I am often asked if I miss Italy or, more specifically, what I miss. After 16 happy years in the States, my answer is invariably “nothing much”. But, truth be told, certain habits die hard or, at least, the addiction to certain products that the mighty US hasn’t managed to either import or get right.
Friends who come to visit are invariably briefed on what they need to load their suitcases with. Parmesan is often smuggled because the real thing is a lot cheaper back home. At the top of the list, though, is deodorant. How it is that the “no gas” spray variety is not marketed here is a mystery. To me, it’s a no brainer – environmentally friendly (well, aside from the plastic packaging), aluminum free and, best of all, it does not stain clothes. Tired of perennially ruining t-shirts and dresses, I have resorted to stocking up whenever I go or ask well-disposed friends to bring a stash over.
Hosiery is another item Americans do not really get. The cheap or medium priced varieties are plain ugly and I can’t afford to shell out $30 for a pair of tights that, in the worst of cases, will only last a day. A friend suggested looking in discount stores but why go on hunting trips when in Italy pretty tights can be found on every corner, for the modest amount of 7 euros? My mother recently dispatched a supply of half a dozen to replenish my nearly extinct cache.
And, finally, there is licorice. What passes for licorice in this country is nothing more than corn syrup and flavorings. But the noble licorice plant, indigenous to Southern Europe and some parts of Asia, shares nothing in taste with the black, chewy rolls. Its sweetness has been known for centuries and the glycyrrhizic acid compound is still used in medicine for a variety of serious illnesses affecting the endocrine system and testosterone dysfunctions.
Monks in Yorkshire were the first to mix licorice syrup with sugar, let it harden and made the first licorice candy. The syrup is obtained by boiling the root and then let the water evaporate – in most countries where licorice candy is consumed, that syrup is then mixed with sugar, mint or other flavors. In the Netherlands a salty (and pretty disgusting) variety is very popular. But, to my knowledge, Italy is the only country where licorice is consumed in its pure state. It comes in small, hard drops that are slowly sucked – the taste is definitely an acquired one, strangely bitter and intense but with a sweet finish that makes it extremely pleasant. At least to me. When I get hold of a few packets, again compliments of generous friends, I do not bother to offer them around as most people, interested and curious at first, tend to spit them out as soon their taste buds start to register.
Even more difficult to find is the dried up root. I have fond memories of browsing through the open air market that would set up shop on the street where I lived during the month of December. Among cotton candy, Christmas tree ornaments, torrone and nativity figurines it was possible to find a vendor with licorice root – it looks like bark and it is sucked to moisten it and extract the juice which, besides being bitter and strangely sweet at the same time, also carries a woody taste. I can’t even remember the last time I saw one such stick.
So, yes, there are practical things I miss and ones associated with childhood memories. My answer, though, will still be “nothing much” when asked what I miss – or I can always refer them to this blog.