writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: April 4, 2010; revised: August 27, 2017; readers in past month: 903
Although Italy has many marvelous foods to offer, there are times when all I want is basic comfort food. Given my always present kid-like nature, one of the best comfort foods is a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There are typically only three ingredients: sliced white bread (alternate breads sometimes are alright for me), peanut butter (creamy only for me), and jelly (I prefer jam). Assembling these ingredients, though, in the condition and quality I prefer to achieve a feeling of comfort is not easy in Milan.
Even though Italians enjoy bread and eat plenty of it, they’re not too good at preserving it. Bakeries are popular here: there’s usually a bakery, or a grocery store which bakes bread, within a block from wherever one lives in Milan. The bakeries will bake bread every morning except Sundays, but they don’t put it in plastic bags to prevent it from drying and going stale. Instead, they put it in bins exposed to the air. Most people buy their bread mid-day or at the end of their work day. By the time they eat it at dinner, the bread’s getting stale. Italians don’t seem to mind it, though. I’m not sure why. What works best for me, if I can wake up and get to the bakery around 6:00 a.m., is to buy bread while it’s still warm and then get it home and put it in a plastic bag. However, I don’t wake up that early — sometimes I’m up that late, but not often in the mood to go shopping for bread. In the grocery store bakeries, some of them will put the bread in paper bags with a clear cellophane window to be able to see the bread. Close, but not enough. The paper part of the bag doesn’t prevent bread from going stale by the time I buy it. There are a couple of larger bread makers that make sliced breads for the groceries and sell them in plastic bags. Bread makers in the U.S. will deliver freshly baked sliced and bagged bread to grocery stores every morning, throwing out the previous day’s bread in the process. I never realized how sweet that service and quality control was until I came to Italy. There’s a saying in the U.S.: the best thing since sliced bread. That expression seems to be meaningless to Italians. There’s very little appealing about sliced bread here.
There is one brand of sliced white bread in Milan that I do like. It’s called American Sandwich Classico. For the first few years that I’ve been here I resisted trying this bread simply because they labeled it American. I didn’t want to be so predictable. But, a few weeks ago I gave in and gave it a try. First, it’s misnamed. It should be called San Francisco Sandwich bread because it’s a sour dough bread. Or maybe it should be called Sour Dough Sandwich bread. The girlfriend balked at this saying that San Francisco is American. I countered by suggesting that Parmagian cheese be called Italian cheese. She didn’t agree with that or see the parallels with the American bread. Despite the misnomer, the American bread is quite good and almost fresh. It seems to be bagged shortly after baking and slicing. Unfortunately, they put it out for sale for weeks — it may not be very popular, certainly not enough to restock daily. You can see in the photo on the left that the loaf I bought yesterday is said to be best if eaten by the 6th of May. That’s about five weeks on the shelf at the store. I have news for the bread maker: it’s best if eaten the day it’s made. Even if I buy a loaf of this bread close to the day it arrives at the store, it’s still a bit dry. They must take too long bagging it. I end up having to toast it.
I can get a decent jellies, jams, and preserves in Milan. I can get them in many common flavors and a few I don’t see in the U.S. One flavor common to the U.S. I can’t buy here is grape, the flavor I like the most. I suspect that they save their grapes for making wine, which is immensely popular in Italy and is a major export. Actually, that’s probably not true. The grapes used for wine are typically sweeter and not the same as those used for jams. Plus, they sell grapes at the groceries. Occasionally I put in a request for grape jam from the girlfriend when she’s in a preserves-making mood, but she’s only made me a jar once. The result of all of this is that I settle on strawberry and blueberry jam, and sometimes blackberry when they have it at the stores.
As for peanut butter, it’s not very popular in Italy. They prefer nutello, which is a blend of hazel nut butter and cocoa. They eat nutello as much as Americans eat peanut butter — which Italians find to be repulsive. I like nutello, but not too much. It’s sometimes used as a filler for pastries, which tastes fairly good to me. But peanut butter is what I need for the feeling of comfort I desire. They have a peanut butter here called, American Nutty. It’s like they figure out what I’m going to want and put the word American on it. For instance, duct tape is called American tape here. It took my a while to find American Nutty peanut butter when I first came to Milan. It isn’t kept next to nutello at the grocery stores. Instead, it’s kept in the exotic foods section. Something as plain to me as peanut butter is exotic here. This peanut butter is not as creamy as popular brands of peanut butter are in the U.S. It’s not crunchy, though. It’s just dry and probably stale. So, I have to get peanut butter from the U.S. In the photo at the top you can see that I have a jar of Jif peanut butter from my last trip to the U.S. and a large jar of Peter Pan peanut butter that my friend Jerry Neumeyer mailed recently to me since my Jif is running low.
As you can now see, having a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a means of comfort when I’m feeling a bit down, or just want to satisfy my boyish urges, can be difficult. I’ve worked out the logistics of the peanut butter and jam requirements, but cannot get fresh, sliced bread. How I miss Bunny bread (a local brand in New Orleans). What’s particularly frustrating about this to me is that I need generally the comfort of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when the difficulties of living in Italy are getting to me. Instead of taking me back to the U.S. in my mind, the stale bread only reminds me more so that I’m in Italy. When I need this comfort food when I’m feeling stressed, it doesn’t satisfy my need and frustrates me instead. Although it’s getting easier, it’s not always easy living here.