Those of us who went to school in Italy remember the days when we ate lunch in the canteen, when a first course pasta dish was always on offer. Maybe the tomato sauce was a little pale, maybe the pasta al burro (pasta with butter) was a little overcooked, but children of all ages never left school hungry and portions were always  generous. Maybe a little dull, but healthy and hearty nonetheless.

The recent advent of multiculturalism in Italian primary schools has prompted a change in the menu, though. City officials thought it a good idea to introduce a wider choice, selecting dishes from every European country. After all, Italy might have the best food in the world but it’s also said to be very provincial at times. What best to challenge this idea than introducing favourite dishes from other countries? The project, called ‘Viva Europe’, started last December in several state schools in Rome. More than 100,000 pupils found new food on their plates at midday: wurst from Germany, pork stew from Portugal, paella from Spain, potato stew from Holland and fish&chips from England. What the officials could not have foreseen was the reaction of the parents, who considered the new dishes ‘unhealthy’, ‘unbalanced’ and even ‘disgusting’.

‘There have been other experiments to add a more varied choice on our school menus’, the local government press office explains. ‘Valter Veltroni and Gianni Alemanno (former majors of Rome) had previously introduced ethnic or regional menus. Viva Europe is a cutting edge experiment. It’s true that some parents did not approve, but kids were very open-minded and fish&chips was particularly well received by them’.

Well received by the children but loathed by parents, who fear that the introduction of fried food in school meals is not a good idea. ‘They can rest assured’, continues the spokesperson. ‘Our fish&chips are made the Italian way, and by that I mean in the oven, not fried. We try and avoid fried food in our school canteens’.

Even if paella is considered acceptable – after all the Spanish are our closest cousins – chicken with onion and beer from Belgium were less appreciated, with some people going so far as to label them as ‘nauseating’. The experiment may continue into next year, but by overwhelming popular demand, a first course of pasta has been reintroduced. When those primary school children begin to travel the world hiding their pasta and parmesan in their luggage, completely unable to survive eating different foods and pleading with their  mammas to send over her special home-made sauce, you’ll  know the reason why.

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