Together with Collodi’s Pinocchio and Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Pellegrino Artusi’s La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene is one of Italy’s most read books. With over 700 printings it is one the most referenced books on the science and art of cooking and eating well. Known as the “great-grandfather of all Italian cookbooks” it has been in print continuously since 1894 and translated in hundreds of languages.
The common matter that these three books share is one of instruction and advice. As Pinocchio learns how to prove himself through the pages of Collodi’s book, Pope Francis recommends Manzoni’s book to engaged couples for guidance before marriage. Artusi, though not a trained professional cook realized a need for a book of instruction and began classifying Italy’s great culinary and cultural tradition of regional, domestic cuisine and what it takes to become a good cook. And what we learn from his writings is that cooking is both an art and a science.
Artusi believed there is a science or technique to the “art of making something as economical, savory and healthy as possible”. That technique is as important as the ingredients used in preparing a dish and affect the dish as much as the ingredients themselves. Artusi knew that to please the taste of Italians you need to combine la scienza e l’arte . Time, temperature and proper combinations are the science and the cooks’s intuition the art. He advises his readers with an air of scientific authority to make a dough more tender and digestible, add a little lard when mixing the flour with cool water and salt and “the schiacciata will puff up better if you drop it in a skillet when the fat is sizzling but which you have removed it from the fire”.
These tips on technique should not fall on the deaf ears of a cook. According to our Italian cousin Andrea who recently graduated from a culinary course of study in Milan, one should always chill your blade attachment and blender bowl in the freezer when making pesto to avoid damaging the tender basil leaves from the heat generated by the motor of the food processor. The science behind the art of making a great pesto!
Good Friday (venerdi santo) is a solemn, sacred day in Italy and when it comes to food the menu for a ‘pranzo di quaresima‘, a luncheon meal for this final Lenten observance has a long and important tradition that goes back to the recognized bible of Italian cooking, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. Generations of Italians have grown up with the book of Artusi as a main guide to cooking. Written in 1891 with over 700 printings it is one of Italy’s most read books, together with Pinocchio, and a copy was present in almost every Italian home. Today there is a center in Artusi’s hometown of Forlimpopoli dedicated to his work.
Artusi wasn’t a chef but a merchant from Romagna who after a successful career decided to retire and dedicate his time to his hobbies – writing and cooking. He collected and compiled recipes and insights on the culinary and cultural traditions of regional Italian food from various sources, friends and relatives codifying and classifying the tradition of Italy’s domestic cuisine gathering together hundreds of regional Italian recipes and experimenting with them. He recognized the long and important tradition of foods eaten on holidays and seasonal celebrations especially those at Easter time and those eaten just before Easter. On the last few days of Lent when only “lean” foods were to be eaten, ones that Italians call “magro”.
The menu for “il pranzo di quaresima” doesn’t seem to be so lean or penitential as the ingredients are quite rich and lavish in this day and age. The meal begins Minestra –Zuppa alla Certosina, (Carthusian Soup) a fish and tomato soup that originated in a Tuscan monastery, the beautiful Certosa del Galluzzo which sits on top of a hill just outside Florence on way to Sienna.
This is followed by a course Artusi refers to as the Principii, – Baccalà montebianco con crostini di caviale , pounded codfish with cream, a garnish of raw truffles and croutons or crostini of caviar. Followed byLesso– boiled/poached Pesce con salsa genovese, fish with a Ligurian pesto sauce.
Then an interposed Tramesso of Gnocchi alla romana, discs made from semolina flour topped with butter and melted cheese. Next an Umido (stew)of Pesce a taglio followed by Arrosto grilled Anguilla (Comacchio eel).
For dessert, Dolci of Pasticcini di marzapane e gelato di pistacchi, marzipan filled pastry tarts and pistachio ice cream.
A Lenten feast that gives real and lasting joy in sharing ourselves at the table.
The food and wine of Italy’s Marche’ (pronounced MAR–kay) region is a whimsical mix of farm, field and sea. A province in Northern Italy whose name refers to a march or mark (a border region similar to a frontier), the Marche’ extends along the coastline of the Adriatic reaching into the mountainous and hilly interior of the Apennines. Because of its unique climate, history and scenery the Marche’ is a wonderland for the imaginative traveler and adventurous eater.
There are steamy fish soups and a brodetto, a fish stew made with 13 species of fish. Spaghetti Con Vongole, thin spaghetti cooked al dente, that has soaked up the delicate flavor of baby clams (vongole) and vincisgrassi, a type of lasagna which is made up of 15 layers of pasta. And as the March Hare is the Mad Hatter’s best friend in the Wonderland of Alice, lepre or wild hare is widely popular as a main course on the tables of Marche’ where it is often served cacciatora style, marinated and slow cooked in wine with onions, carrots, celery, parsley and in this case a piece of cinnamon or a touch of nutmeg .
Italians like lepre preparing it potted, roasted and sauced. They have been making it since the time of Artusi (1891) when in his self-published cookbook “la scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene” (the Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) he offered a recipe for Pasticcio di Lepre (hare pie).
The first time I ate lepre was in Tuscany, Marche’s neighbor, where they like to pair it with pappardelle or polenta and the typical recipes for the Marche’ hare follow suit. They also like to prepare coniglio, lepre’s distant relative. Although both are furry and have long ears, the red meat of a hare is different from the white meat of a rabbit (coniglio); slightly stronger and gamier with a definite point of view as you would expect from a Marche’ Hare at the table in Wonderland.