We all think we know antipasti. The trouble is we don’t. What we’ve been eating is, in many respects, an approximation of what the Italians have been enjoying for decades. Centuries, even. Why else would we go on holiday there and comment on how wonderful the food was? And why shouldn’t it be here, too? In the same way the French used to keep their best wines at home during the ’80s before eventually relenting and allowing us the opportunity to get it here, the Italians have realised they have to offer out their choicest produce, too. It’s this that has allowed a small, specialist company, operating out of a church crypt in London’s Chelsea, who have for years nurtured relationships with a handful of Italian artisan farmers, to literally bottle this secret and bring it back to Blighty for our pleasure.
You’ll recognise the sorts of things already; you’ll have seen some of them in delis and even on supermarket shelves, you might already buy them. There are olives stuffed with goat’s cheese and semi-dried tomatoes, bruschetta and stuffed bell peppers. Nothing new here, you might think. But here are antipasti that you’ve never had before, as you’ve never had them before. This is genuine Italian fare, as it would be served, unadulterated and without the need for preparation.
When you open the jar of semi-dried Perinos, you can actually smell tomatoes, as opposed to the burnt, stale offering we’re used to. And the first thing that hits me when I try one is that they’re sweet. But there’s no sugar added. No anything, in fact. But the sweetness in these is richer still. They are, indeed, a particular variety that has a naturally higher sugar content, but they’re more intense than dried tomatoes because some water is retained in them and that retains their sweetness. That craze for sun-dried tomatoes not so long ago never appealed to me – I always found them too tart, too chewy and too strong and would always bury them in a salad. But these I would happily eat out of the jar.
There’s further distinction between these and similar products, I notice. For the most part, they are served in sunflower oil. “Why not olive oil?” I hear you ask. “Surely that’s the genuine article?” Well, no. The oil, certainly, has its preserving qualities, allowing the farmer to pick the best produce at the best time of year so that you’re then able to enjoy them at any time of the year. But the use of sunflower oil is specific: olive oil has its own flavour, so if you want to taste the best of the produce itself, you need a vehicle with a neutral taste, and that is sunflower oil because it doesn’t confuse the aroma or the flavour of the food it is hosting.
It’s the quality of the offering that marks these products out. The tomatoes and stuffed olives aside (the goat’s cheese, for example, is specifically Sardinian and chosen for its saltiness to soften the natural bitterness of the olive), there are Violetta artichokes that aren’t mushy, but robust and firm to the bite, because they’re bottled almost as soon as they’re picked, not stored in brine barrels beforehand. This is produce picked and bottled at source, with no additives or tampering to increase the yield. What goes into the jar has provenance.
This is antipasti as it is meant to be.
These products are the result of long relationship with producers in southern Italy, garnering confidence and nurturing relationships. To bring them to our shores, a long time has been spent rejecting things that simply weren’t quite right. Then going through the motions with buyers to ensure that what they were picking was a range of products/foods worthy of being uniquely Italian not simply because of their provenance but, in many cases, this is the first time some of them have come our way; the semi-dried peppers, for example, and the pièce de résistance, truffle pesto.
This pesto is deep and dark; it’s nutty, with aromas of musk. Here, the subtle but distinct truffle aroma and flavour gives it depth, making this an ideal ‘winter’ pesto. It’s coarsely chopped, too, with cashews as well as pine nuts, going against the current prevailing fad of smooth pestos and pastes, making it wholesome, rustic, and meaty. It transports you to the misty forests in the foothills of the Appenines.
As the range of Italian offerings has spilled from restaurants into delis and supermarket shelves, such is their ubiquity that it is, to say the least, a daring venture to introduce a product range claiming to be uniquely Italian. But that’s exactly what it is.
And the name of these uniquely Italian products? Well, UniqueItalia, of course.