I have just returned from a couple of weeks in Italy, where we usually holiday. I like food, and I like cooking, and I have to say that in 10 years travelling in Italy I have never had a bad meal. I’ve had a few things that I wouldn’t particularly care to have again, but that’s a matter of taste.
We usually travel in the North/Centre region, stretching from Lombardy, through Veneto, to Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany (although not recently), Le Marche especially, Umbria and occasionally northern Lazio, an interesting region from a culinary perspective as it combines sea and mountain in a diversity of cuisine that is hard to find elsewhere. We mostly stay in agritourismo lodgings, which are typically beautiful, and can be found all over the place. Take for instance the Antica Torre, near Salsomaggiore Terme, €45 per night bed and breakfast, wonderful pool in the most wonderful silence but only 3km from a bustling town, a great small restaurant on site if needed…paradise.
The thing that usually strikes me when eating out initially is the value. You can spend enormous amounts of money on Italian food and drink, Britain spend very little. But it’s been my invariant experience that the quality/price reseal is such that all levels one gets enormous value for money. Part of this is probably just set them on holiday, part is due to the fact I’m sure that where possible we try to eat outside and everybody knows that food eaten outside (especially with a couple of glass of wine) always tend to taste nicer. Nonetheless when one finds for example that one can get a cup of coffee, and by this I mean a proper Italian espresso, and a croissant or brioche in the main railway station in Rome, Termini station, for €1.30 then you have to conclude that the value for money is going to be high.
This year as we have done for the last three years we returned to Gubbio. It’s a wonderful Umbrian hill town, reasonably well visited during the day, but at night almost deserted by tourists. That’s their loss, as are some fantastic restaurants in town. Again in terms of value for money, but also in terms of sheer quality of the food, Locanda del Cantiniere wins hands down.
It’s no surprise that this restaurant is consistently rated by tripadvisor as being the number one restaurant in Gubbio. They offer, for €28, a five course gourmet tasting Menu which is one of the best eating experiences that I believe one can have. Two starters are provided, the first a mixture of local mountain cheese with wild honey served with side of salami from Norcia ( which in addition to being the birthplace of St Benedict is also generally believed to be the home of the best salami and dried sausages in Italy) , followed by scamorza affumicata , a smoked mozzarella style cheese which was served having been baked gently with some pancetta.
Of course, the courses were excellent, as one might expect, we ate there two nights, on one night I had their saffron and prawn risotto,
on the other night I had a wonderful flat pasta, similar to papardelle, served with beans and anchovies in a magnificent powerful aromatic pasta and sweet pepper sauce.
I had sweet wine for dessert one night, and Macedonia della fruita , or fruit cocktail as we would call it. What was most interesting was their beef – they were very proud of their beef, which they proudly told us was the best in the world, and despairing of my massacring the italian language , then came out bearing a booklet, and lo and behold it came from ….Ireland. So the agrifood export sector has one success at least!
Its when you consider the relative cost of the eating and general tourist experience in Ireland versus Italy that you realize how much more expensive we are. I know there are fantastic bargains to be had in Ireland but consider…
- From Vignola to Bologna by train, €6.40, a distance of 33km each way, versus say Sallins to Heuston, some €12 or so
- the most delicious pizza, with queues out the door, right behind the Piazza dei Priori in Perugia and in the height of the world famous Perigia Jazz festival for €6-7 versus €9-13 for similar sized at the excellent Ballymore Inn
- the most sublime café macchiato for €1 within sight of the duomo in Orvieto versus €2 or more
- a large plate of prosciutto outside Parma, where else, for €6 versus at least €10 for any sort of same and I think one will agree the chances of getting something like the below are slim, a single serving doing two hungry travellers.
- a (half liter) beer, small pizza, large cheese and porchetta sandwich, two coffees and a liter of chilled san Pellegrino for €11 versus a respondent to my text outlining same paying €11 for a soup and sandwich in cork the previous day…
I could go on and on, but I think you get the message. Oh, and no, its probably not the high wages we (don’t) pay in the Irish tourism and hospitality sector…Eurostat data suggest that as of 2008 the hourly wage rate for Ireland and italy in the hospitality and restaurants sector was pretty much identical. While tourism is a major industry in this country and in Italy, we cannot compete with them on weather so must compete elsewhere. As of now, its not clear to me that costwise we are doing what we can.
(FWIW, I come from a family background in tourism, have family members involved in same breaking their a$$es trying to compete with NAMA zombie hotels, and have spent manys the happy shortbreak in Ennis, Galway and the west, so its not that we dont have the product…its the relative cost especially of eating out…)