It was some time in the late Nineties when posh restaurants in Sheffield brought little bowls of oil containing pools of balsamic vinegar and fresh baked bread to the table before the start of a meal. As things happen later in this city the rest of Britain probably had a head start.
They said it was Italian and as Modern British Cooking has lots of Italian elements I, for one, took that as true. You dipped your bread in the oil and balsamic, scrunched it gently against some rock or sea salt crystals on your plate and ate it. It wasn’t just posh, it was very Italian. Or so I thought.
I’ve just come back from Italy and eaten in a wide range of restaurants from posh to pizzerias and not once was I offered things this way. And, come to think of it, I wasn’t on my previous visit to Venice the year before. Because they just don’t do it.
They bring the bread first as a matter of course, to nibble and to mop up your sauce. The oil and balsamic arrive later with the main course, to dress your own salad if you order one, or to pour even more oil on your meal if you don’t think there is enough on. For good olive oil is a condiment along with salt and pepper to Italians. And, no, they don’t have big phallic pepper grinders either.
So there’s no plate on which to pour the oil, vinegar and salt at the start of the meal. Some people try to put the oil on a slice of the always excellent bread right there on the tablecloth but if I wait I can eat a space clear on my primo or secondo piatti and, Roberto’s your uncle, I’m away. And I did just that.
I asked Elena Trust, owner of the excellent home made pasta shop Stretti, on Sharrowvale Road, Sheffield, what she thought. “I’ve noticed it in restaurants in this country but we don’t do it in Italy. We dip some bread in oil to taste it but never with balsamic vinegar,” she says.
If Italians don’t do it, how did it come about in the UK? Well, Italians do drip oil onto bread to taste its quality, as Elena, from Piemonte, says. There’s no balsamic because that would mask the taste of the oil. And my research turns up a dish of toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and dribbled with virgin olive oil called spuntino but that’s for home, not restaurants.
As far as I can establish the practice started in the United States and, like most things, got copied over here. I have noticed it less and less in Sheffield these days. Posher restaurants, such as Rafters on Oakbrook Road, offer breads with butter (they make their own) along with the oil.
It’s not the only British misconception about Italy, according to Elena. “A Latte is a glass of milk. Milky coffee is a Caffè Latte.” She is also dubious about the Italianness of Americano coffee although I have seen it offered on many menus. That might be because they’ve got used to tourists asking for it. The real term is a Lungo, Espresso with water.
And in the interests of her native cuisine Elena would like to make it clear that antipasti is a starter dish in its own right, not something you have before the starters.
Another thing which raises her Italian hackles (we’re really motoring here!) is the use of the phrase al fresco for eating in the open air. “Fresco means fresh, at a cooler temperature. When Italians want to eat outside they say all’aperto, which means in the open,” she says.
Now whether bread, oil, salt and balsamic is Italian or not it won’t stop me having it at the start of our Italian evenings at home because it’s delightful. You just wonder why the Italians didn’t think of it themselves!