The table is set, my guests are helping themselves to wine from the enoteca around the corner and heaps of spaghetti ai frutti di mare. I got up especially early today to go to the fishmonger outside the city and buy fresh seafood for the occasion: I am hosting my very first Italian dinner party.
They are my friends, of course, but hosting and cooking for an all-Italian group of people still makes me feel a little nervous. No other culture I know is as particular with and protective of their cuisine as Italians, not even the French!
As I half-rise out of my chair, I realize that my guests have stopped and turned to stare at me. So far, everything has gone well: the food is good, the white wine chilled, the candles give off a cozy, homey atmosphere. I’m quite pleased with myself. But something about my question has sparked confusion, if not outrage.
“Cheese?”, Andrea asks perplexed. “On seafood? Sei pazza?” (Are you mad?)
I know it’s not typically done, so I jokingly reply “The clams are already cooked, Andrea, I’m sure they won’t mind”. What was intended as a playful comment quickly turns into a somewhat intense discussion. Mind you, Italians take their food very seriously! But now I’m curious to understand: why is it that cheese and fish apparently don’t mix?
Giovanna puts down her knife and fork almost ceremoniously, takes a sip of wine, clears her throat, and declares: “It’s a question of geography, of course!” I ask her what she means and she launches into an explanation so straightforward that it seems almost impossible to refute: While pesce is consumed mainly in the coastal towns and cities, and many recipes originated in these places, cheese has been produced typically inland. Originally, neither of those ingredients were abundantly available in both places so recipes called for either one or the other but rarely both.
“Nonsense,” Luca injects immediately. He believes that the origins of this dilemma trace back much further in history. After all, Rome is close enough to the sea, and still, most of the city’s traditional recipes call for Pecorino cheese as one of the main ingredients. Back in Ancient Greece, he has recently discovered, Hippocrates wrote multiple treatises about health and diet and the link between the two. Even if we have since understood that certain claims are not based on actual scientific fact, some of them remained rooted in the cultural heritage. One of these claims is that fish and cheese create a poisonous reaction in the stomach and result in various health issues. Luckily, today’s doctors and nutritional experts agree that there is absolutely no reason to worry.
Andrea and I agree that the habit of not mixing fish and cheese most probably stems from the fact that, for the most part, fish and seafood tend to have a more subtle, delicate flavor which can easily be overpowered by that of many kinds of cheese.
From here, we diverge into more cheese debates that have sparked heated discussions at Italian dinner tables for centuries. We discuss mozzarella, for example, and whether or not it can actually be considered a cheese. This time, we are more or less on the same page: technically, Mozzarella is the result of a process involving bacteria culture and the coagulation of milk proteins. Many Italians, however, argue that Mozzarella is a dairy product (a so-called latticino) instead.
As I return to the kitchen to make coffee, I ask my friends over at the table: “Why is it that Romans are so particular about which cheese they use in their traditional Roman pasta dishes anyway? Take the good old Carbonara, for example. I have heard of people mixing Pecorino Romano and Parmesan. And then there is the question of using guanciale or pancetta, of course…” Behind me, my friends fall silent again. Then, I hear three alarmed voices exclaim in unison: “Parmesan? Pancetta?”
I already know this is going to be a long night…