Once upon a time our ancestors lived in a world where Italian food wasn't the grandissimo deal that it is now. Once upon a time parma ham, parmeggiano reggiano and balsamic vinegar, weren't some of Italy's biggest exports. Once upon a time people who occupied the country that is now Italy had little idea what their fellow countrymen were eating fifty miles down the road. Once upon a time they didn't even share the same language. Once upon a time there were no recipe books in Italy. Once upon a time the creation of some of Italy's finest meals was handed down through generations by word of mouth and "do as I do" demonstrations.
It is hard to believe that one man and one man only is credited with changing or contributing to the changes of all of the above historical facts - one Signor Pellegrino Artusi.
Inside the modern library and resource centre at Cas'Artusi, one day in May this year it was explained to me that Pellegrino Artusi was born in 1820, 41 years before Italy was unified as the country now globally recognised as such a culinary heavyweight. He was not a chef and his background was not in food, in fact he was a businessman who left the family home in Forlimpopoli to live and work in Florence. Following the deaths of his parents he inherited the family's land and fortune and so sometime into his adult life stopped working, turning his attention to combining the two loves in his life; writing and cooking.
Though he was a proficient writer he was actually not an active cook. He relied heavily on his live-in Tuscan cook and domestic helper, Marietta Sabatini to try to recreate the dishes, which he had tried and enjoyed in different parts of Italy while travelling around for business. He began to record the ingredients required and instructions to be followed in order to make the many different foods, which varied considerably from region to region (as is still the case). He then began to purposefully travel in order to watch and learn how the women of Italy cooked for their families. This formed the basis of his book "La Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiar Bene" , which translates as Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.
What I personally find fascinating about this story is that when the first edition of this book was finished he couldn't find a publisher for it, so he self-published in 1891, aged 71. These days we are hearing about new successful self-published authors almost every week so I enjoyed this modern day twist in a story that is over 100 years old.
The book began to sell in its thousands and slowly but surely a steady trickle of additional recipes were sent to Artusi by Italians from all over the country who had a dish to share. Artusi worked tirelessly on updating the book and a further fifteen editions were released in less than twenty years before he died aged 90.
Historically, this cookbook represents much more than a collection of recipes. It is now seen as one of the first snapshots of the richly diverse new country that Italy was. In 1891 Italy was only 30 years old and was struggling with numerous vast cultural, linguistic and social differences. The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well went a long way to unify the people of Italy by sharing what they ate at home and by allowing them to experience what families in other corners of the country sat down to eat. It was also one of the first books written in the new Italian language, uniting a nation with many different regional dialects.
Realising that there was so much history to something I deliciously took for granted has certainly made me wonder how many other hidden historical figures I have to thank for some of my other simplest pleasures in life. Considering that I eat Italian food no less than two or three times a week it now seems ridiculous that I was unaware of Artusi's existence.
"It is true that man does not live by bread alone; he must eat something with it. And the art of making this something as economical, savoury and healthy as possible is, I insist, a true art." Pellegrino Artusi
And if you want to see what learning how to make pasta with a modern day Marietta looks like you can read how I got on learning to make fresh pasta at Cas'Artusi.
Bird was a guest at Cas'Artusi in Forlimpopoli as part of BlogVille, an initiative from the Emilia-Romagna tourist board, which provided me with a free nest for my stay in Bologna. My lack of knowledge about Artusi and my pleasure at now being educated are all my own.
Frances M. Thompson
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