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Italy vs. Britain – A game of culinary and cultural differences

When I moved to London, my family bade me a fond, fearful farewell, certain that the rosy face they were used to would come back a starved skull. Like thousands of Italian relatives before them, and just as many after, they associated Britain with greasy pub food and unappetising boiled vegetable sides – and thought I’d signed myself up for a life of malnutrition. Four years, several visits and many attempts at debunking the myth later, they still gloat when they serve me a platter of prosciutto: “You don’t get this in London, eh?”. Well, actually, I do. I live in the United Kingdom, not Uranus. The foods I used to eat at home are never more than a couple tube stops away. But I’d be a rather poor traveller if I didn’t make the most of London’s culinary delights from all over the world; an incredible array of flavours that is, indeed, one of the best perks of living here.

North-Eastern Italy is no country for world food fans: where I come from, you’d be hard-pressed to find a takeaway with something other than pizza on the menu. Try to describe the beauty of a Pad Thai to any of my fellow countrymen, and they’ll lower their eyes, ashamed to confess they wouldn’t know where to locate Thailand on an atlas. Or they’ll choose denial, and claim they don’t like “that exotic stuff” anyway, much in the same way as they dismiss British food as tasteless. Poor souls, they don’t know what they’re missing: traditional British food isn’t bland at all, unless you dare call shortcrust pies, thick wintry soups and Victoria Sponge cakes “bland”. I hate to break it to you, but if you don’t like those, you’re a terrible person.

The Well - Spiced Parsnip Soup with Hazelnuts

Cultural differences between Italy and Britain don’t stop at food, but culinary divergences fascinate me like few other things. I could write about them for hours; for today, I’ll share three of the funniest facts I learnt during my time in London.

1) There are as many English words for “cream” as Eskimo words for “snow”

The first time I walked into a supermarket, I realised I didn’t know how to ask for cling film. There and then, it hit me: the realisation that I was alone, in an unfamiliar shop in a foreign country, with nothing to count on but a mastery of English I had clearly overstated. So I approached an assistant, and shyly, hesitantly asked for…”that transparent thing you use to protect food”. Much to my relief, he got it immediately; I wonder how many people had done it before, and how many have done it since.

Four years later, I got over most language barriers, but there’s one thing I still can’t get to grips with: cream. Or, like my twenty-three-year-old newly expatriate self would have defined it, “that thing you whip and put on desserts”. Which, in my country, is the same as “that white liquid you use in savoury recipes”. Not here, though: the day I tried to whip some leftover single cream to fill a cake still ranks highly in my top 5 kitchen epic fails. Come on, Britain. How on earth am I supposed to know that single cream isn’t for whipping? Who decided that “crème fraîche” isn’t simply the French word for “sour cream”? Faced with my local supermarket’s overly plentiful cream shelves, I realise that, if I was a disposal expert tasked with defusing a bomb, I’d probably cut the wrong wire. Luckily for humanity, I’m just a clumsy cook.

Cream aisle at Sainsbury's

2) British people don’t have biscuits for breakfast

To us Italians, English breakfast is an aberration: you’ll never, ever hear us mention “bacon sandwich” and “nine in the morning” in the same sentence. The sight of savoury snacks before noon leaves us both disgusted and bewitched, like a curious yet impressionable passer-by who happens to walk by an accident site, and just can’t help casting a glance over the wreckage.

Breakfast biscuits are another story: one made of countless soppy commercials, with happy families staging the unattainable utopia of shared breakfasts before the kids leave for school. Fake scenes from fake lives, telling one simple truth: we can’t live without our morning injection of sugar and carbs. Little did I know that, to British people, our morning routine makes no sense whatsoever. Every time I say I grew up to biscuits for breakfast, Brits look at me as if I’d just walked out of a spaceship, threatened them with a laser ray, and claimed I came to make them all my slaves.

As if I’d ever subdue a population that doesn’t do sugar in the morning. Never mind scrambled eggs: a guy I used to work with had a Cornish pasty and a packet of crisps every morning. Still, it was my breakfast people frowned at. I don’t get it: Britain is the land of chewy chocolate cookies, soft scones and creamy sponge cakes – why is it so weird that I want to start my morning on a sweet note?

Bluebelles of Portobello - Portobello Pudding

3) There’s no escaping getting lost in translation

Ever get the feeling that people don’t understand your most simple sentences, only to realise you’ve been using the wrong words all along? Four years on, I still get it all the time, and still refuse to accept that it will happen all my life. If it weren’t for those embarrassing moments, though, I’d never have discovered some of the oddest language differences between Italian and English. Here are three food-related ones I particularly like.

  1. In English, the word “biscotti” defines one specific bake: we call them “cantuccini”, and they’re typical of Tuscany. In Italy, all of the world’s biscuits and cookies are “biscotti”; that there’s a difference between biscuits and cookies, and I can’t just call them both “biscuits”, is a wonder in itself.
  2. The Italian word “ciambella” translates as “doughnut”, but the augmentative “ciambellone” defines a Bundt cake. What’s more, only the doughnuts with a hole in the middle are “ciambelle”; the others are “krapfen” or “bomboloni” – you pick the name you like best.
  3. Finally, the one that never fails to puzzle me: that a “latte” is a hot coffee drink with milk. If you order one in Rome, don’t be too surprised when a glass of cold milk lands on your table!

London Coffee Festival - Caffè Cagliari

Wait, there’s more!

This post is part of a special blogger link-up about expat life in the UK. Sara from Hello The Mushroom and Honey from The Girl Next Shore joined me in telling the blogosphere about their experiences. Make sure you read their stories, and if you want to share yours, leave me a comment: I’d love to hear from you!



13 thoughts on “Italy vs. Britain – A game of culinary and cultural differences

  1. A really interesting read – I like the idea of biscuits for breakfast. Definitely a tradition we should adopt in the UK! x

    Posted by Emma Jane | October 2, 2014, 5:19 AM
  2. I still struggle with cream, cream and cream…!

    Posted by LondonKiwiEmma | October 2, 2014, 6:50 PM
  3. I don’t usually eat something sweet for breakfast, unless it’s some kind of fruit, but I ate biscuits for breakfast almost every day while I was in Italy and now it’s become quite a habit 🙂 Also, the latte definitely took me by surprise!

    Posted by Nazia @ Your Sunny Side Up | October 2, 2014, 8:39 PM
  4. This is a brilliant post! I’d never even thought about how many types of cream there but now it comes to it, there are quite a few! x

    Posted by askrakowski | October 21, 2014, 1:37 PM
  5. I love this! If it’s any consolation, I’ve lived in the UK all my life and I’m still puzzled by cream…

    Posted by scar | May 6, 2016, 9:59 AM


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