Staring into the eyes of Italy’s soul

My highlight of the first day at the 2014 International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, is an unexpected one. It’s not about Google Hangouts, new digital storytelling techniques or gamification.

No, it is about cooking and quality foods. That won’t be a surprise to anyone living here. But what is, is an Italian cook with a status at least as big as a Hollywood moviestar, and with solid arguments against photographing foods with smartphones. “When you take a photo, you loose a bit of the dish.”

Carlo Cracco is his name, and he is one of the judges on Italy’s version of Masterchef, a popular television cooking show where participants often are verbally mauled for attempting to poison the jury. “Italy as seen through regional cooking” is the official title of the ‘In Conversation’ session, moderated by Italian journalist and author Barbara Sgarzi.

Hundreds of people, young and old, women and men, are waiting to enter the auditorium. Standing room only in the end, and many have to stay outside. So who is this Carlo Cracco? It becomes clear very quickly that he alone is considered responsible for saving Italy’s culinary heritage.

So what about culinary journalism? The first question immediately makes clear that this part of the media also has seen its best of times. Over are the days that a handful of specialized journalists visited restaurants on a regular basis in order to verify that they were indeed among the best. Even Michelin guides are no longer selling.

At the same time, an army of 100.000 food bloggers makes it difficult to determine who is the most authoratitive blogger. Everyone is an expert.

Do you read what bloggers write? Barbara asks. “If it’s positive, yes,” says Carlo. “If it is negative I never saw it…. I do read it yes, but it is not the end of the world when negative opinions show up.”

Much of the hype, if one can call it that, is inspired by the recent publicaiton of Carlo’s new book, ‘A qualcuno piace Cracco’, which translates like ‘Some like Cracco.’ The book is a collection of historic recipes from all regions of Italy. Some recipes trace back to the 15th century. Carlo has made a real effort to provide the original recipes.

“A recipe is never final,” he says. “Most other cooking books are full of big ambitions, but when you try them out, you can’t manage. A good photo was more important. Publishers often are cynics – “the written part… no one will make it”.”

Trip across Italy

Regional cooking really is a huge topic in Italy. It would require a dozen books to cover them all, and Carlo admits his book only deals with part of the collective culinary heritage.

“This is a trip across our country. There are many aspects in there that are not being remembered,” he said. “Re-interpreting regional cooking needed to be done because it is often forgotten. There are many young, fine cooks who want to do new things, but you have to remember that there is a history.”

“Italian cooking is appreciated worldwide, but the recipes are not set in stone.”

Against use of smartphones in restaurants

Not just in Italy, the fruits of culinary experts are no longer immediately enjoyed once they are served. Before picking up fork and knife to dig in, eaters increasingly tend to grab their smartphone to take a photograph of what is on their plate.

For cooks like Carlo, photographing foods in restaurants has become a serious issue at the detriment of what’s eaten.

“When you take a photo, you loose a bit of the dish,” he said. “It’s a great dish because I made it. It’s an art of love towards those who are eating,”

Carlo also raises a real technical relation between taking a photo of your fine food and its quality.

“When a dish is served it’s exactly at the right temperature – 34 to 38 degrees. While taking the photo the dish cools off and looses quality. If you take time to make a photo that turns out well your dish looses. Doing this… is not essential.”

Perugia 2014 has started. And I’m not able to share a photo of the grilled pecorino cheese with gently caramilized onions that I enjoyed today.

Learning more about Carlo Cracco really is like staring into the eyes of the Italian soul.

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