This book is large and heavy – 416 pages and more than 2kg – but given the subject, it could have been even larger and heavier. Author Anna Del Conte, who published the tome in 2001, goes back – way back – into the history of Italian cuisine.
“Looking far back into the past, it is possible to uphold the claim that the roots of European cooking are to be found in Italy,” she writes in the chapter “The Development of Italian Gastronomy”. “The first known food writer was Archestratus, a Sicilian Greek who lived in Syracuse in the fourth century BC.”
In the next paragraph, she writes about recipes collected by someone called Apicius.
“We know nothing of the author, but he was certainly not the originator of the recipes. We can only presume that he was Gavius Apicius, a great gourmet who lived in the first century AD. The recipes, which probably came from many different sources, list a huge number of different spices and herbs, that would totally hide the intrinsic flavour of the main ingredients. The bulk of the recipes consist of sauces and garnishes, most of them containing a selection of at least six or seven herbs plus honey and spices, the final results of which seem rather questionable. They do give us, however, a fairly good idea of what was eaten in a patrician household at this time.”
Del Conte goes on to give brief descriptions of “The Sicilian Influence”, “Influences During the Renaissance”, “The Greatest Century” (the 16th) and “The Twilight Years” (the 17th century, when the country was “becoming the battleground of wars among her more powerful neighbours, the French, Spanish and Germans”, leading to Italy’s decline “from her leading role in every art”). She continues with commentary on “The Significance of the New World”, the importance of the tomato and potato in the cuisine, and finally writes about “The Twentieth Century and Beyond”. Here, Del Conte writes, “I have recounted the history of Italian gastronomy as seen through the writings of the last six centuries. But although much is learned about its development over that time, the fact remains that Italian cooking has always been to a large extent based on home cooking. This is the cucina casalinga passed down from one generation to the next, by word of mouth and by the family recipe book. The family, after all, is the one social unit that counts for everything in Italy. And, when it comes to food, the Italians are very sure about what they like: they like the food they are used to, they like the food they see growing and being produced around them, which means home cooking and, of course, regional cooking.”
It’s clear then that this book isn’t going to be filled with recipes for restaurant food: it’s cucina casalinga – easy to make (well, there are a few difficult dishes), using ingredients that aren’t too expensive.
There are recipes for hearty, enticing dishes such as macaroni with lamb ragu; risotto with sea bass; breaded hake with anchovies; guinea fowl with mascarpone stuffing; pig head brawn; fried sweetbreads; spinach sautéed with golden raisins and pine nuts; ricotta pudding; and custard ice cream.