Italian Foodby Elizabeth David
Elizabeth David's Italian Food was one of the first books to demonstrate the enormous range of Italy's regional cooking. For the foods of Italy, explained David, expanded far beyond minestrone and ravioli, to the complex traditions of Tuscany, Sicily, Lombardy, Umbria, and many other regions. David imparts her knowledge from her many years in Italy, exploring,… See more details below
Elizabeth David's Italian Food was one of the first books to demonstrate the enormous range of Italy's regional cooking. For the foods of Italy, explained David, expanded far beyond minestrone and ravioli, to the complex traditions of Tuscany, Sicily, Lombardy, Umbria, and many other regions. David imparts her knowledge from her many years in Italy, exploring, researching, tasting and testing dishes. Her passion for real food, luscious, hearty, fresh, and totally authentic, will inspire anyone who wishes to recreate the abundant and highly unique regional dishes of Italy.
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Elizabeth David discovered her taste for good food and wine when she lived with a French family while studying history and literature at the Sorbonne. A few years after her return to England she made up her mind to learn to cook so that she could reproduce for herself and her friends some of the food that she had come to appreciate in France. Subsequently, Mrs David lived and kept house in France, Italy, Greece, Egypt and India, as well as in England. She found not only the practical side but also the literature of cookery of absorbing interest and studied it throughout her life.
Her first book, Mediterranean Food, appeared in 1950. French Country Cooking followed in 1951, Italian Food, after a year of research in Italy, in 1954, Summer Cooking in 1955 and French Provincial Cooking in 1960. These books and a stream of often provocative articles in magazines and newspapers changed the outlook of English cooks forever.
In her later works she explored the traditions of English cooking (Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, 1970) and with English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) became the champion of a long overdue movement for good bread. An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984) is a selection of articles first written for the Spectator, Vogue, Nova and a range of other journals. The posthumously published Harvest of the Cold Months (1994) is a fascinating historical account of aspects of food preservation, the worldwide ice-trade and the early days of refrigeration. South Wind Through the Kitchen, an anthology of recipes and articles from Mrs David’s nine books, selected by her family and friends and by the chefs and writers she inspired, was published in 1997, and acts as a reminder of what made Elizabeth David one of the most influential and loved of English food writers.
In 1973 her contribution to the gastronomic arts was recognized with the award of the first André Simon memorial prize. An OBE followed in 1976, and in 1977 she was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole. In the same year English Bread and Yeast Cookery won Elizabeth David the Glenfiddich Writer of the Year award. The universities of Essex and Bristol conferred honorary doctorates on her in 1979 and 1988 respectively. In 1982 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 1986 was awarded a CBE. Elizabeth David died in 1992.
THIS 1987 edition of Italian Food differs from several of its predecessors chiefly in that revisions made over many years in the form of footnotes to recipes have now been incorporated into the main body of the text. References to numerous shops, at one time sources of supply of imported Italian foodstuffs, but now vanished, have been eliminated. When it came to my original chapter on the wines of Italy I found that almost everything I wrote in 1954 had receded into history. In fact already by the 1970s it wasn’t only the variety and diversity of Italian wines available to us in England which had changed beyond recognition, it was the entire Italian wine industry which had undergone a revolution.
In 1954, and I suppose until 1960 or thereabouts, we bought unidentified—and perhaps unidentifiable—Chiantis, flabby Soaves and rough Valpolicellas, plus the odd bottle of Marsala kept handy for concocting a little sauce for a veal piccata or to add the necessary alcoholic kick to a zabaglione. Then one day, when writing this book, I came across a reference by André Simon, at the time the most revered of wine gurus, to white Orvieto, a wine of which I had affectionate memories. But all that André could find to say about it was that it made a good accompaniment to pineapple. That struck me, and strikes me still, as uncommonly unhelpful, not to say insulting to a wine which at its best has much character and which even at its worst would hardly be improved by marriage with so sharp and acid a fruit as pineapple. I realized that the attitude of French experts such as André to Italian wine and, although to a slightly lesser degree, to Italian food, was uncurably patronizing. Only the French—oh well perhaps at a pinch the Germans too—knew how to make wine, only the French could compose and cook a decent meal. The realization of what that attitude implied wasn’t encouraging to someone already fully committed to the writing of a full-length book on the cooking of Italy. Well, it was no time to turn back. At last, in November 1954 the book crept into print, predictably too late for reviews in the Christmas numbers of the monthlies. One piece of news, a Recommendation by the Book Society—unheard of at that time for a cookery book—was cheering, and eventually there were enthusiastic reviews, two of them by writers of the stature of Freya Stark and Margaret Lane. I am still grateful to those two much respected authors for their support, all the more so because although I had never met them I was aware that in both cases their knowledge of the subject would have justified sharp criticism had either of them felt inclined to make it.
The mid-1950s, it must be said, were not the most propitious times for the sales of cookery books. Food rationing, first imposed in 1939, came to an end only in the summer of 1954, and many ingredients vital to Italian cookery returned very gradually. Maybe you could at last buy veal, but if your butcher knew how to cut escalopes you were lucky. The purchase of a supply of olive oil, and for that matter even a small amount of Parmesan in the piece, entailed a bus trip to the Italian provision shops of Soho and heavily laden shopping bags to tote home. Still, the efforts involved did make cooking and entertaining in those days very rewarding and enjoyable. Then came the early sixties, the heyday of Italian fashion, Italian knitwear, Italian furniture, Enzo Apicella’s Italian trattorias, in short of anything Italian from Parma ham to Ferragamo shoes. It was in 1963, at the height of Italy-fever, that Penguin books acquired Italian Food for paperback publication, but it was not until 1971 that the same firm judged that popular interest in Italian wine was growing sufficiently to justify a paperback edition of Cyril Ray’s Wines of Italy. To the best of my knowledge this was the first English book, and Cyril Ray the first English author, to treat the subject in depth. Italian wines were at last to be taken seriously by English wine experts and English wine merchants.
Apart from a brief new chapter on Italian wines written for this 1987 edition, together with a list of English-language books on the same subject, for those interested there are much expanded lists of Italian cookery books, of guides to food and wine in Italy, and of relevant reference books. A list entirely new to this edition is one which I have called Visitors’ Books, in other words a selection from the accounts written by scores of English and French visitors to Italy from the end of the fifteenth century down to the 1980s. This list gives hardly more than a hint of the vast range of relevant books—shamefully, for example, I now see that I have omitted any mention of Stendhal, most celebrated of French observers of the Italian scene. My only excuse for that and any other omissions of similar enormity is that my lists were compiled while I was in hospital and without benefit of reference to my own books or of a check in libraries.
To my original Introduction I have made only one significant revision, and that concerns the paragraph dealing with the influence on French cookery traditionally exercised by Catherine de Medici and the Florentine cooks she is said to have brought with her to France. Those cooks, I now find, are part of a myth originating in mid-nineteenth-century France, perhaps in the imagination of one of the popular historical novelists who flourished at that period, and certainly without existence in historical fact. As briefly as possible, what is historical fact is that when Catherine arrived in France in 1533 to marry Henri Duke of Orleans, younger brother of the Dauphin, she was fourteen years old, had barely emerged from the Florentine convent in which she had been brought up, and had already been granted French nationality. All her attendants were French.
Whatever the Italian influence exercised on French cultural life in general and on culinary developments in particular by Catherine’s marriage to the boy who was later to become Henri II of France, that transalpine influence had already been active at least since the end of the previous century. It was Charles VIII, King of France from 1483 to 1498, and indirect predecessor of Catherine’s father-in-law, François Icr, who had imported Italian gardeners to recreate in the Loire valley gardens such as he had seen in Italy, and to cultivate in France the attractive green vegetables, the garden peas, the cauliflowers, the spinach, some say even the artichokes, which had so impressed him in Italy when in 1495 he had attempted, unsuccessfully, to seize the Kingdom of Naples. One of those imported gardeners, Paolo di Mercogliero, had even planted orange trees in the grounds of the royal Château Gaillard, not in an orangery, but over-optimistically in the open air. Unsurprisingly, the trees never bore fruit.
Catherine’s own reign as Queen Consort, and for thirty more years as Queen Dowager—many of them as officially recognized Regent—from 1559 until her death in 1589 did inevitably coincide with a great deal of artistic and cultural activity on the part of Italians working in France. Jewellers, glove-makers, sugar-workers, pastrycooks, confectioners, were brought from Italy by Catherine during the years of her widowhood. One of her pastrycooks is credited with the invention or at any rate with the introduction of flaky pastry, but then so are other personages, among them the much later painter Claude Lorraine, who is said to have learned how to make it in Rome. Many food historians would say that some form of fine-leaved pastry had been known at least since the days of the Romans, and I think they would be right, but equally I have doubts about the claim that Catherine’s pastrycooks made their feuilleté with butter rather than with oil or lard. One does not hear much about the use of butter in France at this period. But then almost as many legends are attached to Catherine’s name as later became encrusted around that of Napoleon. In Catherine’s case, many of the stories, whether apocryphal or factual, do point to the advanced state of civilized life in Italy as compared with that of France in the first half of the sixteenth century, and to the improvements achieved by the French during the second half. That some of those improvements were directly due to Catherine and her Italian craftsmen and architects, cooks and confectioners is undeniable. To credit her with all of them would be a distortion of history.
INTRODUCTION TO THE
THE origins of Italian cooking are Greek, Roman, and to a lesser extent, Byzantine and oriental.
The Romans, having evolved their cookery from the sane traditions of Greece, proceeded in the course of time to indulge in those excesses of gluttony which are too well known to bear repetition here; but what must in fact have been a considerable understanding of the intricacies of cookery has been overlooked in the astonishment of less robust ages at their gigantic appetites and at the apparently grotesque dishes they consumed. Owing to the necessities of preservation, a good deal of the food of those days must have been intolerably salt; to counteract this, and also presumably to disguise a flavour which must often have been none too fresh, the Romans added honey, sweet wine, dried fruit, and vinegar to meat, game, and fish, which were, besides, heavily spiced and perfumed with musk, amber, pepper, coriander, rue.
Similar methods of cookery prevailed in all the more primitive parts of Europe until the nineteenth century, when the development of rapid transport began to make the large-scale salting and pickling of food unnecessary. In Italy Roman tastes are still echoed in the agrodolce or sweet-sour sauces, which the Italians like with wild boar, hare and venison. The Roman taste for little song-birds—larks, thrushes and nightingales—also persists in Italy to this day; so does the cooking with wine, oil, and cheese, and the Roman fondness for pork, veal, and all kinds of sausages.
When all the arts of a civilized world were swept away by the waves of barbarism which engulfed Europe after the final extinction of the Roman Empire, the art of cooking also vanished, surviving only in the books preserved in the monasteries. With the fifteenth-century renaissance of art and letters, fostered by the great families of Venice, Milan, Florence, Rome, Genoa, and Naples, came the renewal of interest in the food and cooking of classical times. The first printed culinary work, written by Bartolomeo Sacchi, librarian at the Vatican, appeared about 1474; it is a sign of the great interest displayed in the subject that the book, called Platina de honesta voluptate et valetudine vulgare, usually known as Platina’s book, was printed in six different editions within the next thirty years.
Some twenty years after the first printing of Sacchi’s book the so-called book of Apicius was printed in Milan (1498; there had been an earlier printed edition of this work undated, in Venice). This was the cookery book purporting to contain fragments of the culinary writings of Marcus Apicius, noble and erudite Roman gourmet of the time of Tiberius. Apicius is said to have derived his gastronomic learning from Greek cookery books and to have founded a school devoted to the culinaryarts. His own manuscript was in fact lost, and the work which was printed under his name was derived from notes supposed to have been written by one of his pupils; these notes were copied, apparently, two hundred years after the death of Apicius. (Having spent a vast fortune in the course of a dissolute life, he committed suicide at the age of fifty-five, about A.D. 30, rather than be forced to modify his way of living.) Throughout the Middle Ages various copies of the manuscript were made.
These enthusiastic studies of Greek and Roman methods of cooking found expression in the vast banquets and displays of gorgeous splendour with which the Doges of Venice, the Medici, the Este, the Borgia, the Visconti, the Sforza, the Doria, and the rest of the powerful Italian rulers impressed each other, the populace, and foreign potentates.
The spice trade, which had originated with the Phoenicians and never entirely died out, had a lasting influence on Italian cookery. Spices from the East Indies, Southern India, and Ceylon were shipped from Calicut, on the south-west coast of India, via the Red Sea port of Jidda to Suez; from Suez they were transported across the desert to Cairo, thence down the Nile to Rosetta; from Rosetta the cargoes were shipped to Alexandria, from Alexandria to Venice and to Genoa. At each stage of the journey there were import dues, landing charges, and transport costs to be paid. In their turn the Genoese and the Venetians exacted heavy toll and grew rich on the profits. It was, in fact, not only the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the consequent threat to the spice route, but the ever more exorbitant profits demanded by these traders, and the promise of vast financial reward which spurred on the search for a sea route to India and the spice islands. Although that route was discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1498, the Venetians continued to handle the bulk of the spice and sugar trade via the overland route to Europe for the next fifty years. In those days the galleys of the Venetian merchants must have been a familiar sight in English seaports.
At about the same time as the sound teachings of the Medical School of Salerno with regard to diet and health were penetrating for the first time to England, Catherine de Medici became the bride of the Duke of Orleans who in 1547 succeeded as Henri II of France. The marriage was solemnized in Marseille in 1533, when bride and bridegroom were both fourteen years old, and while it is no doubt true that at the time the French were a long way behind the Florentines and the Venetians in knowledge of the culinary arts, it was much later, during the reign of Catherine’s third son, Henri III (he succeeded his elder brother Charles IX in 1575) that the Italian influence in the skills of elegant cookery became effective.
By 1600, when a second Medici bride, Maria, arrived in France as the new Queen of Henri IV, the French had seemingly absorbed Italian cookery to a point where among others the Venetian chronicler Gerolamo Zanetti was complaining that imported French cooks were ruining Venetian stomachs ’with so much porcherie (filth), sauces, broths, extracts . . . garlic and onion in every dish . . . meat and fish so transformed that they are scarcely recognizable by the time they get to table . . . Everything masked and mixed, with a hundred herbs, spices, sauces . . .’
Complex cookery of the kind castigated by Zanetti would have been confined to the tables of the rich, and even then probably only to banquets and ceremonial occasions. The everyday food of the Italian people can have been little affected by the import of French cooks, and remained, as it does to this day, very much their own, based on local ingredients and traditional methods.
Whereas only the very credulous would suppose that today that diet consists entirely of pasta asciutta and veal escalopes, the enormous variety of local dishes to be found in Italy remains little appreciated by the general public and is grasped only by those who have actually set out in search of it, or have studied cookery books dealing with the subject.
The term ‘Italian’ used in relation to food would in fact mean very little to most Italians. To them there is Florentine cooking, Venetian cooking, there are the dishes of Genoa, Piedmont, Romagna; of Rome, Naples, and the Abruzzi; of Sardinia and Sicily; of Lombardy, Umbria, and the Adriatic coast. United Italy was created only in 1861, and not only have the provinces retained their own traditions of cookery, but many of their products remain localized.
In London or Paris can be found (or could be, before the system of export and import became so fanciful) the best of everything which England or France produces. In Italy the best fish is actually to be eaten on the coast, the finest Parmesan cheese in and around Parma, the tenderest beef in Tuscany, where the cattle are raised. So the tourist, having arrived in Italy via Naples and there mistakenly ordered a beef steak which turns out to be a rather shrivelled slice of veal, will thereafter avoid bistecca, so that when he visits Florence he will miss that remarkable bistecca alla Fiorentina, a vast steak, grilled over a wood fire, which, tender and aromatic, is a dish worth going some way to eat. How many transatlantic travellers landing in Genoa have dined in some Grand Hotel or other and gone on their way without ever suspecting that Genoa possesses a cookery of a most highly individual nature, unique in Europe? Everyone has heard of the mortadella sausage of Bologna, but how many hurrying motorists drive past the rose and ochre coloured arcades of Bologna quite unaware that behind modest doorways are some of the best restaurants in Italy? Alas for them, they will remain ignorant of those remarkable dishes consisting of a breast of chicken or turkey cooked in butter, smothered with fine slices of those white truffles which are one of the glories of Italian cooking. Every Italian restaurant abroad serves a dish of so called tagliatelle Bolognese; it is worth visiting Bologna to find out what this dish really tastes like, and to accompany it with a bottle of that odd but delicious Lambrusco wine which combines so well with the rich Bolognese cooking. In Venice, nursing aggrieved memories of woolly Mediterranean fish, the traveller will refuse sole on the grounds that it can be eaten only in London or Paris. He will miss a treat, for the soles of the Adriatic have a particularly fine flavour. In Parma he will scarcely fail to eat Parma ham; but if he is not sufficiently inquisitive he will not taste another first-class local speciality, the Felino salame, which is one of the most excellent sausages produced in Italy. Now, the blame for this state of affairs lies to a certain extent with the waiters and restaurant keepers. So convinced are these gentlemen that foreigners will accept only spaghetti in tomato sauce, to be followed by a veal cutlet, that the traveller, unless of an unusually determined nature, gives in over and over again, and finally returns home with the conviction that there is nothing else to be had in the whole country.
In Italy, therefore, it is always worth finding out what is to be had in the locality in the way of wines, cheeses, hams, sausages, fruit, and vegetables. They should be asked for, if possible, before-hand; but at the same time it must be borne in mind that as in any country which relies largely on its own agricultural produce, the seasonal character of the food remains intact. Although in Italy, as in France, frozen food has made deep inroads it is still happily quite useless to ask for, say, figs in January or white truffles in July. There are still dishes which are made in certain seasons or for certain festivals and at no other time of the year. Heavy winter dishes such as the polenta pasticciata of Lombardy, the lasagne verdi al forno of Bologna and the brown bean soup of the Veneto give way after Easter to lighter dishes of pasta in brodo, or antipasti (hors d’œuvre) of raw vegetables, or little crostini, fried bread with cheese and anchovies. One of the summer dishes common to all Italy is vitello tonnato, cold veal with a tunny fish flavoured sauce (this sounds outlandish, but is, in fact, a most excellent combination).
The names of Italian dishes are, to say the least, confusing, and vary immensely from region to region. Ravioli as we think of it in England is called ravioli only in Piedmont and Genoa, but it is never stuffed with the coarse mixture met with outside Italy and never smothered with an oily tomato sauce. In other districts there are endless varieties of ravioli called tortellini, anolini, tortelli, cappelletti, malfatti, agnolotti. The pasta which we should call noodles, is known variously as fettuccine, tagliatelle, tagliarini, pappardelle; there are thin, match-like strips of the same paste called tagliolini in Florence, trenette in Genoa, tonnarelli in Rome. Pasticciata is a meat stew in Verona, a polenta au gratin in Milan. The names of fish are particularly hard to disentangle. The squid and cuttle-fish family are known as seppie, totani, calamari, calamaretti, moscardini, fragole di mare, sepolini, and several other names according to the local dialect. Mussels are cozze in Naples, peoci in Venice, telline in Florence: they are also known as muscoli and mitili, and telline are also clams, which are vongole in Rome and Naples, capperozzoli in Venice, arselle in Genoa and Sardinia.
Saltimbocca, bocconcini, quagliette di vitello, braciolette, uccelletti scappati, gropetti, involtini are all variations of the same little slices of veal with a piece of ham or some kind of stuffing inside; they may be rolled up or they may be flattened out, they may be fried or baked or grilled. Frittelle may indicate anything from a very small rissole of meat and herbs (also called polpette) to a huge rustic potato cake made with yeast. Its unpredictable nature adds the charm of surprise to the discovery of Italian cooking, a charm which will perhaps replace that operetta conception of romantic Italy in which the tourist lolled in eternal sunshine on a vine-hung terrace, drinking wine for a song, while the villagers in peasant costume danced and sang in the piazza below. The present-day traveller in Italy will be quick to perceive that those cherished fantasies bear about as much relation to the Italy of today as does modern Britain to Merrie England.
The sober facts are that in a town of any size at all the nerve-racking, ceaseless roar and screech of traffic make eating in the open air an endurance test. As for the singing, there is no lack of it. In Rome, Naples, Capri, Genoa, Venice, those romantic musicians with their guitars, their violin bows which may well get entangled with your spaghetti, and their operatic voices vibrating in too confined a space, soon become exasperating . . . Summer visitors to the Bay of Naples and the Sorrento peninsula should not expect too much; it is not in overgrown seaside villages or tourist-infested islands in the heat of a Mediterranean summer that gastronomic treats will be found. On the other hand, there is no need to depart from the well-worn pilgrim roads of Italy in the search for good food. It can be successfully sought in the small and famous towns of Tuscany and Umbria, in Siena and Perugia, at Aquila in the Abruzzi, at Ancona and the port of Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, at Ascoli and Rimini and in the Veneto, in Turin and Modena and Mantua, in Parma, Bologna, Verona and Vicenza. In Italy, the traveller who arrives at any hour within the bounds of reason need rarely make do with a sandwich at his hotel; it is, in fact, a mistake to eat at grand hotels (there are exceptions, naturally), and in any case the display of food in the restaurants is always worth seeing. Pink hams, golden coils of pasta, pale green fennel and dark green artichokes, rose-coloured scampi and mullet, in the autumn the orange and scarlet and brown of funghi, the whites and creams of cheeses spread out on a table so that the customers can choose, are an important part of the enjoyment of eating in an Italian restaurant. As for the splendid food markets of Florence, Bologna, Turin, Genoa, and Venice, especially Venice, few sightseers bother to go and look at them. A pity, for they are fascinating and beautiful, and an integral part of the life of any great city.
INTRODUCTION TO THE
FIRST PENGUIN EDITION
IT is now well over ten years since I returned to England after nearly a year spent in Italy for the express purpose of collecting material for the book which eventually became Italian Food.
When about to embark on my travels, English friends who knew Italy far better than I did at the time had been ready with unencouraging predictions. ‘All that pasta,’ they said. ‘We’ve got enough stodge here already; you won’t find much else in Italy. You’ll have to invent.’
How we cling to our myths, we English. The French, we believe, have been forced to perfect the art of cooking owing to what we like to think is a necessity to disguise poor materials. We ourselves have, we comfortably imagine, no need for either art or artifice in the kitchen. Our basic ingredients are too superb to need the application of intelligence or training to their preparation. As for the Italians, they live, according to our mythology, on veal and tomatoes, spaghetti, cheese, and olive oil.
In the original edition of Household Management, published in 1861, the very year of the unification of Italy under the rule of the House of Savoy, young Mrs Beeton asserted that ’modern Romans are merged in the general name of Italians, who, with the exception of macaroni, have no specially characteristic article of food’. She was expressing, no doubt, the general belief of her day—and, I fancy, very largely of our own, one hundred years on.
It is now 1963. During the last decade provision shops and supermarkets selling a high proportion of Italian and other imported produce have multiplied. In our big towns new Italian restaurants open almost monthly. The Espresso Coffee Bar, phenomenon of the early fifties, has developed into the Roman or Neapolitan-type trattoria, and spreads far beyond the confines of Soho into the outer suburbs of London and our great industrial cities and seaports. Scarcely a week passes but somebody writes an article in a national newspaper or magazine extolling the glories and subtleties of Italian cooking. Every year appear new cookery books giving more or less accurate versions of the best Italian recipes. And still the general public finds it difficult to equate these happenings with anything having any bearing upon Italy itself as a nation or a geographical entity.
Italy is a place to which you go for a summer holiday. (That is very much what it would have been to me, had I not had the opportunity of writing this book.) You go to Positano, to Capri, to Amalfi, to the Italian Riviera, to the Adriatic coast. You go to soak up sun and to soak in Mediterranean waters. Fair enough. And fair enough, too, is the food you get in Italian seaside resorts. It is representative of holiday food everywhere in Southern Europe. The hotels and restaurants are crowded. The staffs are overworked. The cooking may have an Italian accent, but the majority of foreign visitors (of whom vast numbers are German and Scandinavian as well as British) would be too suspicious of the unknown to accept genuine regional specialities were they offered. Besides, there is the language difficulty and there is the question of what is suitable or in season during the hot summer months, and for people uprooted from familiar routine and surroundings and therefore peculiarly sensitive to changes of diet. So the cooking is reduced to a general level of international mediocrity. Indifferent beefsteaks, chips, the ubiquitous veal, spaghetti and tomato sauce, the evening broth thickened with pasta, the eternal Bel Paese cheese; and, in the land of fresh figs and peaches, apricots, grapes, and pears, there will be imported bananas for dessert.
Oh yes, I know those meals; too well I know them. And their French equivalents too. And every time I am faced with one and feel angry and frustrated, I remember also the kind of meals served in our own seaside hotels and in the English counterparts of an Italian pensione; then I think, well, after all, would I in such establishments expect fine smoked Scotch salmon and roast English lamb? Bradenham ham, home-made Cumberland sauce, and matured Lancashire cheese? Breakfast mushrooms picked in the meadows and bacon sweet-cured according to a traditional Suffolk farmhouse recipe?
On the whole I think it is easier to find the best Italian cooking in Italy than to come by its English equivalent in our own country.
In England—apart from a few obvious delicacies such as the afore-mentioned smoked salmon, and luxuries like oysters and grouse, which may be found and enjoyed by anyone who can, in the appropriate seasons, afford the most expensive restaurants and hotels—good native English cooking is confined mainly to private houses. For the casual tourist it would be difficult to locate.
In Italy, matters are markedly different. In the south, it is true, careful cooking is not common, although I am told that the opening up of Calabria to tourists has improved the standards of cooking and accommodation almost beyond recognition since the days when Norman Douglas wrote such thundering denunciations of both. In central Italy, however, and in the north, in the provinces of Lombardy, Piedmont, the Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia, Parma, and Lazio restaurants serving the local regional specialities abound. To get such dishes one does, to be sure, need to know a little kitchen and menu Italian. It is a help, and one out of all proportion to the small amount of preparatory study involved, to have some idea of what the regional traditions of cooking are and of what the particular geographical, climatic, and agricultural conditions of the country have produced.
I tried, when I wrote this book, to indicate some of these circumstances and to explain a little how to get the best of Italian food in whichever province one happens to find oneself. A few people have been kind enough to say that in this respect it has helped them to enjoy their visits to Italy, and has been a stepping-stone to further discoveries of their own. That is reward enough for the work I put into the book.
I know that finding the kind of food one is looking for in Italy can be hard work. My own voyage of discovery in that country was far from easy. My command of the Italian language is decidedly the wrong side of adequate. The amount of money I had to spend was not boundless. Neither is my eating capacity. Italians are on the whole abstemious drinkers but big eaters. Sometimes I was asked to plough through a five-course meal and then start all over again with some dish for which I had particularly asked. My kind hosts would be astonished, and cease to believe that I was at all a serious person, when I could do no more than taste a spoonful. There were times when I was very close to despair at the proverbial Italian disregard for their own and other people’s time. When it came to getting details of a recipe there were days when I scarcely knew how to find the patience to wait. There was the occasion when I hung about in Anacapri for some three weeks inquiring daily of Mafalda at the Caffé whether today she considered the red peppers just sufficiently and precisely ripe enough to make her bottled peperoni.
Another time, after I had already spent far too long dawdling about Sardinia, someone said: ’Ah, Signora, wait a few more days. There will be a festa. A wild boar will be roasted in such and such a village.’ Such opportunities are not after all to be resisted, at least not by anyone with the curiosity which in the first place makes me undertake these journeys and which sometimes I find myself regretting. Anxiety to return home and get down to practical work on my notes nearly—thank heavens, not quite—prevented me from breaking my homeward journey at Turin in order to eat those magical white truffles brought straight in from Alba at the peak of their season, towards the end of November.
I had been naggingly aware, even during long and contented days spent in other people’s kitchens, that a tremendous task still awaited me when I should return to England. For one thing, scales appear to be almost unknown in many Italian kitchens, and neither do Italian cooks use the American cup-and-spoon method of measuring ingredients. They use their memories, their instincts, and, literally, their hands.
‘Signora,’ I would say, ’what weight, do you think, is a handful of cheese?’‘Ah, now, let us see, perhaps one etto.’ (One etto is 100 grammes or just over 3 oz.; I subsequently discovered that this standard reply was very far indeed from reliable.)
‘Then how much is a handful of spinach?’‘One bunch.’
For liquid measurements there were bowls, glasses, cups: each cook using vessels of different sizes and capacity. Some of my recipes I had in fact worked out on the spot, but all, in any case, had to be cooked with ingredients as far as possible available in England.
And rationing was still with us.
Eggs, butter and cream were scarce. (At one time I was buying turkey eggs at 1s. 3d. apiece for my experiments.*) With meat, it was not only a question of the restricted quantity: cuts were often unidentifiable—they were hunks of meat designated as suitable for roasting, frying, grilling, or stewing. To ask your butcher for special cuts (and foreign ones at that) was to ask also for a sardonic laugh or a counter-request to remove your registration elsewhere.
In Soho, but almost nowhere else, such things as Italian pasta and Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salame, and occasionally Parma ham were to be had. There too Italian rice, Tuscan haricot beans, chick peas, and brown lentils were beginning to come back. In the rest of the country such commodities were all but unobtainable. With southern vegetables such as aubergines, red and green peppers, fennel, the tiny marrows called by the French courgettes and in Italy zucchini, much the same situation prevailed. The only cream cheeses at all possible for cooking, unless you made your own—and milk was still rationed—were the French Gervais and a Scandinavian boxed product. Meat stock, fresh herbs such as basil and tarragon, and for that matter even dried ones, and minor ingredients such as pine nuts and various spices were stumbling blocks. Flour was of very poor quality, bad for sauces, inadequate for pasta, and worse for pastry.
Writing of the feelings of authors towards their own work, Mr Raymond Mortimer once observed that they usually prefer, perhaps wrongly, the book which has given them the most trouble.
That this book was uncommonly troublesome cannot be denied. But I do not think that was the only reason that I felt, and feel, less detached from it than from any other work I have done before or since.
Italy was a country to which I had come long after Provence and Greece had put me under lasting spells. Towards Italy I felt more critical, my emotions were less engaged. It was possibly for this reason that the sense of discovery which in the end Italian cooking brought me was so potent. As recipe after recipe came out and I realized how much I was learning, and how enormously these dishes were enlarging my own scope and enjoyment, the fever to communicate them grew every day more urgent.
How wrong they had been, all those pessimists, from Mrs Beeton down to my own contemporaries. Where had they been looking? Had they been looking at all? Invent indeed. I had so much material that a vast deal had to be rejected. (Anyone who truly knows Italy and Italian food will know also that this is nothing but the truth.) What I kept were mainly those recipes which would, I believed, be of use in our own kitchens when normal conditions returned. Those I thought entirely unpractical or hopeless to attempt in England I confined to references or descriptions. Even so, when finally I delivered my typescript to my publishers they looked at it coldly. I had been a long time about it—it was twice as long as they had been led to expect . . . paper shortage . . . printing costs . . . they hoped the expenditure would be justified.
I hoped so too. And went home to a house empty, divested of the evidence of two years’ work.
The whole Italian project was relegated to the back of my mind. During the long months while the typescript was going through the first stages of production and printing, I occupied myself with work on another and less taxing book.
It was not until Renato Guttuso’s illustrations, long awaited, started arriving one or two at a time from Rome, that I began again to feel that the Italian venture had after all been worth while.
To have for my book those magnificent drawings and the dazzling jacket picture by one of Italy’s most remarkable living artists, I would have gone through the whole agony of writing it all over again.
Here were no sentimental decorations (nor, from Guttuso, had I exactly expected any), no vine-hung terraces or strings of onions in the conventional-romantic cookery book tradition. Here was a well-worn cheap aluminium tegamino, the double-handled egg dish so beloved of Italian cooks, every dent and defect implied. Here was a ravenous Italian workman, every nerve concentrated on the shovelling of pastainto his mouth; here a chunk of coarsely cut salame, its squares of fat glistening; slices of Parma ham laid like pieces of silk over the edge of a dish; leaf-artichokes on the stalk, tied in a bunch exactly as they are offered for sale in Roman markets, but by Guttuso invested with a quite dangerously blazing vitality; for this artist even the straw round the neck of a wine flask is unravelling itself in a manner positively threatening in its purpose and intensity.
Long before the pictures were out of my hands and delivered into those of the publishers, they had become for me an integral part of my book. Once again the whole idea made sense.
As I have already mentioned on page viii, reviewers were unimaginably kind and welcoming. (So far as I remember only one expressed the view that Italian food should be left to the Italians and we to our puddings and cabbage.)
When Mr Evelyn Waugh, a writer whose books have given me more pleasure than I have powers to acknowledge, actually named this book in the Sunday Times as one of the two which in the year 1954 had given him the most pleasure I was, and still am, stunned by the compliment and by Mr Waugh’s tolerance of my amateur’s efforts at writing.
Do not think I wish to imply that criticisms, queries, and corrections from readers did not come in. They did and do. I do not think there is one which has not been enlightening, constructive, and encouraging. It is in view of such criticisms and requests for more detailed explanations, and in the light of ten years’ further cooking experience, as well as in consideration of conditions much changed during these ten years, that I have made some highly necessary revisions to my recipes and instructions.
Because so many of the recipes have become trusted familiars in my own kitchen, some have evolved over the years, as recipes do, into something rather different from the originals; most of my revisions have been made in the form of footnotes.*
This is, I think, a book for those readers and cooks who prefer to know what the original dishes are supposed to be like, and to be given the option of making their own adaptations and alterations according to their taste and their circumstances. There is, I know, a school of writers who seem to believe that English housewives are weak in the head and must not be exposed to the truth about the cooking of other countries; must not be shocked by the idea of making a yeast dough, cleaning an inkfish, adding nutritive value to a soup with olive oil, cutting the breast off a raw chicken in order to fry it in butter rather than buying a packet of something called ‘chicken parts’ from the deep-freeze and cooking them in a cheap fat or tasteless oil substitute.
If I believed that English women really needed this kind of protection—censorship it almost amounts to—I would have packed in cookery writing long ago.
What I in fact believe is that the English are now more creative and inquiring about cooking than they have ever been before. I am sure that they are—and rightly so—annoyed and exasperated when recipes for celebrated foreign specialities dished out to them in books, magazines, and newspapers prove to be false. As I write this, I have just come across, in a respected monthly magazine, a recipe for a risotto made with twice-cooked Patna rice and a tin of tomato soup. What way is that of enlarging our knowledge and arousing our interest? Minestrone, that hefty, rough-and-ready, but nutritionally sound traditional midday soup of Northern Italian agricultural and manual workers, features frequently in such publications. Often the readers are told that it can be made with some such ingredients as a bouillon cube, a tin of chicken noodle soup, and a few frozen french beans. A crumpet or a made-up scone-mix spread with tomato purée and a slice of processed cheese turns up regularly as a Neapolitan pizza.
I can’t help wondering how we should feel if Italian cookery writers were to retaliate by asserting that a Welsh rarebit is made with polenta cakes and Gorgonzola, or steak and kidney pudding with veal and tomatoes and a covering of macaroni. The point is, how far can you go in attaching the names of internationally known specialities to concoctions which have only the flimsiest relation to the originals? To what extent can you rely on the ignorance of your readers to get away with the practice? Should that ignorance be exploited in the cause of selling some nationally advertised ingredient? Should it be exploited at all?
Adaptations do of course have to be made, alternatives to the original ingredients sometimes used. Knowledge, they say, is power. Knowledge, as Norman Douglas observed, is also fun. Knowledge in the case in point helps one to discriminate in the matter of deciding what is or is not an acceptable substitute or alternative in a recipe.
In London and in other big cities, or in any town or village where there are enterprising delicatessen stores and enlightened greengrocers, such manipulation of recipes may these days indeed be unnecessary. I have also taken into consideration that there are still many towns and country areas where no such shops exist, where imported vegetables are still rare, fresh herbs other than parsley unknown, and even such commodities as Italian pasta and rice hard to come by. For these reasons I have left as I wrote them ten years ago the suggestions I then made as to ways of getting round the difficulties. (Some cannot be got round. In those cases best leave the recipes alone; there are still very many for which quite everyday ingredients only are required.) Here and there I have appended a footnote to the effect that I no longer entirely agree with what I thought in 1953, or in some cases that there are now better alternatives than those of that far-off period.
For the rest, I do ask, although diffidently, that readers unfamiliar with Italian ingredients, or in doubt as to what to buy, should summon up the courage and the patience to have a look at the chapter in this book which is entitled The Italian Store Cupboard, as well as at the introductory pages to each section of recipes.
ELIZABETH David’s well-loved book Italian Food was first published in 1954 in London, where it was much admired but did not reach its wide audience until a revised edition came out in Penguin paperback in 1963. Mrs. David was proud of this book and revised it in small ways for each succeeding edition, the last being in 1987. Now, more than forty years after it first appeared, we have the Penguin of 1999, with all revisions and new introductions to date. Italian Food has reappeared to us just at the right time, since appreciation of the Italian table has never been higher.
Italian Food was the author’s third book. Her first two charmingly presented small books, Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking, were enthusiastically received by what could be called an “in group” of people who knew and appreciated European food. These books were in a way experimental, the contents informally assembled from nostalgic memories and notes. Written in cold, half-starved postwar England, they celebrated the sunny cuisines of the warm Mediterranean basin. Their substantial success undoubtedly encouraged Elizabeth David to consider food writing as a career, and she went about her next book, Italian Food, with great seriousness and professionalism.
Born in London in 1913, Elizabeth David was privately educated until the age of sixteen, when, like many young ladies of her well-bred background, she was sent over to France to learn the language and to study at the Sorbonne. She spent more than a year in France, living with a food-loving French family in Paris. When she returned to London, she had a brief fling as an actress, then returned to explore Europe. In southern France she met and was enchanted by the writer and sophisticate Norman Douglas. Although he was in his early seventies and she in her mid-twenties, he found her an eager pupil, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring with her his favorite cultural and gastronomic delights in France, Greece, and Italy. During World War II Elizabeth David had a government position in Cairo and then returned to England, where she wrote her first two books. She was thus well armed for Italy, her new self-imposed assignment, which was no amateur dabble but a thorough and scholarly undertaking. She amassed a vast number of reference books, papers, articles, and sources, and spent a good year in Italy itself learning everything she could—not from the great restaurants and palaces, but from the Italian people themselves in their towns and villages.
Little was known about Italian cuisine in the England of the 1950s, and because of postwar food rationing, which ended in the mid-fifties, Italian products were slow to appear in English markets. The general British view, anyway, writes Elizabeth, was that Italians “live . . . on veal and tomatoes, spaghetti, cheese, and olive oil.” A number of her friends assured her that Italian cuisine was not worth bothering about. Most visitors to Italy went into the big cities and ate international hotel food, or went to resort towns and seaside spas, where the cooking is reduced to international mediocrity. To find the real native cooking of Italy, Elizabeth traveled the provinces, stayed in small inns, and met the local people. Having spent hours in other people’s kitchens, she describes the problems of recording family recipes when there are no scales, no measurements. She had to test and retest the recipes herself, translating peasant “cups, glassfuls, and handfuls” into meaningful British measurements.
This kind of on-the-spot research had never been done before about Italian cooking. No one had written down the way the Italian people really cooked in the countryside or at home. Nobody had made regional distinctions, noting that Italy was not a monolith, that every area had its own way of cooking and seasoning. Roast pork the Perugian way, for instance, has fennel and garlic, while roast pork done the Florentine way is flavored with cloves and rosemary. Small differences, but they are of vast importance to knowledgeable diners.
Elizabeth David writes that Italy is a country to which she had come “long after Provence and Greece had put me under lasting spells.” Perhaps, she wonders, that was why she felt such a sense of discovery when recipe after recipe came out beautifully and she realized how much she was learning. It can be said that Elizabeth David’s discovery of Italy changed forever the serious cook’s conception of Italian cuisine.
Her recipes are generally simple indeed. To roast a large fish in the oven, for instance, you “score it across on each side in three or four places, brush it with olive oil, and cook it on a grid standing in a baking dish in the top of a very hot oven, turning the fish over from time to time and basting it frequently with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt before serving.” She adds that the fish is done “when the flesh is white right through, the average timing being about 10 minutes to the pound.” I like that easy style, but alas, no American cookbook editor would let you get away with that! Has the fish been scaled and gutted? Do you remove the head? How deep do you score it? Exactly how much oil and salt do you use?
How about a sauce for that fish? “Salsa Verde,” she suggests, and here is her recipe in its entirety: “Oil, lemon juice, parsley, capers, garlic, salt, and pepper, all mixed together as for a vinaigrette. There should be plenty of parsley and the sauce should be rather thick. Chopped anchovy fillets are sometimes added.” Well, that is pretty vague, but I haven’t a doubt any of us could make fine sauce out of those ingredients.
The editors have been careful to reproduce the Elizabeth David books exactly as she herself wrote and edited them. No tampering with these sacred texts! So remember when you are making one of her recipes that you are cooking British, where a pint of water does not weigh a pound, as in this country of ours. No! In England, “A pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter.” You’ll easily find the equivalents on the inside cover of this book.
There are lovely veal dishes here, both cutlets and scaloppini, and easy recipes—take thin 3-ounce slices from the leg, brown them, add a little Marsala wine, top them with grated Parmesan, and braise a few minutes in a covered pan. Slices of veal are rolled up with ham and cheese, or a simple stuffing, browned and sauced the same way. Her osso buco is straightforward and uncomplicated, as is her veal stew.
In gathering everything she could dig up on the subject, she included not only food books, such as there were at that period, but guidebooks and written accounts of travels in Italy. These she carefully lists in the first edition of her book and updates for later editions—creating an invaluable resource for contemporary food historians. Besides providing recipes, she goes into Italian cheese, giving notes and listings. She names and describes cookbooks and favorite guidebooks, both Italian and foreign. She completely revised her original chapter on Italian wines, since the wine makers had gone through a much-needed revolution—in the 1960s, at the same time that Californians began to take their wine-making seriously. She also names and describes what she calls “Visitors’ Books,” descriptions and accounts of travels in Italy, remarking that “In the past five hundred years no European country has been more written about.” These wonderfully useful sections she continually updated.
According to Rose Prince, who wrote an extensive retrospective article about Elizabeth David in The Sunday Independent in October 1997, Elizabeth was “always most proud” of her Italian book. It was long, hard work, it was original research, and it had a real impact on the public. Prince notes that before the David book, Italian provincial cooking was quite unheard of, and Italian ingredients, like good olive oil, olives, and cheeses, were almost impossible to come by in England. All Elizabeth David’s books sold well in hardcover, but when the paperback editions came out, they “exploded into British cuisine,” changing it forever. More than a million copies were sold between 1955 and 1985.
Elizabeth was now the doyenne of English food authorities (a term she hated), and was much enjoyed as a writer for her graceful, sensuous, and witty style. Food had never been written about in this way, notes the aforementioned Rose Prince (who obviously had never heard of our M.F.K. Fisher—nor had Elizabeth David, for that matter). Elizabeth’s next two books were Summer Cooking (1955) and French Provincial Cooking (1960), and in the sixties and seventies she wrote numerous articles for The Spectator, Vogue, and other publications, and opened her very personal and popular cookware shop. After a twelve-year stint at the shop, she published another book, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. Then, discouraged by the doleful state of English bread, she toured every library and collection in British hamlets and towns for her scholarly and lengthily researched volume English Bread and Yeast Cookery, published in 1977. Although her health began to fail in the mid-eighties, she kept on working, sometimes in bed, and never lost her interest, her curiosity, and her passion for research. She died quietly in 1992, at her home in the Chelsea area of London.
Her death brought forth an immense outpouring of love and appreciation in newspapers throughout the English-speaking world, and how lucky we are to have here in our hands her timeless and favorite book, Italian Food. Read it with pleasure, and you’ll find yourself taking it right to the kitchen, where you’ll cook Italian as you’ve never cooked it before.
MY travels in search of regional food and traditional recipes were to a great extent made possible by the generosity of the On. Dr Pietro Romani, High Commissioner for Italian Tourism, and by the Conte Sigmund Fago Golfarelli of the Ente Nazionale Industrie Turistiche in Rome. I am deeply grateful to them, and to the officials of the Ente del Turismo all over Italy who were so hospitable, and so understanding of my rather special problems of research. Particularly in Siena, Perugia, Florence, Bologna, Parma, Verona, Ravenna, Venice, Como, Stresa, Milan, Turin, Genoa, Sanremo, and in the island of Sardinia, the kindness, enthusiasm, and often the erudition of members of the Ente del Turismo led me to discoveries about Italian food and wine which would otherwise have been most difficult, if not impossible, to make.
Restaurant proprietors and their chefs, and cooks in the houses of friends, were equally generous in the matter of disclosing recipes, cooking special dishes, and demonstrating the individual characteristics of the Italian kitchen.
I am particularly indebted to Signora Ramusani of the Aurora restaurant in Parma, Signor Zoppi of the Taverna Fenice in Venice, Signor Oswaldo* of Il Buco in Rome, Signora Mafalda of the Caffé Caprile in Anacapri, and Signor Bolognini of Bolognini’s in Bologna, in whose kitchens I have spent most delightful and instructive days. I also gratefully record my thanks to the proprietors and chefs of the Pappagallo, the Sampiero, and the Trattoria Nerina, all in Bologna, of the Molinara in Verona, the Hotel Diana in Milan, the Locanda on the island of Comacino, the Ristorante al Sole at Ravenna Marina, the Tre Galline in Turin, the Pantheon in Rome, Delfino’s in Portofino, Sabatini’s in Florence, the Antico Martini and the Peoceto in Venice, the Tre Re at Chieri, Giacometti’s in Positano, the Trasimeno in Perugia, and Caruso’s at Ravello. All of them have given me valuable information and recipes. I wish also to acknowledge my debt to several most admirable and fascinating Italian cookery books. Without a thorough study of these books, as well as first-hand knowledge of eating and cooking in Italy, it would have been impossible for me to write about Italian food. For those who read Italian I have given a brief list of Italian cookery books on page 308.
A good many of the recipes in this book were originally published by Harpers Bazaar, and three or four by Messrs Saccone and Speed, to whom my thanks are due for permission to reprint them here.
Several extracts from G. Orioli’s book Moving Along are reprinted with the permission of Messrs Chatto and Windus, and a passage from Siren Land by Norman Douglas with the permission of his executors and of Messrs Secker and Warburg. The Maison Stock & Cie of Paris have courteously allowed me to quote a paragraph from Guillaume Apollinaire’s L’Hérésiarque & Cie, and Messrs Seeley Service Ltd and Mr Robin Fedden a recipe from Romilly Fedden’s Food and other Frailties.
To Mr John Lehmann, who originally fostered the idea of this book, and to all those friends in Italy and in England who have helped me in my researches, extended the hospitality of their houses and their kitchens, and tolerantly offered most helpful criticisms while I have been working on my book, I here express, although in inadequate terms, my very great gratitude.
Various cooking vessels. Top two rows are tart pans, shallow and deep. Their covers, designed to hold coals so that the pastry cooked between two fires, are in row four. Rows three and five show boiling pots, a colander and, far right, a pan for fried eggs. Bottom row, cauldrons.
Italian Dishes in Foreign Kitchens
THE difficulties of reproducing Italian cooking abroad are much the same as the difficulties attendant upon any good cooking outside its country of origin, and usually they can be overcome.
Italians, unlike the thrifty French, are very extravagant with raw materials. Butter, cheese, oil, the best cuts of meat, chicken and turkey breasts, eggs, chicken and meat broth, raw and cooked ham are used not so much with reckless abandon as with a precise awareness of what good quality does for the cooking.
In most Italian households the marketing is done twice a day. Everything is freshly cooked for every meal. What the Italian kitchen misses in the form of concentrated meat glazes, fumets of fish and game, the fonds de cuisine of the French, it makes up for in the extreme freshness and lavishness of its raw materials. It is worth bearing in mind that when an Italian has not the wherewithal to cook one of the traditional extravagant dishes she doesn’t attempt to produce an imitation. No amount of propaganda could persuade her to see the point of making, let us say, a steak and kidney pudding with tinned beef and no kidneys, neither would she bother to make a ravioli stuffing with leftovers, because the results would not at all resemble the dish as it should be, and would therefore be valueless. So her method would be to produce some attractive and nourishing little dish out of two ounces of cheese and a slice of ham, or a pound of spinach and a couple of eggs. A hefty pizza made of bread dough and baked in the oven with tomatoes, cheese and herbs costs very little and is comforting, savoury food. Gnocchi made of potatoes, or of semolina flour, or of spinach and ricotta (fresh white sheep’s milk cheese*), are cheap and easy to make, so are little envelopes of paste containing slices of cheese and mortadella sausage, and mozzarella in carrozza, a fried cheese sandwich. Because Parmesan cheese is expensive, many people eat their spaghetti in the rough-and-ready but extremely good Neapolitan way, with olive oil and garlic. From such methods I believe we could learn much of value from the Italians. Not that Italian cookery is without its faults. The excessive use of cheese, the too frequent appearance of tomato sauce, the overworking of the frying pan (expert as Italian cooks are with it), too heavy a hand with powerful herbs, are some of the points at which fault could be found with the Italian kitchen.
There is no reason, however, why we should not combine the best which it has to offer (and the best in Italy is extremely good) with materials at our disposal in this country. The number of different ways of making use, for example, of a small quantity of veal is astounding. (I have given a dozen such recipes in this book, and there are plenty more.) We could benefit from Italian methods of frying and grilling fish; and as we have not one single fish soup in common use in this country, could we not invent one? Again, once the delicate flavour of genuine Bolognese or Parma stuffings for anolini or cappelletti have been compared with the coarse mixtures contained in bought ravioli, the idea of making these things at home cannot fail to appeal.
The delicacy and intrinsic goodness of the simplest white risotto eaten only with Parmesan cheese and good fresh butter will also quickly be appreciated. Tied as we are by tradition in the matter of the roast turkey, we complain that it is a dull and dry bird, but continue to eat it cooked in the same way; the Italian fashion of cooking the breast with butter, ham and cheese will be a revelation. Home-made cream cheese can be turned to good account in twenty different dishes in the Italian manner. To make pasta at home may sound a formidable undertaking, but if any Italian peasant girl can make it without effort we should presumably be able, after two or three attempts, to master the technique. And now of course pasta machines, whether hand-operated or electrically powered, are easily obtainable.
Some interesting sidelights emerge from a study of Italian cooking. The beautiful colours of their food is one most characteristic point. The vivid scarlet dishes of the south, the tomato sauce and the pimentos, the oranges and pinks of fish soups, the red and white of a Neapolitan pizza, contrast strikingly with the unique green food of central and northern Italy; the spinach gnocchi of Tuscany, the lasagne verdi of Bologna, the green pesto sauce of Genoa, the green peas and rice of the Veneto, green artichokes in pies, in omelettes, in salads; the green and yellow marbled stuffings of rolled beef and veal dishes—such food can scarcely fail to charm. Then there is the point of the endless hours Italian cooks are willing to spend over the pounding of intricate stuffings and sauces, and the startling rapidity with which the actual cooking is carried out (five minutes in boiling water for the ravioli, into the frying pan and out with the polpette, the crocchette and the frittelle which have been most patiently chopped, sieved, and rolled out on the pastry board).
The seemingly deliberate misunderstanding by French cooks of Italian food is another curious point. ‘Two tablespoons of rice for a risotto for four’; ‘the Milanese like their rice half-cooked’—one reads with astonishment such instructions from otherwise irreproachable French cookery books. Ali-Bab, in his monumental work Gastronomie Pratique, falls into the common trap of asserting that ‘poultry and butcher’s meats are (in Italy) frankly mediocre’, and ‘the most common vegetables are broccoli and fennel’. It is scarcely to be wondered at that in their turn a good many Italians just jeer at French cooking (French dishes are rarely well cooked in Italy), although they make a mistake in deriding the slowly simmered, patiently amalgamated dishes of wine, meat, and vegetables which play such an important part in the marvellous regional food of France. There are long-cooked meat dishes in the Italian kitchen, and soups containing haricot beans or chick peas which must be cooked for several hours; but on the whole Italian cooks neither like nor understand these methods. As I have already sufficiently explained, quality and freshness of flavour are the all-important elements in Italian cooking; and in describing the dishes in this book I have deviated as little as possible from the correct ingredients and quantities, so that the food may retain its authentic flavour.
The Italian Store Cupboard
LE ERBE ODOROSE
SWEET BASIL (Lat. ocymum basilium, It. basilico). Why is this lovely aromatic herb now so rare in England? It is true that it needs sunshine and a certain amount of care in cultivation, but I have myself grown it with success even in boxes on a London roof. It was introduced into England in the sixteenth century and evidently flourished, for English herbalists, among them Tusser (Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, 1577), Parkinson (The Earthly Paradise, 1629), and Culpeper (The English Physitian, 1652), appear to take its presence in the herb garden for granted, although it was employed for perfumes and as a strewing herb rather than in the kitchen. Its only traditional use in English cooking is as an ingredient of turtle soup, so presumably it must have been common during the nineteenth century.
Basil has a deliciously spicy and aromatic scent, and is worth growing for that reason alone. In Italy basil leaves are used a great deal to flavour tomato sauce, salads, and soups, especially in the south, and are essential to the marvellous Genoese pesto, perhaps the best sauce yet invented for all kinds of pasta.
Nothing can replace the lovely flavour of this herb. If I had to choose just one plant from the whole herb garden I should be content with basil. Norman Douglas, who had a great fondness for this herb, would never allow his cook to chop the leaves or even to cut them with scissors; they must be gently torn up, he said, or the flavour would be spoilt. I never agreed with him on this point, for the pounding of basil seems, on the contrary, to bring out its flavour. Possibly he had been influenced by the legend, which I discovered only after it was too late to ask him, that ’the properties of that hearbe was that being gently handled it gave a pleasant smell but being hardly wrung and bruised would breed scorpions . . . it is also observed that scorpions doe much rest and abide under those pots and vessels wherein Basill is planted’ (Parkinson’s Earthly Paradise, 1629).
Dried basil is an improvement on no basil at all, but it cannot be used in the making of pesto or in salads. Buy it in small quantities. Dried herbs bought in enormous jars go stale.
Besides the ordinary sweet basil the Italians grow a giant variety called basilico afoglie di lattughe, lettuce-leaved basil.
WILD MARJORAM (Lat. origanum vulgare, It. origano). Although this herb grows wild on the South Downs, it is seldom used for cooking in England. In Italy, where its scent is stronger than the English variety, it is a characteristic flavouring of many dishes, particularly of the pizza Napoletana; it grows, says Professor Ghinelli (Le Conserve di Carne, Parma, 1950), in uncultivated areas and in poor and arid soil. Freshly picked from the scrubby hillsides of the south, it scents the kitchens where it is hung up to dry, and has an unmistakable flavour, quite distinct from that of sweet marjoram. Dried, it is sold in little sausage-like cellophane bags all over Italy and is a passable substitute for the home-dried herb. The riganì which is used in Greece to flavour mutton kebabs is still another variety, origanum dubium, of which the dried flowers have a far more powerful scent than the leaves of the Italian plant.
SWEET MARJORAM (Lat. origanum majorana, It. maggiorana) can be used instead of origano, and in Italy goes into soups, stews, and fish dishes.
SAGE (Lat. salvia officinalis, It. salvia) is used a good deal in Italian cookery, particularly with veal and calf’s liver. I find its musty dried-blood smell overpowering, and prefer to use in its place mint or basil. Most English people are accustomed to it, however, from having so frequently eaten pork, or duck, or goose as a background to sage and onion stuffing.
THYME (Lat. thymus vulgaris, It. timo) is used less in Italy than in France, but in English kitchens it often has to serve as a substitute for marjoram or origano. Wild thyme from the downs has the most lovely scent and flavour. Lemon thyme is worth cultivating in gardens.
MINT (Lat. mentha viridis, It. menta) and PEPPERMINT (Lat. mentha peperita, It. mentuccia, menta Romana) are used a good deal in Roman cooking, with vegetables, fish, in salads and soups. Anyone who has walked among the ghostly ruins of Ostia Antica will remember the haunting scent of the wild mint which rises from the ground, for one cannot help treading it underfoot. In Florence there is a slightly different variety called locally nepitella. (The mint tribe is notoriously difficult to classify.) Since all mints retain their flavour well when dried, they should be used more liberally in the kitchen, with all manner of dishes. Try mint, for example, with stewed mushrooms.
ROSEMARY (Lat. rosmarinus officinalis, It. rosmarino). Italians are inordinately fond of rosemary. It is an essential flavouring of abbacchio, the roast baby lamb of which the Romans are so fond, and of porchetta, roast sucking pig. In the market of Florence rolled fillets of pork are most exquisitely tied up ready for roasting, adorned, almost embroidered, with rosemary. They overdo it, to my way of thinking. Rosemary has great charm as a plant but in cookery is a treacherous herb. The oil which comes from the leaves is very powerful and can kill the taste of any meat. Finding those spiky little leaves in one’s mouth is not very agreeable, either. Dried, it loses some of its strength, but should still be treated with caution.
FENNEL (Lat. foeniculum dulce, It. finocchio). The bulbous root stem of the Florentine fennel has an aniseed flavour and is eaten both raw and cooked. In Italy it is often served raw at the end of a meal instead of fruit, as well as at the beginning, seasoned with oil and salt. The leaves, which are used so much in the South of France for flavouring fish and fish soups, are not commonly employed in Italy, but both the stalks and leaves of wild fennel (foeniculum vulgare) are chopped up with garlic and used as a stuffing for roast sucking pig as cooked in Umbria, with excellent results. An improvement on the rosemary of Rome.
FENNEL SEEDS (It. semi di finocchio) go into a number of sausages, particularly finocchiona, the Florentine salame, which to my taste is one of the two best in Italy (the other one being Felino, from the province of Parma). Fennel seeds are also used to flavour the delicious dried figs of Bari.
CELERY (Lat. apium graveolens, It. sedano). The leaves as well as the stalks of celery, with carrot and onion, form the basic soup vegetables of most Italian cooking. It is rarely served raw, possibly because it appears to be mostly of a rather stringy and thin growth.
Turner, in his Herbal of 1538, says of celery: ‘The first I ever saw was in the Venetian Ambassador’s garden in the spittle yard, near Bishop’s Gate Streete.’
PARSLEY (Lat. petroselinum sativum, It. prezzemolo) is said to have been originally a native of Sardinia. A great deal of parsley goes into Italian soups and salads. With garlic and anchovies it is chopped for the stuffing of aubergines, pimentos, small marrows, onions.
The flat-leaved parsley commonly used in Italy is more aromatic than our English curled parsley, and in England is often to be found in the shops of greengrocers specializing in Cypriot, Greek and Indian products.
TARRAGON (Lat. artemisia dracunculus, It. dragoncello, serpentaria). The only region of Italy where I have found tarragon in common use is Siena. In that town it is used to flavour stewed and stuffed artichokes, and if asked for will be put into salads or cooked with sole in the Sienese restaurants.
It is always a battle to get plants of the true French tarragon out of nurserymen, but it can be achieved, and if planted in light soil with room to root deeply it seems to grow quite well.
BAY LEAVES (Lat. laurus nobilis, It. alloro, lauro). Everyone who has a garden, however small, can find room for a little bay tree, if only in a wooden tub. Bay trees must be well watered and carefully cherished. An ailing bay tree is a woebegone sight, and according to Italian tradition the withering of a bay tree is a bad omen. Certainly in 1629, as reported by John Evelyn, all the bay trees in the garden of the University of Padua died, and soon afterwards the town was struck with a fearful pestilence; but the tradition must have been well established long before that, for Shakespeare refers to it in that foreboding line spoken by the Welsh captain in Richard II: ‘The bay trees in our country are all withered.’ This same event was recorded by Holinshed in 1399 (the year of Richard’s downfall): ‘Throughout all the realme of England, old baie trees withered, and afterwards, contrarie to all men’s thinking, grew greene againe; a strange sight, and supposed to import some unknown event.’
In Italian cooking bay leaves are used in the same way as in France and England—in soups, stews, and in the brine for salted food.
A freshly picked bay leaf gives out a strange scent, bitter and aromatic, with something of both vanilla and nutmeg, and can be boiled in the milk for a béchamel sauce or a sweet cream with good results. To extract a stronger flavour from dry bay leaves, mince them up very fine before putting them in a soup.
MYRTLE (It. mirto). Myrtle grows all over the stony hillsides of Sardinia, right down to the sandy beaches, and Sardinians are fond of flavouring their food with it. Sprigs of myrtle are wreathed round the roast baby pig (porceddù), which is so good in the rosticcerie of Cagliari and Sassari, and the old peasant women who bring herbs to the market offer bunches of myrtle for sale, as well as fennel, marjoram, parsley, bay leaves, wild mint, and basil. A Sardinian delicacy called tàccula consists of roasted thrushes or blackbirds stuffed while they are still hot into little bags lined with myrtle leaves and left until they have absorbed the scent of the myrtle. In some parts of the island the country people even make oil from the ripe berries of the myrtle (this is forbidden, but Sardinians are not notably law-abiding), and they claim that this myrtle oil is far superior to olive oil for frying fish.
BORAGE (Lat. borago officinalis, It. boraggine). Borage has always been said to have exhilarating properties, and to give courage, which no doubt accounts for its traditional use in wine cups. In and around Genoa, but so far as I know nowhere else in Italy, borage is used in a stuffing for ravioli, and the leaves are also made into fritters. Borage grows wild on the chalk soil of the Sussex Downs, and occasionally one comes across little bunches of it for sale in London greengrocers’ shops. It withers very rapidly. Lady Rosalind Northcote (The Book of Herbs, 1912) says that ‘bees love borage and it yields excellent honey’. It has a pronounced flavour of cucumber, and is delicious when finely chopped and mixed into freshly made cream cheese.
JUNIPER (It. ginepro). The Italians often put juniper berries into stuffings for game; they have an aromatic-bitter scent, which greatly enhances the flavour of any bird which in the process of transport or cold storage may have become dry or a little flavourless. Juniper berries are also excellent with pork and mutton. They can be bought at Harrods, Selfridges, in Soho shops, and in the many establishments now specializing in Indian and Chinese provisions and spices.
The great galleys of Venice and Florence
Be well laden with things of complacence;
All spicerye and of grocers ware
With sweet wines; all manner of fare . . .
Adam de Molyneux, Bishop of Chichester (d. 1450)
The use of spices in Italian cooking dates back to the Romans. The prosperity of the Venetian and Genoese republics, and to a certain extent that of Florence, was founded on the handling of the spices which reached Italian ports by the overland route from the East. From Italy they were distributed throughout Europe (England and Flanders being supplied by the Venetian merchant fleet). Tomasso Garzoni, listing the herbs and spices in use in sixteenth-century Venice, mentions cloves, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, mustard, fennel, basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, bay leaves; almonds, pine nuts, sultanas, figs, and pistachios were also commonly cooked with meat and fish dishes.
With the development of the sea route from the Indies in the sixteenth century, the Italian spice trade declined; but the taste for spiced food remained.
NUTMEG (It. noce moscata). The customary one nutmeg found in a dusty corner of English kitchen cupboards would not go far in Italy. It is a spice which goes into dozens of dishes, particularly in the region of Bologna, where it is an essential ingredient of the stuffing for anolini, tortellini, tortelli di erbette (a kind of chard or spinach ravioli which is a speciality of Parma). In fact, nutmeg goes into all dishes which contain spinach, and all dishes whether sweet or savoury made from ricotta (see page 1).
CLOVES (It. chiodi di garofano). Besides being used to flavour spiced cakes such as the famous panforte of Siena, cloves are still occasionally put into meat dishes, such as stracotto, a beef stew, and those game dishes which are served with a sour-sweet sauce.
CINNAMON (It. cannella) is occasionally used in meat and game dishes, as well as in cakes and puddings.
VANILLA (It. vaniglia). Keep a special jar of caster sugar with a stick of vanilla in it, and use the sugar when making sweet pastry or creams. In Italy they sell little packets of vanilla sugar especially for this purpose.
CORIANDER SEEDS (It. coriandro). A neglected but useful spice in the kitchen. A few crushed coriander seeds make an excellent flavouring for roast lamb or pork, and its orange-peel scent goes well, too, with fish.
SAFFRON (Lat. crocus sativus, It. zafferano). The use of saffron as a spice is of ancient origin. The Phoenicians were apparently inordinately addicted to it, and its use in southern France in bouillabaisse and other fish dishes, and even in the saffron buns of Cornwall, has been attributed to Phoenician influence. In Italy the saffron crocus is cultivated in the Abruzzi and in Sardinia, and as everyone knows it is saffron which gives risotto Milanese its beautiful pale butter colour and its characteristic flavour. There are one or two districts where saffron is used to spice the zuppa di pesce, but a great many Italian cooks turn up their noses at saffron (‘too strong, it kills the flavour of the fish’), in which I don’t altogether agree with them.
Saffron comes from the pistils of the autumn-flowering crocus, and since there are three only to each flower it is easy to understand in what large quantities the flower must be cultivated and why genuine saffron is so expensive.
Jeanne Savarin, editress of La Cuisine des Familles, wrote in October 1905: ‘About half a million crocus pistils are needed to make one kilo of authentic saffron powder, and a druggist cannot buy a pound of saffron powder for less than sixty francs.’ Sixty francs would have been about three pounds at that time, and it is not surprising that the adulteration and falsification of saffron was common.
To avoid being fobbed off with imitation saffron, it is best to buy the kind which is sold not in powder but in the actual pistils of the flower, frail little threads which on being steeped in water give out their beautiful saffron colour and rather bitter flavour. It is used in very small quantities. It is the most expensive of all spices, and in Italian cooking there is no substitute.
SALT (It. sale). Out past Poetto, the long white beach of Cagliari in Sardinia, can be seen a curious and fascinating sight, the salt lagoons which provide all Italy with marine salt. In rectangular, loaf-like shapes which echo the long ridges of the Sardinian hills, the newly extracted salt from the lakes is heaped, hard and crusty, blinding white in the sunlight, with blue and rose and lilac shadows, a moon landscape. Sea salt (in French gros sel, sel gris) can now be bought in many delicatessen shops as well as in wholefood and health food stores, and at one or two kitchen utensils shops. Our own Maldon salt, in crunchy flakes, can be found at Fortnum’s, Harrods, Selfridges, and the Army & Navy Stores, or ordered direct from the Maldon Crystal Salt Company, Maldon, Essex.
Food cooked with sea salt tastes so much better than that cooked with powdered salt that people who are accustomed to it notice a startling difference when deprived of it. For Maldon salt, mills are pointless. Use your fingers, or if you prefer pound it in a wooden mortar.
PEPPER (It. pepe) is one of the oldest, most valuable, and most widely known of all spices. Use black pepper, freshly ground from a pepper mill, whenever possible.
It is a mistake to suppose that all Italian food is heavily garlic flavoured.
In the south, particularly in Naples, a good deal of garlic goes into the tomato sauce and the fish soups. Spaghetti with oil and garlic is much beloved of the Neapolitans (and how I agree with them). In Rome the only common restaurant dish which contains a quantity of garlic is spaghetti alle vongole (described on p. 76).
Piedmont has its garlic dish, the bagna cauda sauce, and Genoa its delicious garlic-flavoured pesto, but on the whole Italian cooking contains far less garlic than that of Provence or south-west France. Even the salame and the sausages are only very mildly garlic flavoured, and some not at all.
A clove or two of garlic should go into most soups and stews, into the stuffings for pimentos, aubergines, and small marrows, and into mixed salads. Beetroot salad is infinitely the better for a little chopped garlic, and so are stewed mushrooms and spinach soup.
Anchovies in oil or brine are used a great deal in southern Italy and in Piedmont and Liguria as an ingredient of sauces, salads, and stuffings, sometimes in unexpected ways. Crostini di provatura, a dish nearly always to be found in the more humble Roman trattorie, are croûtons of bread and melted cheese with a sauce of anchovies cooked in butter, a particularly successful combination. As a garnish for pimentos in oil a few fillets of anchovies are excellent.
Anchovies and garlic are the basis of la bagna cauda, the traditional sauce of Piedmont. At one time they were used a good deal in England to lard meat, but the only survival of this taste seems to be that rather unpleasant anchovy sauce . . . Anchovy toasts made with genuine anchovy paste used to be so good . . . Anchovies in oil of good quality can be found quite easily in England. Some are inclined to be over-salted, and should be washed in warm water or vinegar before they are added to a sauce. As an occasional change there is nothing wrong with pounded anchovies in the salad dressing, but the taste is apt to pall.
(TUNNY FISH IN OIL)
This appears in a dozen unfamiliar ways: mixed with potatoes or french beans for a salad; with pimentos; made into a kind of sausage for an antipasto; in a sauce for cold veal; as an important part of the delicious Tuscan dish of white beans fagioli col tonno. The choice part of the tunny fish is the stomach (ventresca), which is very tender and of an appetizing creamy-pink colour. In Italy tunny fish in oil is most commonly sold by the kilo, out of barrels or very large tins. For a salad one must always ask for ventresca. If the tunny is to be pounded into a sauce or made into polpettone, the cheaper quality will do.
The netting, canning, and export of tunny is one of the important industries of the island of Sardinia; there I have eaten fresh tunny of a tenderness and flavour quite unequalled elsewhere in the Mediterranean, but so far as I am aware we do not import Sardinian tinned tunny to this country. There is, however, a certain amount of Spanish, Portuguese, and French tinned tunny fish obtainable.
These are usually boletus, the kind called cèpes in France and porcini in Italy.
Used in small quantities, they are a good addition to soups and sauces, but contrary to general supposition they do not need long cooking. They should be soaked in warm water for a few minutes, and can then be added to the dish. In 15–20 minutes they will be perfectly tender. If cooked too long, they lose all flavour. Be careful to buy the dried mushrooms which look cream coloured and brown and have been recently imported. When they are black and gnarled they have a disagreeably strong flavour.
(PINE NUTS OR PINE KERNELS)
The nuts which come from the cones of the stone pine. They are about ¼ in. long, cream coloured, slightly oil-flavoured little nuts, which in Italy are used in meat and game dishes, more specifically in those which are cooked with an agrodolce or sour-sweet sauce. They also appear sugared in small cakes, biscuits, and macaroons.
Nothing quite replaces pinoli, for they have a consistency and flavour entirely their own. (Incidentally they are good prepared in the same way as salted almonds, or fried in butter, to serve with drinks.)
In England pinoli can usually be bought from those shops which specialize in nuts and vitamin and vegetarian foods. They are best stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator.
PROSCIUTTO CRUDO,* PROSCIUTTO COTTO
(RAW HAM AND COOKED HAM)
Raw ham and cooked ham are used a great deal, usually in small quantities, in stuffings for anolini, tortellini, agnolotti, and all the ravioli tribe, also in sauces, in risotti, with vegetables, in soups, and in a number of pastry fritters, in pizze, and with cooked cheese; and also in conjunction with veal escalopes.
Meet the Author
Elizabeth David (1913-1992) travelled widely during the Second World War, throughout Europe, the Middle East and India. She returned to England in 1946 to write the classic Mediterranean Food, followed by five other books that all became bestsellers. Also a prolific journalist, she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982, and a CBE in 1986.
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