In Italy, we live to eat. But tasty NHS fare puts our boring hospital food to shame | Viola Di Grano

I was brought up to think sick people must do dietary penance. Then I tasted the delicious tikka masalas of a London hospital

I was born into a family with little love for food, and therefore scarcely Italian: I grew up with salads and overcooked pasta and two parents who looked at eating as nothing more than a necessary compromise to survive. Only as an adult did I discover that food was indeed a source of satisfaction, and that in Italy in particular it was associated with hospitality, conviviality and good feelings in general. As one of our most noted writers, Elsa Morante , put it: “The truest display of affection, the only one indeed, is ‘Have you eaten?’” That’s right: not the decrepit, abstract “I love you”, but a concerned question about your dear one having had a meal or not.

There is only one place where this food-cherishing narrative fails, and it’s the hospital. As every Italian knows, as soon as you’re admitted as a patient, the opulence of tastes is replaced with miserable food worthy of a medieval jail. The meals served to patients not only lack variety (you can count on one hand the available options throughout the year) but are chewy, hard and strictly devoid of any taste or seasoning. So widespread is this practice, with no exceptions (even, as far as I know, in expensive private clinics) that no one has ever wondered where it came from. In fact, I hadn’t, either until last summer.I was admitted to a London hospital for a chest infection. To my surprise, a very nice member of staff came round every day to show me a menu and let me choose between different options: all complex, tasty dishes drawing on different culinary traditions. While stuffing myself with scrumptious tikka masalas and delicious Asian sweet-and-sour dishes, I started questioning why, in my home country, the experience for me (and everyone else) had been so different.

Viola Di Grado Viola Di Grado is an Italian novelist and literary translator. Her latest novel is Blue Hunger.

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