When it comes to great European rivalries, we Britons may think our love-hate relationship with France tops them all. Perhaps it does, but when it comes to food, there is only one battle: France vs Italy.
The haute cuisine of France; the cucina di nonna of Italy. Both countries have arguably contributed more to modern western cooking than any other. France forms the basis of pretty much all European and North American fine dining, while Italian foods like pasta and pizza are arguably more far-reaching than any other.
The two regularly come up trumps in surveys on favourite European cuisines. In 2014, for example, a Rough Guides poll saw Italian food finish in first place, with French down in seventh (but second in Europe). And just this week, Italian food yet again emerged victorious, according to a YouGov-Cambridge study of attitudes in eight European countries.
According to the poll, almost three-quarters of French people admitted to liking Italian food. Was that reciprocated? Not quite. Just 23 per cent of Italians returned the love, suggesting the rivalry may be a little one sided. (Though not quite as one way as the Spanish, less than a fifth of whom would happily eat fish and chips, despite our love for tapas.)
This tallies with my own experience. On a recent trip to stay with family friends near Rome anti-Gallic attitudes were well in evidence. In a discussion on foreign wines, I was told that while Spanish was passable, French was always avoided. (Italian, of course, was best.)
Italian food connotes simplicity – no frills, ingredient-led, easy to reproduce at home. For many, on the other hand, French symbolises wealth and opulence, a special-occasion fanciness, where presentation is as important as taste. It is pretty much the foundation of modern British – and European – cooking, too.
In reality of course, both cuisines are incredibly diverse. In Normandy and Brittany fresh sea flavours rule, while in the southwest earthier foie gras, truffles and confit de canard are popular. Provençal cuisine has been described as more Italian than French, while in parts of northern Italy you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in Austria of Switzerland.
In Italy regional differences abound, and Sicilian food, with influences from North Africa, Greece (and Normandy), is distinct from the buttery dishes of the north (whereas in most of Italy, olive oil is the fat of choice).
The Telegraph asked two non-native chefs why they fell in love with either of the great European cuisines. Here's what they had to say.
My love affair with French food started with family holidays as a child, and my mother having an obsession, or rather a love, for the works of Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier, who in the 1950s wrote extensively about the joys of French cooking. We went on holidays to France and Italy, but France always resonated slightly more. It became part of my DNA, deeply ingrained in me.
In the 1980s I got my first job in London under Simon Hopkinson at Hilaire on Old Brompton Road. I enjoyed the good bourgeois French cooking so much I stayed for nine years. In 2002 I wanted to open a little neighbourhood place, cooking the food I enjoy to a local audience. Once again I found all the tenets and values of French cooking and its heritage was the thing I went back to, and I opened Racine.
I see those tenets as not doing too much to ingredients. France is a very agrarian nation, each region has its own meats, cheeses and specific vegetables depending on climate. If you're cooking Norman or Breton dishes, there's an abundance of butter, parsley and good fish. Further south down the coast, you've got goat cheese, lamb, good vegetables. It's such a wide variety which makes it interesting for a chef.
The perception of French food as fancy is totally unfair. Every nation has simple, rustic dishes and over-thought, overworked things. Whether in Spain, Italy or France, if you go into a small village restaurant, they've gone to the local market, bought local ingredients, not done a lot, and let everything sing with their character and minimal involvement from the cook – a great bottle of wine brings it all together.
Or you could walk down the road and spend £100s on a meal that has had a dozen pair of hands fuss over it. My inspiration comes from the former. My new restaurants are all French-inspired, although one chef comes from Sicily and does wonderful pasta dishes. But the French bourgeois heart is always there.
Victor Lugger, founder of the Big Mamma Group of Italian restaurants, which includes Gloria in London
I was born in Strasbourg, a region where food is incredibly important – where it's bought, how it's cooked, what wine to drink with it, before and after. Food is what people in Alsace live for. In France several regions have amazingly strong terroir and culinary backgrounds, Alsace is one of them.
This didn't necessarily give me the taste for Italian food, but it's about education, I was wired to think food is so important, something you have to care about. My father used to work in Italy, and he'd bring back Italian foods, like truffles or hams. So Italy was my dream food, my escape food, evocative of holidays and fun.
I look at Italian food like I look at the woman I love: I only see the positive aspects to its personality. It's the country of my fantasy, I see amazing foods and culture. People are always smiling and there's such a welcoming atmosphere – especially around a table filled with pasta dishes.
Why do people love Italian food so much? It's like saying why do you love Sophia Loren. It's because she's the absolutely fantasy for so many men. I think Italian food is just the same. It's not just about food. It's healthy, fresh, versatile, but above that it tells a story of a different lifestyle so many of us strive for.
When I eat Italian food I don't just feel full. I close my eyes and I'm on a beach, or in the mountains. Italian cuisine is about more than food, it's about savouring life, having a simpler life, that less is more, that we're closer to earth and the people we love.
God knows I'm passionate about French food, but it's more complicated and intellectual.
Italian food federates people in two ways. Firstly, it doesn't take 10 years of hard studies to be able too cook it decently. And it's so generous, there's a culture of big dishes at the centre of the table, everyone helping themselves, which brings joy. It's more than feeding, it's enthusiasm, conviviality. Everyone wants an Italian lover, but usually they can't, so instead they settle for Italian food.
My favourite dishes are tortelli alla piacentina [pasta filled with ricotta, spinach, nutmeg and grana padano], Amalfi lemon pie, and carbonara, which I make for my wife on our wedding anniversary.