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From Across the Pond: "Jamie Oliver's Great Italian Escape"

I'm a sucker for a well-made travel program, especially when the series in question revolves around food and even more so when that show is hosted by St. Jamie himself. (That would be Jamie Oliver, the ex-Naked Chef.) When he's not at his restaurant fifteen or helping to solve the nation's school lunch dilemma (and attempt to fix the poor dietary conditions of an entire generation), he's writing cookbooks, filming television series, launching a line of cookware, and generally being an all-around culinary workhorse.

Which often leaves little time for downtime with his adorable family (wife Jools and daughters Poppy and Daisy) or recharging his batteries. What Jamie needs desperately, just a hair shy of his thirtieth birthday is some new inspiration. So he does what any great chef would do. He packs up and heads off to Italy in search of new experiences and flavors.

In his new series Jamie Oliver's Great Italian Escape (premiering tomorrow on Travel Channel), Jamie decides to follow a childhood dream and pack up a (supposedly) refitted 1969 camper and drive to Italy, stopping at various cities to sample the local cuisine, to taste the street foods that the natives eat on a regular basis. It's an exploration really of cuisine povera, of the Tuscan bread soups and similar that a nation feasts on regularly. It's interesting to note that the average Italian family eats better for less than a similar British family on the same budget. Jamie aims to find out why as he explores the marketplaces and street grills of Italia, armed with his culinary know-how, his bravery, and a portable kitchen hooked up to his camper.

It's not all sunshine and roses, though. It's obvious that Jamie's hectic work schedule must place a strain on his marriage to Jools (just read Anthony Bourdain's brilliant opus Kitchen Confidential to see how much pressure one can expect if married to a chef), but Jools is so supportive of Jamie and misses him so much that one hopes that their rapport is strong enough to withstand all of the daily pressures they face. One of those pressure is the ubiquitous presence of the paparazzi, stationed right outside Jamie and Jools' house, snapping pictures of them embracing as Jamie leaves for Italy. When Jools begins to cry, Jamie takes her back into the house after the cameras start flashing. Why? The very next day, the tabloid is filled with those very images and with stories suggesting that their marriage is shattered and he has left her and the girls. It's sobering and frightening. And I give Jamie and Jools credit for not going ballistic and punching one of those paparazzo buzzing about. I probably would have.

In the series' first episode ("Sicily"), Jamie travels to the city of Palermo on the island of Sicily, where he lives in a campsite for a week, meets a real-life contessa (and nearly destroys her garden with his errant camper), and learns how to cook street food in a rather rough night market. You've got to give Jamie credit for being brave, especially when there's no safety net below him. Arriving at the night market to grill fish on a HUGE outdoor grill (having made the arrangement two days before), Jamie discovers that the cook wants nothing to do with him and refuses to let Jamie do anything and especially not to use the herbs and sauces he made to accompany the fresh fish. It amazes me how resistant people, regardless of nationality, are to change... whether it be the kids in the schools or the punters at the market. At first, no one will touch Jamie's "newfangled" sauces and herbs until he buys his own fish and starts giving it away to customers. And guess what? They love it. They love the fennel fronds stuffed into the fish which steams as the fish cooks; they love the orange and rosemary salt that Jamie has made that delicately seasons the fish. In fact, they like Jamie's fish even more than the fish they've been eating plain all their lives. Even the gruff grill man comes around and admits that Jamie's fish is delicious. Guess what? The delicate seasoning that Jamie devised doesn't destroy the natural flavors of the fish, it enhances them.

It's a lesson to us all to try new things and step outside our comfort zones, as Jamie did when planning this pilgrimage. For Jamie, life is about taking risks and trying new experiences, putting everything he has on the line in service to a higher cause (like school lunches or training high-risk teens how to cook) or just stepping outside the everyday to push yourself harder to experience something different. Ultimately, it's beautiful to watch Jamie get excited over a vat of cooked artichokes at a street market or become rapturous over the scent of fresh fennel.

While he might not be the Naked Chef any longer, it's a vulnerable and honest (not to mention scruffy) Jamie Oliver who is presented to the audience, stripped of pretense or studio lighting. Jamie Oliver's Great Italian Escape is a food-fueled road trip through the (literal and figurative) heart of Italy and it's one I can't take my eyes off of. So bring your passion for food, travel, and exploration and tuck in. It's going to be a delicious ride.

"Jamie Oliver's Great Italian Escape" airs back-to-back episodes Wednesdays nights at 8 pm and 11 pm ET/PT on Travel Channel.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Friday Night Lights (NBC); Gilmore Girls (CW); Dancing with the Stars (ABC; 8-9:30 pm); Standoff (FOX); Desire (MyNet)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC); Veronica Mars (CW); Help Me Help You (ABC; 9:30-10 pm); House (FOX); Fashion House (MyNet)

10 pm: Campaign 2006: Election Night (CBS); Election Night Special (NBC); Vote 2006 (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Gilmore Girls.

I'm seriously beginning to think about giving up on this show now. I miss the old Gilmore Girls, and, no, I am not talking about last season. On tonight's episode ("Go, Bulldogs!"), the theme is parenting as Christopher and Lorelai visit Rory during Yale's Parents' Weekend and April's swimming coach talks Luke into taking her adult swimming class.

9 pm: Veronica Mars.

On tonight's episode ("Hi, Infidelity"): Veronica and Logan's relationship begins to crack (was he really in class when the casino was robbed?) under the pressure of one too many floozies; Veronica is suspected of plagiarizing her criminology paper (seems like everyone in Neptune is cheating somehow); and Dean O'Dell clears Wallace for cheating on his engineering exam but comes to a verdict that could alter his entire future.

10 pm: The Street on BBC America.

On the sixth episode ("Bold Street: Sean and Yvonne") of Jimmy McGovern's new drama The Street, a mother of three attempts to break away from her abusive husband and get her kids to safety. If you were looking for light-hearted mirth, look elsewhere.

Comments

Jamie Oliver is always a joy to watch. He has so much passion for what he does. I really, really enjoyed "Jamie's School Lunch Project" and am sure that his new show will be equally as entertaining and enlightening.
Unknown said…
I live in San Francisco Ca, I’m French and married an Italian

THANK YOU :) I now understand why my in laws eat only there style of food
You were eloquent in your description “mama’s way” and yes it is maddening

Catherine

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