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. . . Italy's La Dolce Vita

Italy has long been viewed, from without, as a particularly sensuous society. A place for "La Dolce Vita", those afternoon siestas with a "Latin Lover" or an evening tryst on the beach with smouldering Gina Lollobrigida or fiery Sophia Loren. A recent example, fuelling the myth, is Nicholas Sarkozy's new wife, Italian Carla Bruni. She exudes sexuality in her photos and is encouraged to talk of little else in her interviews. Even the Italian obsession with food, clothes and cars, suggests that appetites are there to be indulged, satiated. It was not always like this.

In the mid 1900's Italy was still a very controlled place when it came to the mixing of the sexes, not quite Saudi Arabia, but there were rules that one disobeyed only at great risk. Most women stayed at home and if they worked it was on the family farm or in a cottage industry. Unmarried girls could not leave the house un-chaperoned, especially after dark and even the village dances would have one part of the room for the youngsters to meet and disport themselves, another for the older members of the family to play cards and keep an eye on them.

Young couples, having met in the safety of company could then start to do some things on their own. Travel back from Sunday mass together for instance, or go off with a group of young friends and family members, then snatch a few minutes to themselves. After a while the family of the young woman would allow her future husband to accompany her alone without escort. Now they became "fidanzati" engaged, betrothed. This did not necessitate anyone going down on one knee, a ring or a formal request, though all this could come later. The main thing was that every one in the community saw them as a couple and expected them to marry.

At this point there was no honourable way of turning back, they had after all been alone together and who knows what had gone on, the flesh after all is weak, so marriage was now inevitable. Though this custom is no longer observed in most of Italy where young people yield to parental control as reluctantly and rarely as anywhere else in Europe. In parts of the south, Sicily and Sardinia it is still the rule. Men from the more liberal north who find romance while working or on holiday in these regions have been known to be visited by an uncle or pair of brothers after their return home. The purpose being to explained the health benefits of marriage.

Though society restricted contact with respectable young women, it could not of course control the primal urges of young men. The outlet for these was through prostitution. Up until recently conscription required most fit males to spend a year in the army and it was during this time, away from home and in the midst of male bonding that the rite of passage, the loss of male virginity often took place. Prostitutes were not imports from third world poverty as they are today. Until 1958 brothels were still legal and the practitioners often a quite matronly hereditary cast. National service has since been abolished and sexual liberation has obviated, for most youths, the need and expense of employing a professional. Though as everywhere else in the world the oldest profession survives.

Traditions tend to mutate more often than they die. The idea of betrothal remains but has changed. Young unmarried couples often go on holiday together but with a couple of friends so that their parents can have a fig leaf of respectability, telling relations and neighbours, that "of course the two boys will be sharing one room while the two girls the other". Myths also mutate when confronted by competing prejudice and incompatible ideas.

When soft pornography was no longer banned in Italian cinema, film makers went mad showing acres of naked flesh in very poor, low budget movies. There was however a problem. While the audience might wish to see sex crazed women wearing little or nothing, these could not be portrayed as a normal Italian wife or daughter, this would be little less than sacrilege. Historical or fantastical settings were one alternative but left little space for the inclusion of lusty Latin lads to play the heroes.

The answer was to create the myth of the northern nymphomaniac. Women tourists had already be seen travelling by themselves or with a female friend, this suggested a different moral code. So it was only logical to make the "heroines", athletic Scandinavians complete with blond bunches and excruciating accents. Unfortunately those men, now in their 50's, who grew up with these films, if finding difficulty differentiating reality from fantasy, still believe that any woman born north of the Alps is likely to cast aside all caution and clothing at the sight of an Italian male.

Another awkward problem presented by the arrival of the "permissive society" was one of location. In England, the land of my birth, my rare and usually futile attempts to impress a girl took place in my flat. In the British isles young people leave home at an early age to work or study and so have their own accommodation. It was thought the fairer sex looked kindly upon a large and well amplified record collection. Other points could be scored with the correct posters.

Young Italian men however often remain at home until they get married, leaving the question of where to go with, and how to stir admiration of, the object of their desires. Answer, the car! Fast sports cars on wet cobbled streets fulfil not just the twin functions of Darwinian selection and population control. They are also the main determinant of whether a young stud feels himself to be cool and desirable.

Not everyone can afford a Lamborghini or Ferrari, but an Alfa Romeo or even a Fiat with the right accessories, provides both kudos amongst ones peers and a mobile if somewhat limiting palace of passion.

It is said "there is no fool like an old fool", for these there is the institution of the Nite Club, the misspelled first word differentiating it from anything like the real thing. These are still popular in rural areas giving a relatively innocent if tawdry pleasure to the credulous or naïve. A gentleman on entering the establishment will be greeted by a young woman, often foreign, who will ask to be offered a drink. She and the client can then spend the rest of the evening talking, casually lying to one another, while he gets tipsy on real booze and she drinks expensive fizzy water. Nothing untoward happens as by law the woman cannot leave the club until it closes in the early hours by which time the client has either gone home to bed or is too drunk to care.

Those with more wealth to indulge themselves can afford a mistress. It used to be expected of aristocrats, politicians and those in the "professional" classes, almost a badge of success. These days the increasing financial independence of women coupled with legislation allowing for divorce has made the practice much less common. Extramarital sex is not particularly frowned upon though, as long as it is between equals and does not threaten the viability of the family unit. Wives tend to be more understanding of this than their husbands. Perhaps because at heart they see themselves as mothers and their husbands as big kids, but with more expensive four wheel drive toys. Maintaining the younger woman is now seen as more of a liability than a luxury.

As in the rest of Europe women are now more self-sufficient and a large part of the work force, though rarely in the more prestigious roles. Most people live in towns and cities where the restraining influence of village gossip has no power. Plus the availability of divorce and contraception along with a constant diet of subliminal or explicit sexuality on TV at the cinema or in publicity has made an active sex life not just a possibility but also a necessity for ones self esteem.

Never the less, on balance Italy has moved quite swiftly from a society which placed firm restrictions on sexuality to one with a fairly open and pluralistic view of it. Avoiding the prudish hypocrisy of the Victorians and recognising the impracticality of avoiding talking about sex in the hope that it will go away. Nobody seriously proposes abstinence as the best form of birth control. The parliament has openly Gay members and until recently a transsexual. Television, billboards and mass circulation magazines show levels of nudity that would incur hefty fines in the USA.

This transition has not been with out some excesses. For a while a TV channel showed a quiz program where housewives would remove their clothing in a strip tease to music when they got an answer wrong. One of our porn stars La Cicciolina was a parliamentarian for the Radical party. Rather than expound any particular policies at election rallies she would bare her breasts, people soon got bored with both of the above. A perennial though is the celebration of women's day, marked not so much by protestations of sisterly solidarity but rather the influx of male strippers in local clubs. Sometimes to an audience of mothers with their daughters.

Visitor from abroad are often enamoured by members the local population. Easy on the eye by nature, Prada, Versace and Valentino have helped all, regardless of their physical attributes, to package themselves well. So here is a quick non-authoritative guide to not making an absolute fool of yourself.

Dress; Let's face it you will never be able to compete with what the locals are wearing but you can do your best. Stay away from pastel shades especially pink, you don't want your t-shirt to match your complexion after the first day in the sun. Italians rarely wear shorts or white track shoes, unless with designer labels and while running.

Drinking; In some cultures a few drinks or more are a necessary part of the courtship ritual. Inebriation is thought to help to give courage and lower inhibitions. Italians tend, probably quite rightly, to assume it will only lower performance.

Timing; Everything starts and finishes later in southern Europe, so while you might think that the party is folding up at midnight, it is probably only just starting. Best to pace yourself.

Don't be fazed; Love is blind and possibly deaf, though the person you have fallen for may look hopelessly out of your league there is always a chance that they might prefer a mate with unconventional looks such as yours.

Love; If you do fall in love, have a holiday romance, best of luck. But remember, however delicious the dish, it can be hard to find the ingredients to recreate the same flavour for it at home.

Article written by Chef Jonathan Arthur

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