Trip update: Since returning to Formia two weeks ago, I have been busy planning and packing. There will be a trip to Bologna at the end of February, from which I will ride down the Via Adriatica to see my friends on that coast on the way back to Formia. I will go back to Bologna in early April for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. River Run 2017 takes off from there. Before I leave, everything in the apartment must be disposed of or shipped. My favourite ride has been the day-dreamer to Mondragone for biscotti all’amarena, a 63 km round trip to my favourite childhood pastry.
That childhood memory is one of many gastronomic benefits of living in the Bel Paese (the beautiful country). But this is not a food blog. No recipes, no raving about succulent treats: you can read about those on Facebook, and not just on my timeline.
Instead, here are a few random observations about the differences in food in between North America and Europe. Obviously, I am more familiar with Italy, but since 2001, the European Union has standardized most of the national rules. I watched as Italians had to water down their laws to match EU specifications; it went the other way for the British.
Sugar. Americans often rave (or complain) about how sweet their immigrant grandmothers’ recipes are. The default sugar in Europe is beet sugar; in North America, it’s cane sugar. The latter is sweeter than the former. Using the same quantities as a European recipe in North America puts too much sugar in the dessert.
Artificial additives. One of the most important differences concerns artificial colours and flavours. These are illegal in food in Europe, although in candy, they sometimes slip through. Also illegal in Europe are synthetic antioxidants (BHA, BHT, TBHQ) which are ubiquitous in the USA, and often found in Canada. These are powerful preservatives, used to cover up the spoiling of fats and oils and to extend the acceptable shelf life (oxidation is not the only by-product of decomposition).
Knowing that these artificial additives are not in the food chain at all allows me to enjoy eating out in Europe more easily. In North America, I must ask embarrassing questions like “what do you fry with?” to avoid the antioxidants that I react to.
Labelling. A nice feature of food labelling requirements in Europe is the column “per 100 grams.” In a world of flashy packaging, it is still easy to figure out how many calories (or grams of protein, sugars or fats) are in a package, because one can simply multiply from the “100 grams” column to the weight of the package or the weight of the portion actually being eaten. European rules also require very specific disclosure of additives in the ingredients list, using the EU codes (E150, E225, etc.). Thus, you can learn to spot specific additives that you need to avoid. The full list is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_number.
On the other hand, North American authorities require labelling on more types of confections, as far as I can tell. Even a small package from a vending machine will have the ingredients listed, albeit in microscopic type. Americans also came up with the extensive use of due dates on packages. Some say this goes overboard on some products, because it is easier to stamp an arbitrary two-year date on a bottle of aspirin than to run the tests needed to determine that real expiration. However, due dates appear on more products on North American shelves.
Enforcement. In my humble opinion, this area brings out the most contrast between the two sides of the Atlantic. As far as I can tell from the public discourse, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States is an embarrassment to the nation, its patients and its consumers. Nuff said: I won’t get started.
In countries like France, Spain and Italy, messing with the food is close to pedophilia for evoking public outrage. Italy, for example, assigns enforcement of food safety to the military police. A network of laboratories throughout the country, staffed by civilian scientists, checks the food on the shelves and in the markets. A visit by a squad of humourless, gun-toting carabinieri in black uniforms is the nightmare of every slaughterhouse, oil press or winery. They will have solid documentation when they show up. Those who slip tank acid into the wine or green dye into the olive oil might as well not come home after they get out of prison: their families will have been shamed and their neighbours will shun them.
Special diets. Both sides of the Atlantic share health issues associated with food: obesity, celiac disease, cardiovascular problems, and diabetes. Thanks to the popularity of American brands, countries that American nutritionists used to hold up as beacon of healthy diets (e.g., France, Italy) are facing the same challenges that North Americans face. With the epidemic has come greater awareness in the marketplace. Today, you can find vegetarian, vegan, and almost any kind of “xxx-free” you need in restaurants and supermarkets: gluten, sugar, fat, corn, peanuts, caffeine, etc. If you are avoiding something, learn the words you need to describe your condition locally, and don’t be embarrassed. Chances are you are not alone. I don’t ingest caffeine, and was delighted to find that every café in Italy now has an orzo machine alongside the espresso maker, for dispensing a barley-based “coffee” or ginseng to non-caffeine customers. Today, any group of five or more Italians gathering for a caffè will include at least one ordering orzo. You can’t tell the difference watching them drink it.
Food shopping. While both continents now have supermarkets, freezers, refrigerators, and microwaves everywhere, Europeans, especially in the Mediterranean, still favour going to the market every day. Small stores selling local produce and local typical foods still thrive around the corner from the national-brand supermarkets. Dual-income couples share the shopping, often trading who stops by the market, the bread store or the green grocer on the way home from work. The apartments, kitchens and refrigerators are small and electricity is very expensive, so stockpiling fresh food for more than a week is not practical. I have enjoyed getting to know the local merchants, who are also my neighbours. They will gladly sell me exactly what a person living alone can consume before it rots.
Next week, instead of a final sea story, I will outline the tour for this year, called River Run 2017, and summarize the changes to the blog that lie ahead. Get your last-minutes comments in to have an impact on the changes. Until then,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,