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A Chinese taste test of Italian cuisine

Piedmont is home to rich slow-cooked gourmet Italian cuisine

By Fuchsia Dunlop
BBC News, Italy

Most foodies would be bowled over by a gastronomic tour of Italy's richest region, but for a Chinese gourmet Europe's diet is strangely unbalanced. Its football though... now that's another matter.

We drive through the Piedmont landscape, a beautiful patchwork of autumn colours, red, orange, yellow, purple and green.

In the front of the car, my Chinese friend A Dai and my friend Monica, a Slow Food-movement volunteer, are having a lively discussion about football despite the fact that they do not speak a common language.

"Juventus, no! AC Milan, yes!" A Dai may be a restaurateur from southern China, but he knows much more about European football than I do.

And we have teamed up with someone who shares his enthusiasm.

Tray of Italian food

He will try anything, including the kinds of delicacies that normally appall Chinese palates - such as raw veal and ripe blue cheese

Fuchsia Dunlop

A Dai's other passion in life is food, which is why he has travelled to Italy for the Terra Madre conference.

A Dai is sharing his experience of running a restaurant serving what he calls yuan sheng tai food - that is, food made with natural, organic and artisanal ingredients.

But in our spare time, I have been trying to make up for a lack of football-related entertainment by taking him to some of the city's best restaurants.

We have sampled what seem like hundreds of different salamis, eaten exquisite pastas, and tasted the finest meats.

It is not the first time I have been on an eating expedition with a Chinese gourmet, and A Dai is unusually adventurous.

He will try anything, including the kinds of delicacies that normally appal Chinese palates - such as raw veal and ripe blue cheese.

But despite his open-mindedness, he sees Northern Italian food through the prism of classical Chinese gastronomy.

'Overwhelming taste'

He may be willing to eat cheese, for example, but he is struck by its oily mouth-feel and overwhelming taste.

The cheesiness of one magnificent risotto, he remarks, lingers in his mouth and affects the flavours of all the courses that follow.

Gourmet chinese dumpling dish
A Dai found the menus repetitive compared Chinese dishes

I have to admit that I can see what he means, and find myself comparing this heady Italian cheese with the stinking beancurd enjoyed in A Dai's hometown in China.

It certainly has a fearsome aroma and a somewhat cheesy taste, but its flavours disperse quickly and cleanly in the mouth, without the greasiness of cheese and butter.

Like other Chinese restaurateurs with whom I have dined in Europe, A Dai finds Western menus somewhat repetitive in their tastes and textures, and cannot believe that a special meal can consist of a mere three or four courses.

"In China", he says, "we have more than that number of appetisers!" He has a point.

Despite the superior quality of the produce available to European chefs, it is rare, over here, to experience the spectacular variety of a Chinese banquet, with its numerous dishes and rollercoaster sensations.

Above all, although A Dai appreciates many of the individual dishes he tries, he finds the northern Italian diet as a whole, dangerously unbalanced.

Like many Chinese, he is used to eating mainly grains and vegetables.

"Look at our teeth," he says. "We humans have only four of the sharp teeth of carnivores, and 28 flat, herbivore teeth."

Inner fire

In his opinion, this offers a clue as to the right proportions of meat and vegetables in our diet.

In China, he says, he really does eat about seven times as much vegetable food as meat: in Italy, it's the other way around.

A Dai and Giovanni Trappatoni shaking hands
Meeting Ireland's coach Giovanni Trappatoni outdid any meal A Dai had

In Chinese medical terms, devouring meat, cheese, and buttery starches like this stokes the body's inner fire.

Every evening, when we return to our hotel, A Dai drinks infusions of green tea and ginseng in an attempt to cool down.

On our last day together in Italy, Monica takes us to a rural restaurant in the heart of truffle country.

After a long drive, we park the car and enter the clamorous dining room. The food is as good as Monica promised. The scent of the white truffle shavings scattered over our hand-made pasta is transporting.

And A Dai is bowled over by the tender ox cheeks, melting and gelatinous.

In terms of Chinese gastronomy they are perfect or "fei er bu ni" - richly fat without being greasy. And the vegetables, red peppers and cardoons, though few in quantity, are stupendously tasty.

I am thrilled by this lunch, the best meal of the trip.

Map of Italy

But somehow I know that A Dai, in the midst of his pleasure, must be fantasising about bamboo shoots and lightly blanched greens, and comparing our eight-course meal with the 20-course banquets of southern China.

And I have a feeling he will be drinking double measures of ginseng tea tonight.

At least on this occasion A Dai's appetite for football-related experiences is satisfied.

A man he noticed when we entered the restaurant turns out to be, as he had suspected, the footballing legend Giovanni Trappatoni, a veteran player who is now coaching the Irish national team.

Thanks to the intervention of our waiter, Mr Trappatoni comes over at the end of his meal, and shakes A Dai warmly by the hand while I take photographs, and I am secretly relieved.

Because even if my Piedmontese gastronomic tour did not quite meet the exacting standards of a Chinese gourmet, in football terms, this trip to Italy has been a roaring success.

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