By Diane de Beer
Cartoons by Fatman
They bowled me over, right from the start. I was already familiar with Andrew Graham-Dixon’s art programmes which we see occasionally on BBC World (DStv) and had the Sicily cookbook by Giorgio Locatelli, Made in Sicily, but didn’t quite expect the fireworks to come.
I binged through four seasons and just couldn’t resist going on this Italian trip with these two delightful connoisseurs.
I knew I would like the art and the food is a no-brainer. What knocked me off my feet was the bromance between these two. It’s so charming and reminds one how people should be. When one lets the other into a secret (an insider’s ingredient or hidden artwork), the expectation from both and how they enjoy giving and receiving is simply spectacular to witness.
It seems that what must have caught them by surprise as well, is their similar passions. While they have different fields of expertise, the two dovetail and they could recognise where and how the other derived pleasure because their’s was the same.
But back to the basics first. Italy Unpacked is four seasons with each one consisting of three hour-long episodes, and individual seasons focusing on a specific area in Italy with the last one traveling to Sicily. The different episodes mix art and food with the two men sharing their expertise, something extraordinary in their field in a particular region (like hunting for truffles) as they travel from one town to the next, sometimes a city (or the return of some lost art to the area it originated from) and at others, a tiny village.
It’s like escaping into another world and because Graham-Dixon’s art knowledge is so superior and specialist, he takes us to see very unusual works of art and often, while tourists are standing in long lines to see the leaning tower of Pisa for example, what this art historian regards as one of the best museums in the world in a particular field is just around the corner and completely empty because people just don’t know about it. But he does and he shares it lovingly with his friend Locatelli.
The chef then, in turn, is inspired to cook a specific dish from that area which might have originated in the time of the painting. Or something in a work of art reminds him of a particular dish. But what moves him the most in his cooking is produce. He is driven by the particularities of the area and loves food of the region which he then shows his friend.
So apart from going on your own extraordinary tour through Italy, this is one to take before you actually go, because it’s the perfect guide book to plan a trip. Not only will you learn what to eat, you will also find the best places to find a particular food. Or if you want to make it yourself, where to buy the produce and how to prepare it.
Italian-born Locatelli who has restaurants in London and Graham-Dixon who is extremely knowledgeable on Italian art, swap their expertise in a way that takes us into a whole new way of traveling. I have always wanted some kind of wise bird sitting on my shoulder and whispering things in my ear as I walk through museums or try new food.
That’s exactly what these two do. They have insider info, they know the right people to speak to, and doors open for them so that they can capture the best of each place they visit.
Once I had finished the full series, I dipped into Locatelli’s cookbook and was charmed because I felt I knew the author so much better. Similarly with Graham-Dixon. Because he has made many art-related programmes (mostly for the BBC), it’s not cold turkey following this series. You will find many more examples of his work on the internet. Granted to double up on the firepower of the two presenters is simply the best, but individually they also have more than enough to keep you watching and reading.
It’s as easy as searching on YouTube for Italy Unpacked to start your viewing. The DVD’s are also available through Amazon or BBC sites. But do yourself a favour. As unusual as their mode of transport – from Maserati to moped – as unusual is their friendship as well as their conversation. And they throw the window open as widely as possible and embrace you.
I am obviously a huge fan. But believe me, watch them and join the club!