The culture warriors
The Italian Academy of Cuisine is one of the most significant and influential organisations devoted to the preservation of traditional food and culture.
Anyone interested in Italian history is well aware that until an explosion of post-World War II reconstruction and modernisation, the country had long been divided into regions and smaller states. They had clung to their own dialects and specific food cultures had evolved around a largely agricultural and subsistence existence with little outside travel or wider influence.
For an observer such as Orio Vergani, rapid social change posed a major threat to the preservation of long-held traditions. Key catalysts for change included Italy’s new alignment with the United States and its membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Development dollars and strategic positioning led to greater industrialisation. And, the Italians did it in a way that to this day, produces well-recognised brands and concepts. It was the era when Vespas and baby FIATs hit the streets. It was also the time of “La dolce vita,” when film stars and celebrities flocked to the beaches and resorts, competed to be photographed sipping coffee in piazzas or drinking cocktails in trendy bars.
The advent of national television network, RAI, represented a rapid breaking down of regional barriers and for the first time, the entire nation could listen to the official Italian language. But, for poorer agricultural populations, it was a time of no jobs or infra-structure, few educational opportunities and continuing subsistence. Many of these people formed the migrant influx to the US and Australia.
With this backdrop, Orio’s dinner at the Hotel Diana in Milan, became the catalyst – along fellow diners and professionals in the fields of culture, industry or journalism – for a declaration that traditional cuisine should be held in the highest regard. They devised a plan to set up an academy dedicated to the cuisine before it became lost or totally diluted.
At its core was the philosophy that such an academy should be based on the essential elements of culture and education. The Accademia Italiana Della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine) was born on 29 July, 1953, to not only safeguard the Italian table, but to also understand that customs do evolve. It is thus the Accademia’s duty to coordinate the evolution of tradition, “a task that requires activity, a continuous broadening of the areas of action, an incessant search for reasoned and conscious consent, a capillary diffusion not only in Italy, but around the world.”
“Our cuisine expresses who we are, and helps us rediscover our roots, develops with us and represents us beyond our boarders. Culinary culture is also one of the forms of expression of our surrounding environment, together with landscape, art and everything which implies the participation of a person in a context. Culinary culture is an active culture, it is the fruit of tradition and innovation, and for this reason it is something to be safeguarded and handed down to subsequent generations,” the Accademia says.
Today, the Accademia retains these values. The not-for-profit body carries out its work through an intense program of cultural gastronomic activities.
In countries with large immigrant populations of Italian heritage, including Australia, it actively seeks to capture and foster traditional food styles. In 2003, it was granted the denomination of “Cultural Institution” by the Minister of Cultural Affairs. All its work is on a voluntary basis and is organised into territorial delegations - 213 in Italy and 81 abroad, with 7500 members in total.
The Accademia is governed by the nine-member President’s Council. A delegate selected by the Presidential Council directs his or her own delegation. The Regional Coordinator organises activities for delegations within a region.
Candidates for membership are only accepted after careful examination of their personal and moral qualifications. An “Accademician” must fully understand the historic and cultural values of Italian cuisine and have a gastronomic background developed through personal experience.
In Italy, delegations are present in each province and based within their area, directing their own social activities including congresses, publications, historical research, round tables and debates.
In Australia, there are delegations in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra and the newly established Brisbane delegation. The first Australian delegation was in Melbourne and was formed in 1989 by Luigi De Santo, an early importer of quality Italian foods who had a great appreciation for Italian food and culture.
A key event in the annual calendar is the ecumenical dinner, organised on the same day by all delegations to celebrate the theme of the year and includes not only the food, but expert speakers on the subject.
The theme is interpreted by each delegation, utilising the food, traditions and culture of their specific region. For 2011, the theme is fruit-based cuisine, recognising that fruit has always played a primary role in diets.
A major milestone for the Accademia came in 2009 with the publishing of its book, “La Cucina,” which brings together the classic recipes collected in every province, town and village. The contributors unearthed the origins of iconic dishes and also collected little-known culinary wonders. But, none of the 2000 recipes is set in stone. It is assumed that, like the traditional approach, individuals will modify them and include their own interpretations, as has occurred for centuries. The book specifies the region or even village the recipes were collected from and is peppered with the folk culture behind the food.
For details on the Accademia in Italy or
to find Australian representatives: