We’ve crammed the word ‘Kerrygold’ into this headline that should be about Stanley Tucci

Patrick Freyne: A US celeb says he likes our favourite butter? Make him president

Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy involves a man who savours his words almost as much as he savours his food. Photograph:  CNN

Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy involves a man who savours his words almost as much as he savours his food. Photograph: CNN

 

I don’t want to start my column with a boast but just five minutes in and I think I’ve figured out the twist in Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy (Sunday, CNN International). I’m pretty sure it will end with the actor falling to his knees at the Colosseum or the Leaning Tower shouting “I’ve been in Italy the whole time!” like Charlton Heston or Troy McClure at the end of Stop the Planet of the Apes I want to Get Off. I don’t know why he doesn’t just turn on Google Maps. He’s clearly lost his sense of American urgency amid all the Mediterranean decadence.

Okay, I’ve just realised: the title is really a metaphor. This is a food show. The Italy Tucci seeks is not the literal geographical landmass (hard to miss, it looks like Europe’s weird leg) but the spirit of its people as expressed through their food. This is a neat trick and will be my excuse the next time I stop at a drive-through Supermac’s on the way home from a restaurant.

Stanley Tucci, famously, likes food. Not in the “I need nutrients to fulfil my productivity goals” sort of way that you like food, or the “I like literally all of the food but can’t tell ice-cream from soup” way that I like food. Tucci co-owns a restaurant and creates his own cookbooks and he even starred in a food-themed film franchise (The Hunger Games).

He’s kind of amazing. If they were to make a programme called Stanley Tucci Walking, I would also watch it

Last year he caused the Irish to lose their collective minds when he mentioned that he liked Kerrygold butter in an article that was generally about something else entirely. Because of colonialism, our self-esteem is shot and if an American celebrity says, in an aside, that he likes our favourite emulsified fat globules we are just about ready to give him a house in Killarney and make him president.

If a famous person anywhere in the world wishes to commit a terrible crime live on television, I’d suggest they do so while holding a Supervalu bag and singing Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down by Brendan Shine, and the Irish will give them a safehouse and declare extradition treaties to be “no craic”.

We are a very needy people. Don’t be surprised if we somehow cram Kerrygold into the headline of this article – “Kerrygold lover Stanley Tucci also likes Italy” or something.

Searching for Italy is a beautifully old-fashioned type of documentary series. It involves a man who savours his words almost as much as he savours his food, experiencing quirks of culinary history while trailed by an observant camera crew. In much of the first episode the Italian-American Tucci, who is interested and charming and actually speaks Italian, saunters elegantly down the winding streets of Napoli before wooing multi-generational food families into making meals for him. Then he eats those meals and we slaver while casting doleful glances at our own stupid dinners (fishfingers, Chew-its and Calpol).

He’s kind of amazing. If they were to make a programme called Stanley Tucci Walking, I would also watch it. Not many people can walk the streets of a foreign city like Tucci. When I walk the streets of Dublin I crash into people and cast my eyes around shiftily and frequently shout out in alarm. It would be upsetting to watch that on television. Watching Stanley Tucci suavely manoeuvring Italian streets, in contrast, is a calming experience matched only by listening to Stanley Tucci speaking Italian (blood pressure reducing) or watching Stanley Tucci dribble fresh mozzarella down his chin (now officially part of the Kinsey Scale).

The programme also explores less well-known parts of the Neapolitan food experience. Tucci goes to a tomato farm by a motorway bridge where the farmer laments the spread of counterfeit Italian tomatoes (as in: not really Italian, though I hope you pictured something made of papier-mâché) and a settlement of Roma migrants living beside the neglected social housing project in Scampia, where he samples the fusion food created by cross-community activists.

What makes it all work so well, beyond Tucci’s obvious charms, is that he’s simultaneously an insider and an outsider. He loves Italy but he knows it well enough to not be waylaid by things that might distract less worldly celebrities, like the fact Italy has old things (America has few things older than the first series of Friends).

He also knows enough to ask incisive questions about ingredients and to observe nuances in the cooking. He has, after all, grown up immersed in an Italian-American food culture. No offence to the many excellent chefs currently found in Ireland, but when I was a child we didn’t really have a food culture.

The history of Irish cookery was a) we stumbled on the charred corpses of some boars after a forest fire and b) that’s how we still do it for the most part. In fact, a) is a pretty accurate memory of my first cooked meal. I still ask for it at Christmas. That’s why we have no forests.

Food trucks

Look, things have moved on in Ireland foodwise. RTÉ’s web-only Battle of the Food Trucks sees the likeably excitable James Patrice standing in a field surrounded by six specialist food trucks, all competing to make the best meal for some “judges”.

James Patrice in The Battle of the Food Trucks: It’s fun, timely and hunger-making. Photograph: RTÉ Player
James Patrice in The Battle of the Food Trucks: It’s fun, timely and hunger-making. Photograph: RTÉ Player

I can’t speak for Patrice’s motivations, but if you own a food truck and I ever approach you about making a programme like this, check that there’s film in the camera. Patrice and co seem legit in so far as they’ve made an actual programme to go with their scam. It’s fun, timely and hunger-making, though it feels to me like they could take advantage of the vehicular nature of things by adding a dangerous race element.

Battle of the canals

Nationwide (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, RTÉ1) is an often-overlooked gem in RTÉ’s suite of programmatic furniture. This week Anne Cassin, starting in Dublin, and Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, starting in Longford, travel in opposite directions along the Royal Canal, talking to historians, conservationists and barge folk along the way. On tonight’s show they will meet in the middle and, if I know my Irish legends, fight.

In Nationwide this week Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh travels the Royal Canal, starting in Longford. Photograph: RTÉ
In Nationwide this week Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh travels the Royal Canal, starting in Longford. Photograph: RTÉ

Canals are amazing. I mean, ancient 18th-century humans found God’s waterways inconvenient so they decided to make their own rivers. That’s gutsy. You’ve got to give it to the ancestors, their food might have been overcooked mush, but they had ambition.

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