What ingredients do you associate with Italian cooking?
If I ask you this question, I’m guessing a list starts forming in your mind. And I’d lay money on olive oil being close to the top. Italians have been cooking with and consuming olive oil since…well, since the dawn of time. Italian food just wouldn’t be Italian without olive oil, right?
That’s what I thought.
And who’d blame me? I grew up following Italian recipes from contemporary cooks; all used olive oil. I’ve known about the ‘wonder’ of The Mediterranean Diet and its use of this monounsaturated fat since my early health research. Here in Italy the trees, fruit and oil are all around me.
But it turns out I was wrong.
If that’s how you’ve viewed Italy’s relationship with olive oil, you’ve been misled too.
Here’s the truth:
In the decades leading up to the 1950s virtually all Italians cooked almost exclusively with lard.
How did the lie that olive oil was universal become ‘truth’?
Turns out the food traditions we internalise as true, that saturate our modern world, are malleable…even inventable.
Our tastes, choices and ‘knowledge’ are moulded, mostly unbeknownst to us, by the market. The promise of financial compensation and the possibilities inherent in global trade and marketing give groups of individuals the incentive and power to literally change our perception of what is true. Once changed, once ‘in vogue’, these misinformations are perpetuated through mass media, becoming part of our cultural heritage.
In the case of olive oil and lard, the post-war movement of populations from country to city, the growing search for a culprit for heart disease and the possibility for individuals to profit by the creation and selling of olive oil came together to propel olive oil into a position of ‘health champion’, with Italians being told to switch to it. From there, the export and trade possibilities rode roughshod over any inconvenient truth that the Italian fat of choice in the decades prior had been lard.
It’s only through talking to real people and learning what they actually did that truth can be uncovered. At a local level we have the possibility to do this with our own families (as long as we learn their traditions before they’ve been changed by our rapidly evolving world). But when these traditions have been carried out in a part of the world far from us, the truth is not so easily accessible.
Thankfully sometimes a person comes along who takes the time to interview and document traditions first hand. That’s what Karima Moyer-Nocchi’s book Chewing The Fat is all about. Karima is an American living in Italy – her book is a collection of interviews of 18 women in their 90s from incredibly varied walks of life who grew up in Italy before and during the world wars.
The information that these women revealed, through Karima, has completely changed my view of olive oil and its place in Italian history.
From Olive Oil Myths to Lard Truths
Again and again these women talk about how they used pig fat in the form of lard (and the cured version, lardo) everyday in their kitchens.
Women who hardly had enough food to survive, women who worked the land every day, dawn till dusk, women who were born into incredible wealth. Women from the Austrian and Swiss influenced north and women from the starkly different deep south. They all routinely used lard, not olive oil.
Pigs were a way to survive, their slaughter, come winter, providing meat yes, but most importantly providing fat. Fat to eat, fat to cook with, fat to preserve, fat to make soap.
As you can see from these quotes, all words from women Karima interviewed, Olive oil ranged from a local foodstuff used sparingly to something people even didn’t know about.
I’ve been rendering and using lard in my kitchen for almost a decade. I’ve done this not only because I love the flavour and how easy it is to cook with it, but also because it has always seemed the most environmentally sound and healthiest choice.
Despite doing this, I’d always had the ‘but the long-lived Italians have always used olive oil’ doubt in my mind. Reading the testimony of these women has given credence and history to my instinctive choices.
And it’s also reinforced in me the need for us all to question, at a deep level, what is ‘sold’ to us through media channels around our food. The profound social, political and cultural implications of the misinformation around the Italian use of olive oil is, I guess, just a microcosm of what is happening in the rest of our food world.