We just returned from a luxurious trip through Italy, Southern France, and a lightning strike into London which revealed many things about the cultural stereotypes embedded in that old joke about how in an ideal world the Germans are the engineers, French the chefs, Italians the lovers.
Lesson 1 – You can still trust Italians with an espresso.
Paraphrasing James Freeman here but Italy really does have the highest median level of coffee preparation. You can walk into any bar across the country and get a decent espresso and a better than decent macchiato. But they’re still just decent. The national style is to over roast and make that cup of espresso incredibly hot. So, you’ll be ready to go in the morning but will just have to accept a degree of mediocrity.
But god forbid you depart the world of Italian coffee culture and head into France where the an espresso is just another name for watered down and burn coffee. The minister in charge of such things obviously has a great enforcement operation because compliance is near 100%.
Never fear, London has excellent coffee and little operations are starting to appear in Italy and France.
Lesson 2 – What you lose in espresso, you gain in bread
As soon as you cross the border into France the quality of bread rises vertiginously. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about the average croissant.
Walk into any bakery in France and you’re going to find better than decent bread. Meanwhile across the border in Italy bakeries can definitely make decent bread, the foccacia is superior and there are definitely plenty of bakeries up to snuff. But the cultural norm is to make rather indifferent white loaves. Much of it is so insipid that I started to wonder whether the Wonder Bread conspiracy to eliminate flavor from all baked goods was actually hatched by a mad Italian.
But head west and suddenly all bread has a crust while bubbles take over on the interior of loaves and flavor multiplies. Of course the standard French baugette is mostly about texture but if you dig around in your local boulangerie you’ll find all sorts of entertaining loaves. Ditto in the bread basket at many restaurants.
But sadly the same can’t be said about France’s much deified croissant. The average level is fairly low wherever you go unless you really seek out a practitioner of the arts. By and large their soft and doughy, not many layers in side, that is, they’re the insipid counterpart to the baugette. They should have great crisp shells that shatter a bit to the touch.
Lesson 3 – Wine cultures create economies of scale
The cost of a decent wine in countries that have a long history producing it and including it in their national culinary cultures is nothing short of a revelation for citizens of countries without those production levels or traditions. To get a decent bottle in an American restaurant $30 would strain the imagination, $50 is more realistic. In France or Italy a very decent, even very good, bottle will run under $20 in many establishments. Even better, a liter of house wine will almost always put most of what we find in the US to shame.