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!
The London Times once said that if we are what we eat who wouldn’t want to be Italian. I would take that one step further and say if we are what we eat who wouldn’t want to be Northern Italian. The geography and climate of Northern Italy make it one of the most cultural diverse and gastronomically active regions of Italy. The abundance and variety of food in Northern Italy is legendary and reads like a Who’s Who of the culinary world. The prosciutti of San Daniele and Parma, Milano’s risotto and osso bucco, the pestos of Genoa and the pastas of Emilia Romagna are classic foods of the North. Northern Italian favorites like carpaccio are featured on most fine dining menus and espresso laced tiramisu has so many global variations that I’ve stopped counting. The wine and food routes, le strade dei vini e sapori, of the 8 regions that loosely define Northern Italy, extend from the Alpine ranges of the Dolomites to the fertile plains and rolling hills of the Emilia-Romagna Apennines and from the sun drenched Ligurian Riviera to the Venetian shores of the Adriatic. All along the way you can taste the historical landscape of a region of Italy whose food is at the gastronomic epicenter of the world.
Do you have a taste for Italy? Read more in Seeing and Savoring Italy – A Taste and Travel Journey Through Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria available at Amazon.com
On a recent taste and travel trip I stayed in the village of San Giovanni d’Asso, in the heart of the Crete Senesi. The Crete Senesi (pronounced KREH-teh seh-NEH-seh) is a rolling panorama of wind swept hills and isolated farmhouses south of Siena where you can find the road less traveled. It is the parallel universe of Chianti and attracts travelers seeking the elemental Tuscan experience. The rolling hills are dotted with cyclists and the woods that straddle the Crete and the Val d’Orcia are the perfect place to find the legendary tartufo bianco, Italian white truffle.
San Giovanni d’Asso is the home of the Museo di Tartufo, Italys first museum dedicated to the truffle and you will definitely want to visit the unique exhibits that allow you to get up close and personal with the prized fungus. There’s even an “odorama” exhibit that allows visitors to experience the heady aromas of dozens of different kinds of truffles.
Located in a 13th century castle, the museum is next to La Locanda del Castello, a country inn with an equally powerful effect on your senses. Your sense of taste, touch, smell and vision are all heightened by the atmosphere created by the owner Selvana, her son Massimo and innkeeper, Fiorella who make your stay at the inn very special. You arrive at the locanda piazza where a series of contemporary sculptures are on display then walk through the Castello drawbridge and into the castle courtyard. The intimate ristorante downstairs from the inn (very convenient) is rustic-Italian chic with a private veranda that overlooks the landscape of the town and valley below. When ordering, I would willingly take the advice of chef Enrico whose Nouveau Tuscan cuisine and artful presentation was fantastici . I ate a delicious pici pasta with cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) one night and another night wild boar ragu’ that was both delicate and bold. The caprese salad and assorted salumi included Lardo di Colonnata, a protected Tuscan delicacy that is particular to the region. My room was decorated with 19th century Italian country furniture combined with touches of French toile fabric to create what I would imagine to be the style of day when traveling from locanda to locanda.
My final day in Tuscany was spent at a terme. Terme is the Italian word for thermal waters. Popes, pilgrims, princes and everyday Italians have traveled to these natural hot springs seeking the beneficial virtures of the waters to regenerate the body and mind since ancient times. On last year’s trip I got “my feet wet” at Bagno Vignoni, a small medieval town south of Siena. This year I would go Terme Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme. There are other popular termes in Italy; Montecatini and Saturnia come to mind that are more tourist oriented, but I like to travel like an Italian so this type of terme appeals to me. It is small, family oriented (yes, Italian children come with their parents) with 3 large pools rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. I spent one memorable afternoon in September languishing in the thermal waters of Antica Querciolaia under the Tuscan sun knowing that this was another reason why Italy is the best place on earth.
Don’t let the recession keep you from eating well. As busy families search for healthy, satisfying, easy to prepare food that stimulates their appetites as well as the economy, authentic Italian pasta is the perfect choice.
Our grandparents knew that pasta was the perfect food for hard times. During the early 1900’s the traditions for making and eating pasta were brought to the tables of America by Italian immigrants who knew what it was like to feed a family on a budget. Oral and written histories are full of recollections of European immigrants “struggling to make ends meet”. Yet every meal prepared at those tables was fresh, vibrant and nourishing. Grandmothers taught the traditions of casalinga. homestyle cooking with recipes that have stood the test of time and pasta soon moved out of the Italian kitchen to become a staple at tables throughout the world.
You don’t have to settle for processed foods with empty calories to save time and money, rediscover pasta and – Mangia Bene!
I just finished reading the Chowhound At Home Blog about No Fuss Polenta. Most of the comments focused on stirring and slaving over cooking polenta with suggestions for electric cooker polenta, oven baked polenta and microwave polenta. Ok I know that cooking polenta is hard work and that his takes some dedication, anywhere from 30-45 minutes of almost constant stirring with the “polenta stick” (a wooden stirring stick called a mescola.). My husband’s Nonna used to threaten him with the “polenta stick” if he misbehaved but of course as with all Italian grandmothers it was never put into action.
And I guess that’s why I think the home cooking of polenta should be done low and slow, stirring the bubbling pot then turning out the cooked polenta onto a wooden board or platter, smoothed over with a wet knife and covered with a tea towel until ready to serve. The purposeful cooking of food can be a great pleasure and a way to slow down the nano pace of life we all seem to be living as well as connect us to a tradition. But sometimes I ‘d rather be out riding my Vespa than cooking polenta Nonna’s way. What I mean by that is, I’m working late or over extended. For polenta in pochi minuti, I like Molino Nicoli Polenta Svelta from Bergamo (the polenta capital of Italy). It is precooked by the producer and only requires 8 minutes prep time. My Milanese family and friends in Italy buy this polenta in a box when they want to make polenta the easy way. And if you want an authentic easy to prepare boxed gnocchi try the pasta section at http://www.cosituttimarketplace.com