelnuts grow

Her raviolis were always a holiday treat, with the homemade noodles a close second. (Only years later did I learn venison was one of the secret ingredients in the ravioli stuffing). I missed out on other foods that my mother remembered eating as a kid, the bagna cauda (warm sauce with olive oil and anchovies) and fresh rabbit, which, along with polenta and a few other dishes, are common in Piedmont, the family’s  home region in Italy.  My mother did do a variation of my grandmother’s risotto, complete with chicken livers, though with the ubiquitous Minute Rice replacing the real thing.

From what I knew of my grandmother’s cooking and the region’s specialties, I suspected  that it would be hard to eat a strictly vegan diet. Not that I’m pure here, as I’ve mentioned at the Crisis before. But before we left, when I couldn’t find a real vegetarian restaurant even in a city the size of Milan, I knew dining was going to be tough in the rural area around Fubine.

Our cute little kitchen

Our cute little kitchen

The trip started well; the Indian-style vegan curry on the plane was actually pretty good, and the morning snack had roasted veggies on bread. And I knew I would be able to cook vegan meals in our apartment’s kitchen. I just didn’t know those would be about the only vegan meals I would have. The northern Italians slip dairy products or meat broths into many dishes, and I wasn’t going to be an ingredient Nazi. I would just order as close to vegan as possible and let the butter fall where it may. But our first meal in a restaurant, in the town of Valenza, showed that the task would be even harder than I thought.

For that first lunch, I ordered a pasta dish with pesto. From what I’d read, most pesto in the region was just basil, oil, garlic, and pine nuts, with none of the cheese that gets into some pesto here. I had even seen a bowl of pesto at the deli counter of local grocery. It burst bright green with basil, with nary a hint of cheese in sight. But my pesto meal – well…just a few flecks of green in a predominantly dairy (cream?) sauce. But it did taste good.

Over the next few days, we were invited into the homes of distant cousins and their friends, and all made a show of bringing out goodies for the visiting Americans. And how could I say no to this generosity, try to explain my vegan ways? I did say I was vegetarian, and even that seemed to raise a few eyebrows. No, I just ate the leftover Easter chocolates and the cookies and the cheese-topped treats and thanked them profusely.

Outside a rustic restaurant in Vignale...

Outside a rustic restaurant in Vignale...

...and what was inside

...and what was inside

And twice, one cousin took us to remote village restaurants where she knew the owners. They brought us food without our ordering off a menu, and so I ended up with cheese-filled pastries and homemade pasta, which of course meant eggs, and sauces surely flavored with butter. The strictly vegetable dishes included a local favorite, fritto misto, deep-fried veggies (another variation includes meat). I know zucchini flowers were among the breaded beauties, and they did taste good, but it was not exactly healthy eating. Another veggie dish: sadly over-boiled green beans, asparagus (in a region known for them) and carrots.

We didn’t have any of Piedmont’s true delicacy – truffles – but hazelnuts are another abundant local product, and they did turn up in a dessert or two. My cousin also made an incredible artichoke tart, with produce from her own garden (and of course, cheese and eggs). We also sampled the local wine, with Barbera my favorite. With cheese being practically inescapable, I had a couple of pizzas, and one covered in fresh veggies was a real treat. One of the best meals came on the last day: In Asti, I had a salad with arugula, radicchio, greens, and grilled veggies. It also had a dressing that I assume had dairy, but it was sparse. On top were thin shavings of parmigiano. They were large enough to remove, but at that point, I had given in to the temptress formaggio, and I devoured them with the rest of the salad.

So, in six days I ate more dairy than I had the last five years. No physical problems, and only slight moral pangs about abandoning the vegan ways.  (I even sampled some of my mother’s gelato; it was, I must say, heavenly.) I recalled some things I had read about the Buddhists: when they begged for food, they took meat that was offered them, even if they normally didn’t eat it. (Buddhists, though, are not required to be vegetarian, and the Enlightened One only said his followers should not eat animals killed specifically for them; later schools seemed to put more emphasis on a vegetarian diet.) In the homes and small restaurants we visited, it just seemed more polite – if also practical – to go with the flow and eat what was offered, meat and fish excluded. Does that make me a bad vegan? Yeah, I guess so. But I think the Buddha would have approved.

A food aside:

A food/Fubine aside: This was taken outside the home of Laura Maioglio, whose family has been in the town for centuries. Their claim to fame: they opened, and Laura still owns, Barbetta, the first Italian restaurant in the US. More info at their website: http://www.barbettarestaurant.com/home.html

When I got home, my first meal was a wonderful veggie burger. I also made an Asian-style peanut sauce that I slather on falafels. I have tried to eat as healthy as I can since, and I am craving some roasted chickpeas and lentils in tomato sauce and have been eating lots of greens sautéed in mounds of garlic. But part of me is glad I was open to experiencing the true cuisine of the ancestral homeland, rabbits and anchovies aside.

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~ by mburgan on June 1, 2009.

5 Responses to “A Vegan in Italy”

  1. You crack me up!! an Ma would kill you, how dare you write about her culinary skills (or lackof)…ah bagna cauda…ah polenta, (rabbit and all)..i heard you had hmmm…how do you spell them…meat/spinach/CHEESE…

  2. Always try my best to stir fond memories. Not sure what you mean by the last bit…

  3. Ma said the restaurant served “frigolings” or how do you spell it…

  4. Ah, yeah, maybe fricceling? No idea. Don’t think there was meat; they knew I was vegetarian. Man. the plates of antipasto went on forever there!

  5. And Rita knew about sfuyadi, but I don’t know how the hell to spell that one either.

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