Being an Italian in Britain can be quite challenging when it comes to shopping for groceries. Despite the world getting smaller with the advent of new technology, the internet and low-cost airlines, the majority of Italians living in the UK still spend most of their time complaining about the lack of various products they consider indispensable.
Our adventure starts at a few typical supermarkets in London. As we walk into the first we’re greeted by the fruit and vegetable section. Initially impressed by the variety of products, our first complaints start shortly afterwards. Fruit and veg here generally lack the gentle caress of warm Mediterranean breezes and sun that make our vegetables so rich and tasty.
When in a British supermarket, do as the Brits do, we decide, and so we discover all sorts of potatoes and root vegetables, completely unknown in the Mediterranean side of the Alps. But, we discover, the yellow carrots (turnips to you) turn out to be a great accompaniment to our risotto Milanese.
The real fear starts at the pasta section. Pasta may all look all the same to some Brits, but to an Italian it definitely isn’t. The main brands with which we have been brought up by our mammas are vailable in London, but along side them (shock, horror) a number of completely unknown producers have infiltrated themselves, purely to confuse us.
While De Cecco is a respected household name in Italy, “authentic Italian” canned spaghetti certainly isn’t. Despite our initial shock we persevere and, while shopping for ravioli, we are pleasantly surprised by a British brand. Although we would normally opt for the safety of the Italian Giovanni Rana ravioli, we try our luck with the Sainsbury’s own brand, and subsequently say “ciao, ciao” to Signor Rana.
Having solved the problem of the primo (first course), we realise that we have only really managed to tackle half the meal. Now it’s time for the secondo (main dish). The selection of meats, cheese and fish is vast in most British supermarkets, but in our Italian eyes there still isn’t much variety.
We discover the yellow carrots (turnips to you) turn out to be a great accompaniment to our risotto Milanese
Ask any Italian about their experience in a British supermarket and you will hear: “The only thing you can find is cheddar and cod!”
Undoubtedly there is much more than that and the differences between the various types of cheddar are enormous. But that’s of little comfort to us when we’re trying to cure the nostalgia di casa on a summer day and, instead of finding a creamy mozzarella di bufala and a ripe beefsteak tomato drizzled with a fresh, peppery olive oil, we can only find extra-mature cheddar and Cumberland sausages.
We decided to drown our sorrows.
Since no Italian can ever enjoy a supper without wine, we head to the wine section. Luckily many good Italian wines are widely available in all the major British supermarkets, but they are often overpriced. In Italy, the vino della casa (unmarked, locally produced house wine) usually matches most meals, here we often have to resort, sadly, to exotic Californian, Australian or South African wines with their technological screw-tops and the morning-after hangovers that they induce.
Finally, we need a good dessert to sooth and comfort our palates after the shock of these Anglo-Saxon versions of our favourite foods. In Italy, your guests usually offer to bring the pudding but, just in case they’re also following the English customs, our search continues. Amid a sea of yoghurts and islands of trifle, we go for the British version of one of Italy’s most loved puddings, tiramisu. The traditional recipe includes savoiardi pasties and mascarpone but in our pre-packaged treat we find sponge cake and cream – not exactly what we would have liked, but quite enjoyable all the same.
Before heading to the check-out zone, we spend our last pennies on biscuits and chocolates. As Italians under the age of 35, we have been brought up on milk and Mulino Bianco cookies. From Sicily to Milan, there isn’t a breakfast that doesn’t include a product from this subsidiary of the Barilla label. We have yet to find them in a British supermarket, but we’re prepared to bet that our beloved Pan di Stelle – a chocolate and hazelnut cookie with sugary stars on it - could give your shortbread some stiff competition.
In cities like London when that special craving for something not in stock in our local cod’n’cheddar shop creeps up on us, we can often find a temporary, yet expensive alternative. Italian delis always welcome us with the warmth of home, introducing to us all the recent arrivals from the bel paese, but our enjoyment ends when what the cashier charges us makes us want to double check our bags to make sure we haven’t bought Bulgari jewellery instead of freshly sliced Parma ham and savoiardi cakes.
Sometimes the frustration is enough to cause us to resort too another pricy option, the Internet. Lifesavers in times of need, a number of Italian-run websites offer large varieties of genuine products: from Puglian extra virgin olive oil to Gorgonzola cheese from Brianza. Sites such as Nifeislife.com, offer us all we would need, weather apart, to feel like we would a casa.
Despite our experience in the supermarket, we are constantly reminded that perhaps opening our minds to new tastes and ingredients can be rewarding. After all, the best pizza we’ve ever had was in Brixton, south London.