I recently had the opportunity to chat with Matthew Fort about his new book Eating Up Italy. This wonderfully written and amusing work is part travelogue, part history book, and part cookbook. Armed with a Vesper scooter Matthew eats his way through Italy.
Simon Barrett: Matthew, I loved the book, it is so well done, and the mental pictures you create through your writing had me rolling on the floor in places. It was also very interesting and packed with information about Italy and it's history.
Matthew Fort: First of all let me thank you for you delightful, intelligent, perceptive appreciation of my book. Well, I suppose I would say that, but I have to remind myself that I really wanted to do the journey that I had dreamed of for so long, that the only way I could justify this to my family and my employer was to say that I would write a book. That someone else should get some pleasure out of what I did for purely selfish reasons is pure gold dust.
If I read it correctly you split your journey into three sections, one month for each. How many miles did you actually travel on that scooter? I did note that the 50cc did not last long – why did you change up to the 125cc?
The total journey was roughly 3,000 miles. I had delegated the job of finding me a scooter to my nephew George, who lived in Rome. Make it a 125cc, I said. He consulted his mother on the advisability of 125cc. "Uncle Matt will kill himself," it seems he told his mother."
I'll get him a 50cc. He'll never notice." And I didn't. Not until I got a 125 for the second and third legs of the journey. This was kindly lent to me by Piaggio,
From reading the book it seemed that for the most part you had very clear goals, not only of the towns and villages that you wanted to visit, but the actual restaurants, and in some cases even the actual people involved. This takes a lot of planning. How long did you spend planning this wonderful adventure, and how did you do your research?
I think the sense of purpose, direction and orderly control is slightly misleading. I had a general idea of where I wanted to go before I set off, and some key places in mind, but I wanted to leave as much as possible to chance. Chance looked very favorably on me.
Slow Food suggested a number of people to talk to. Above all I was fortunate to have my sister-in-law, Mary, in Rome to act as my project manager. I would ring her up or email her saying that I would be near, say Castrovillari or Acoli Piceno the following day. She would then check the guide books, web sites and her extensive network of friends, and phone or email me back with a suggestion about where to say, where to eat, and, at times who to go and talk to.
I am going to go out on a limb here. Now I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that you preferred the southern part of Italy. And my interpretation is that it is a much more insular environment. It offers more localized cuisine, local products, local techniques.
If you get the impression that I preferred the South it may because it had been so unknown to me that I did not know what to expect, and was in that sense a complete revelation. Perhaps, too, the earlier part of the book reflected my own excitement at starting out on the journey of which I dreamed so long.
Jamie Oliver did something similar to your adventure, but his choice of weapon was a VW Camper. The resulting series was amusing, but very shallow. Were you upset that someone had beat you to the punch line? Please do not think that I am comparing the projects – they obviously are aimed at completely different markets. But I am interested in your thoughts.
I was very pleased not to have a TV crew dogging my trail. Making a TV series really takes all the serendipity, spontaneity out of a journey. Everything has to be researched, organized, pre-planned. And perhaps Jamie was at a disadvantage because he didn't speak the language. It is difficult to get to the heart of a food culture if you don't speak the language it is expressed in.
In my review I stated that I was green with envy of your project. I genuinely am. If you had to pick one absolute high spot of the whole adventure, what would it be? And why?
There were so many high points. I found kindness, generosity and great food the length of Italy. When I look back, I am staggered at the way in which people treated me, took me in, gave of their experience and passion freely. Your question gives me great pleasure because it allows me to go back over so many great pleasures – lunch with Signora Cappello and her family in Reggio; the days spent at La Carolee; crossing the Monte Matese; the marvels of the Marche; travels around the Po Delta with Giacomo Benelli; my last dinner in Turin with the Larizza family. I suppose the great market at Porto Palazzo in Turin is a summary of the Italian food experience in one way; and if there was one part of Italy I would love to go back to explore again it would be that obscure and forgotten area, the Monte Matese. And to eat, perhaps La Bandiera at Civitella Casanova.
The obvious next question is, I am old enough? I have traveled enough, I know that things go bad. What was the worst part of the whole adventure?
It's all there, the good, the bad and the ugly. On reflection, perhaps I didn't quite capture the dampening effect that rain day after day in the beginning had on my spirits. But that's it. I had a very, very good time. Perhaps I have an unusually sunny nature. And perhaps I was just lucky,
You had me salivating over some of the dishes. If you had to pick the ultimate one, which would it be?
Oh crikey. That's a poser. I would hope that any last supper of mine would contain a helping of la salama da sugo of Ferrara. And some tonno di coniglio. Orrechiette con broccoli. A bowl of zuppa di virtu. A slice of pastiera.
I have never met an author that stops at one book. What is the next project, maybe a Vesper across the South Pole?
Not enough food in the South Pole for me. No, I am working at turning two Vespa odysseys I made around Sicily into chapters of pearly prose. Lunching with Leopoldo should be out next year.