Eating: The tyranny of tradition

WHEN THE Italians get something wrong, they do it quite spectacularly. Look at - well, their government. But more importantly, take their antipasto. It's an inspired way of eating that transforms raw and cooked vegetables, seafood and simple cured meats into something irresistible.

I'm not talking about leathery salami, stuffed egg and giardiniera from a jar-type antipasto. Nor am I referring to those breathtaking Renaissance- style antipasto displays at our more florid Italian restaurants. I'm talking about a simple way of eating that involves sitting round a table, sipping a little wine, nibbling a little chargrilled this, a bit of marinated that and some freshly picked whatever, dressed simply in olive oil and lemon juice.

But the Italians insist that antipasto comes "anti" - before - the "pasto" - the meal. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Any sensible person who has ever indulged in anti- pasto knows that it is the meal. They should call it invece di pasto, "instead of the meal". Tradition dictates that antipasto is followed by a brodo, a pasta or a risotto, solid main course, a salad, some cheese, and of course, dessert. That's not a meal. That's a wedding banquet. By the time they get to the tiramisu end of things, they are so bloated and food-lagged they go a bit dippy, and think that a bowl of sweetened coffee- flavoured mascarpone cream with soggy biscuits is a good thing to eat.

Antipasto - with its Mediterranean counterparts of tapas, mezethes, mezes, whateverezes - is close to the perfect meal, with its own checks and balances, its own glorious contrasts of flavour, texture, colour and aroma, and its own ease of preparing and serving. It is complete in itself. What's more, you get to eat from as many as a dozen plates instead of just one. You've got me.

In the Italian homes I've been in, eating has a rhythm of its own. There might be a few olives on the table, as people gather. Then wine is poured, which necessitates something more substantial, so some thinly sliced prosciutto is unwrapped. That calls for some crusty bread, some extra virgin olive oil and maybe a melon or pear.

More people arrive, so out come platters of grilled vegetables, roasted red and yellow peppers, some fresh bocconcini cheese. Somebody's favourite jar of something will inevitably be opened and left hospitably on the table. Another glass of wine goes by, and it's time for something warm - a platter of gratinated mussels, some deep-fried zucchini flowers, a few grilled sardines, or maybe a warm frittata. Then, really, it's all over bar sitting around picking at a wedge of aged Parmigiano- Reggiano or some grapes, with plenty of time for an espresso and a crisp cantuccini biscuit, as the matriarch apologises for the meagreness of the meal.

I put forward that antipasto is a better way of eating than the one we have now. I don't mean the ingredients must be relentlessly Mediterranean, just that we could perhaps move towards the collective shared meal and away from the tyranny of the individual portion.

So tonight I'm sitting down to a platter of fresh asparagus, a few pork sausages, split on the diagonal and chargrilled until sizzling, and a bowl of potatoes roasted with rosemary and garlic. There might be a perfect tomato or two, sliced and doused with good olive oil and red wine vinegar, and perhaps some zucchinis, sliced lengthwise and lightly grilled. OK, so it's only a whisker away from last week's sausages and mash, but the differences are greater than the staple products.

Instead of the culinary poverty of a heap of meat and a heap of starch with no room for anything else on the crowded plate, I am faced with a dazzling, brightly coloured display of all that is fresh and in season. Instead of the focus being on the selfish, individual serving, it is on the bigger picture, the assembled array.

Suddenly, it is a meal to share, to enjoy, to relax with, to talk over. It is a way of eating that removes us from the animal level, hunched and growling over one's own bone, and takes us to the higher realm of a sociable animal, able to put our bones on the table in the spirit of generosity, trust, hospitality and good- will. Speaking of which, could you stop hogging the prosciutto, and start passing the olives?

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