By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC
Certainly an all-expenses paid gourmet tour of Italy would be a fabulous holiday gift idea, but it might not be in the budget this year.
That doesn’t mean you can’t share the flavors of Italy with the foodies on your list.
Tie festive baskets with red and green ribbons to match the Italian flag and fill them with an assortment of artisanal pasta, olive oil and balsamic vinegars for a fabulous way to convey holiday greetings.
I’ve always loved the thought behind fancy food gifts, especially if they carry the win-win message of taste and health. By pairing delicious aged balsamic vinegars with a gorgeous extra-virgin olive oil (and tucking in a few recipes for vinaigrette salad dressings) you’re saying, “I care about your taste buds and your heart.”
Decades of nutrition research show that Mediterranean diets made up of whole grains, greens, olive oils, fruit, seafood and wine are among the healthiest in the world. And as the Italians traveled far from their homeland, they carried the traditions of table with them, too.
Boston’s North End
Walk the streets of Boston’s North End and you’ll find yourself thinking you’re in Italy as you pop into the tiny shops specializing in cured meats, pastas, olive oils, breads, cheeses and all of the ingredients needed to cook authentic Italian meals, including the wines to go with them.
On a recent trip to Boston I joined a group of fellow foodies staying at the Fairmont Hotel on Battery Wharf for a neighborhood walking adventure led by Jim Becker of Food Tours of Boston.
Becker knows the North End. At each stop he greeted the shop owners by name and told us the stories of how the family-owned businesses began.
It was a crash course in getting to know the neighborhood and nuances of Italian culinary habits with samples along the way.
First stop was V. Cirace & Son on North Street (now run by son and daughter Jeffrey and Lisa Cirace), a treasure trove of Italian wines, from aperitivo to digestivo.
Becker’s lesson in Italian libations included a primer on digestive health: “Italians don’t like to complain of ‘agita’ after a big meal. So they have a long tradition of sipping amari, which are digestive or digestivo after-dinner drinks that settle the stomach.”
They are often anise-based or include pleasingly bitter herbal concoctions. From Aperola to Averna, it seems there are almost as many types of amari as there are shapes of pasta.
There are citrus flavors, too. We sampled a lovely limoncello from the Amalfi coast of Italy called Sogna de Sorrento. It was not too sweet and very lemony.
My list of healthful holiday gift ideas was growing.
Becker’s culinary classroom continued at Salumeria Italiana, a shop open for more than 40 years on Richmond Street and packed with foods imported from Italy.
As he carefully held up a pricey bottle of aged balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy, Becker warned about commercial grade fakes on the market.
“These are not truly balsamic vinegars,” he said. “These imitations are diluted with wine vinegars and often contain thickeners, sugar for sweetness and caramel coloring to make them appear darker.”
Look for a balsamic vinegar that’s been aged more than 12 years, the minimum to be designated aceto balsamico. Some of those bottles, aged more than 25 years, can cost hundreds of dollars. Happily, a little drop will be enough to add flavor power to a drizzle of olive oil on salads, meats or seafood.
Olive oil and pasta
Just as wine tastings help you appreciate the flavors of a grape varietal and where it’s been grown, olive oil tastings reveal the same. Some are peppery, some taste a bit greener, some are golden and smooth.
Even before you get into the difference between extra-virgin (first press and most prized) and pure olive oils (more processed and fine for cooking at high heats), Becker said, “Choose an olive oil for the purpose you have in mind. A spicier one would liven up a salad, while a mellow olive oil might be fabulous with fettuccine.”
Which brings us to gift advice on pastas. If you want to treat your friends, look for the word “bronzo” on the package indicating it’s a handmade artisanal pasta, not machine extruded.
Now I just hope my friends invite me over for dinner to say thanks.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org