Meeting with ‘Gastronaut’ Davide Paolini

From the microphones of Italy’s Radio24 to the pages of this magazine, we will be chatting with Davide Paolini about raw materials, culinary culture and local produce

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For more than 15 years, the unmistakeable voice of Radio24, Davide Paolini, has been present in Italian households, speaking about food and sharing news about the artisans behind Italian food and wine production. Deeply knowledgeable and an expert in the wonders of Italian cuisine, Davide Paolini is a veritable ‘Gastronaut’ because he makes his own decisions about what and where he eats and enjoys the most down-to-earth food, completely disregarding clichés and prejudices. We talked with him about cooking, wine and, of course, prosciutto.

Cuisines have been evolving increasingly all around the world: do people still know how to eat well?
I believe that we eat better today than we did in the past; we have access to an array of products that would have been unthinkable in the past. Of course the choice is highly diversified and also includes low and medium quality products, but I am nonetheless convinced that nowadays you can eat well, whatever your budget. In this regard, the importance of controls on agricultural products is of the essence, as they are fundamental in guaranteeing the quality of what we eat. Junk food exists, of course, but people today are aware of this and can distinguish between healthful and substandard food: this constitutes the great step forward compared with the past.
On the one hand, therefore, there is more food culture; on the other, we have less and less time to dedicate to cooking, we pay less attention and we take less care. People do not eat at home anymore, as they did in the past – particularly in Italy – and the time devoted to food is certainly far from what it was thirty, forty or fifty years ago.

Eating is about two things: the raw materials and the skill employed in working with them. In theory Italy has plenty of both. But is this really the case? In other words, is our food heritage still intact in both areas?
In my opinion, the skills used in handling the materials are dwindling day by day, just as the availability of raw materials themselves has fallen. Just think about milk, for instance, which we have to import from abroad to make our cheeses, or pork and beef, a large majority of which is also imported. It is difficult to meet the demand for raw materials with 100% Italian products, as pasta, cured meats and cheese all go to show. Only niche items can boast an exclusively Italian production, those D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) products produced locally according to tradition that represent the acme of the Italian agricultural sector.

Ethnic trends have exerted considerable influence over international cuisine. Do you think that Italy has remained more of a purist? Is that a good or a bad thing?
Italian cuisine is one of the most important in the world and I don’t see why it should give in to foreign influence. It’s all very well and good that the cuisines of other countries have reached Italy because it’s only fair that we should be able to taste and recognise them, but to let them alter Italian cuisine would be a dreadful mistake. I am also in favour of experimentation, because the concept is entirely different from undergoing foreign influence; it is others who should see Italian cuisine as the model to follow, certainly not the other way round.

What role could schools play in teaching children about a healthy food culture, both as part of their identity and, at the same time, as an excellent means of intercultural exchange? And how might this be approached?
The problem of food in Italian school canteens is a very topical issue. We should start with the fact that migrations are an ever-present element in the world today and that, consequently, all of the ethnic groups present in Italian primary schools must be taken into consideration. This should, however, be done without losing sight of our culinary heritage. I think it extremely important, even in primary schools, that children, whether they are Italian or not, be introduced to the basics of Italian traditions.

Gastronomic lodes*: new products are constantly being discovered, but can these “finds” truly become part of our heritage, given all of the advertising used to promote them? How serious is the risk that, after being discovered, they morph into something “folkloristic” and consequently end up distancing themselves from the existing cultural and culinary heritage?
I’d like to answer this question by pointing out that if we were to look at all of the 42,000 food festivals that take place all over Italy, we would see that 90% have been recently invented, without any connection to local products and, therefore, with no respect for those which come from the genuine lode of Italian gastronomy. I believe the problem lies in the fact that, at this point, very little remains to be discovered, because the traditions of the various regions are already well-known and this has led to the creation of wholly bogus, non-existent gastronomic “finds”. The festivals mirror this concept: the authentic ones can be counted on one hand.

Everybody’s byword today seems to be to ‘network building,’ working together to set up a system. Often, instead, things somehow drift into fragmentation: is there an alternative and, if so, what is it?
Setting up a system is very tricky as it is has always been difficult to conciliate the people and the reality of a situation in a joint project. As regards the food and wine sector, I believe that the only alternative is to waste as few resources as possible. I find it perfectly ridiculous, for example, to see Italian regions, provinces and municipalities actively engaged in various parts of the world, promoting products that probably have little chance of being used in that particular country either because of existing quotas or because there is simply no market for them. In my opinion, creating a system should mean drafting promotional projects that are well-focussed and capable of optimising efforts and resources to the maximum extent possible.

Let’s talk about Friuli: a region rich in outstanding local products. What are your favourites?
Firstly the wines, Vitovka and Ribolla, but also the Collio and orange wines. Then, of course, the cured meats like Prosciutto di San Daniele or from Sauris, and cheeses like Asino and Formadi Frant, which are real treats. And finally, gubana, a sweet which I enjoy very much.

What is the perfect match for prosciutto di San Daniele? And what, instead, is the strangest or most unpredictable pairing that you would like to try?
I love San Daniele paired with Verduzzo or Malvasia. As for a strange combination, I would take inspiration from Artusi **and choose red mullet with prosciutto.

If we wanted to pair a fruit with prosciutto, what should we choose and what wine should we drink?
Prosciutto di San Daniele with figs, possibly paired with a Pignolo.

Translator’s notes
* The term ‘giacimenti gastronomici/ gastronomic lodes’ in this context was previously defined by Davide as referring to food or wine products that are made in the traditional manner with know-how passed down through generations and which cannot be re-produced, if not with these techniques.
** Artusi: Pellegrino Artusi, Italian author of ‘La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene’ (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Fine Dining) 1891.