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Food culture

In Conversation: La Merenda

Tommaso and I have built a friendship based on food talk. Like most Italians, all we do is talk about food. A couple of weeks ago we had a really long conversation about the ‘art of having merenda.’ If you don’t know what merenda is, don’t worry, you will find an explanation below. In short, it means a snack. But because we are in Italy, a snack can’t be a simple snack, it is so much more. We have specific merenda memories connected to different times of our life, different seasons and different regions. Everyone has it, and everyone has their favorite, and just talking about it for a few minutes brought up so many food-related memories about growing up in Italy. Instead of writing up your typical article, we transcribed a part of our conversation for you:

T: I need to start from somewhere so..I did some research on the term “merenda”, and I found out it obviously comes from latin “merere” which means “to deserve”. And that’s because most Italians used to work in the fields or factories, and waking up really early they started getting hungry around mid-morning. If you wake up early, work hard deserve a snack. Look at all the mid-90s commercials, there’s always a woman or a man with a headache saying: “I can’t focus anymore..” and the jingle comes up always saying: “You’ve worked hard, you need to eat a snack!”

S: Oh I didn’t think about that, but it completely makes sense. The most common merenda all across Italy is pane e olio. You either toast the bread or even just cut it fresh and pour some fresh olive oil, salt and just eat it like that. And it’s such a simple farmer’s dish. They always had bread at their disposal so they just needed to pair it with something.

T: Exactly, think about the Sardinian herders, they have carasau, the dry paper thin bread which they brought around for days along with their cheese and sheep and it never went bad. It’s always about the bread. Pane e salame, pane e pomodoro strusciato (bread and tomato) pane burro e zucchero (bread butter and sugar), pane e cioccolato (bread and chocolate).. or like most of our grandparents always love to remind us: pane zucchero e vino (bread, sugar and wine).

S: Yes! Every Italian grandparent brings that up, bread dipped in red wine with sugar sprinkled on top. The merende of our grandparents were so different from ours..

T: Speaking of getting drunk early and young!

S: But it’s not really getting drunk, everyone still has a bit of alcohol in the morning, it’s the before-lunch aperitivo. Many Italians still go to work early, by the time the first shift is over you go home for lunch but you need a break before that so you stop at the bar for a quick drink. It could be anything non-alcoholic like Crodino or Cedrata or the famous pear or apricot juices. But if you’re in Venice, you would have some wine to accompany your cicchetti (bite-sized snacks).

T: You don’t even need to go all the way out to Venice, the other day at the supermarket here in Tuscany, I saw a few customers just enjoying a Spritz mid-morning. To be honest I get it, if you’re doing some tough job, in a factory, or making food early in the morning like a baker or a cheesemaker, when it’s 11am you’d be starving. That’s why you often see those food trucks out in the parking lots cooking steamed tripe and lampredotto, or porchetta and sandwiches. 

S: Ugh I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

T: And even as kids, we go through the school merenda phase. We used to have the merendaro, a guy who would cart his sandwiches into the school, pick a corner in the main hall and sell sandwiches and snacks to all the kids. I still remember most of them were schiacciate with caprese, or cotto and fontina, salsa piccante, and some were pretty weird like a half cooked hot dog with mayo that would just slip out of the sandwich when you squeezed it. I became really good friends with my merendaro... I mean you gotta have the right people always on your side right?

S: We didn’t have the merendaro! We had an actual bar in the school. Like a fully functional one, we’d go down at 10:30 as soon as the bell rang and we’d buy food directly there. He had all sorts of simple merendine as we call them, like the pre-made ones by big companies, or more local ones like pizza rossa, pizza e fichi which is obviously common only in September and ice creams in the Summer. When I didn’t go there it was simply because my mom had made me merenda from home. I still remember my classmates always wanted mine. They  called it “the american merenda”: a few slices of turkey, mayo and salad in a sandwich. My dad made very different ones instead, like bread butter and anchovies, something he used to have as a kid and then passed on to me. And that just reminded me of an incredibly strong merenda I have when I’m in the south, with ricotta forte (fermented cheese), and a salty anchovy on top of it.

T: That sounds absolutely delicious. Although I wonder what else you’d need to drink after something that strong. But you were lucky, I was one of those kids begging my classmates for a piece of their merende. My mom used to send me to school with raw carrots, apples, or cheese and crackers. Nobody wanted to swap with me. My wife’s mother instead sent her to school with so much food that she started hiding it under her desk until one day her parents were called to talk with the teacher about this “food hoarding” that had been happening. I still remember she told me she’d go into school eating bread and lard which basically would leave her full all day. It was so caloric!

S: Maybe the most filling thing I can remember is bread and Nutella. These two thick slices of soft bread with crunchy crust and so much Nutella in the middle it would drip out the moment you bit into it. I didn’t have any Nutella in my house, but it was something I would have at my neighbours house without my mom knowing.

T: And along with Nutella all the “industrially-made” merende. The bags of cookies from Mulino Bianco like Pan di stelle dipped in milk, Abbracci and Macine..

S: Or the Crostatine from Mulino Bianco, I used to love those!!

T: In contrast to the industrial snacks (which might not have been the healthiest, but we would all be lying to say we didn’t love them) I remember one of my friends who would always have a breakfast/mid-morning snack with his grandma’s leftovers; scaloppine with mushrooms straight out of the fridge, cold lasagna or fritto misto. He’d then lie on the chair on the beach and complain he couldn’t go into the water because he had to wait for his digestion to be over.

S: Ah that makes me think of all the summer merende, like watermelon, gelato, pizza rossa, tramezzini, figs or anything freshly fished down in the south.

T: I kinda see why they say Italians eat six times a day. It’s not like we have six full meals but having this working class background and tradition it’s part of our normal routine to have food in order to get through the long days…

S: ..and we like food. How can you say no to all of this amazing stuff, especially if it’s a little intro before an even bigger meal! All of this merenda talk got me hungry, I’m going to go take care of that now, it’s that time of day.

T: I think I’ll go do the same!