“The difficulties of reproducing Italian food abroad,” wrote Elizabeth David fifty-nine years ago, “are much the same as the difficulties attendant on any good cooking outside its country of origin, and usually they can be overcome.”
One such difficulty back then was finding basil in England, but of course parsley could be substituted, though the taste would be a little different. And why not try walnuts in place of pine nuts?
“In most Italian households,” Ms David informed us, “the marketing is done twice a day. 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.” This is modest enough praise: they do not have the culinary flair of the French but really their tomatoes are quite decent and you can have as many as you want. But no, wait, the lyricism is on the way:
The beautiful colours of their food is one most characteristic point. The vivid scarlet dishes of the south, the tomato sauces 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 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 fritelle which have been most patiently chopped, sieved and rolled out on the pastry board).
For my money (modest as it is), French food is wonderful over a few days but Italian, being lighter, triumphs over the longue durée. If you’ve ever spent a fortnight in southwestern France you’ll know what I mean: magret de canard, gésiers confits, cassoulet de Toulouse, buckets of garbure and basins of black Cahors wine, it’s good while it lasts but in the end one is left gagging for something less heavy-duty, a simple insalata caprese or a small piece of fresh fish, sogliola or orata accompanied by just a few charred strips of aubergine or courgette (melanzana, zucchino), and half a lemon squeezed over it.
Elizabeth David, being open-minded, even-handed and tending to judge simply as she finds, takes the French to task for their prejudices against Italian cuisine (les spa-ghét-ti et tout ça ‑ I remember one French teacher sneering):
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 [Henri Babinski], in his monumental 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’.
And so on. If you will permit some wild and disgraceful generalisations, I will add that there is scarcely anything surprising in discovering a French tendency to think themselves first in the world in either the culinary or the cultural field. That said, the stereotype of French rudeness has always seemed to me quite baseless and particularly so in restaurants, where you will almost always be treated with great politesse. This is not always the case in Italy, where it is common for the waiters to ignore the customer, chat to each other, ogle more attractive diners, bring the dishes in any order but the one you wanted them in (and often not at all) and leave you waiting an unconscionable time to pay when you’ve finished and want to get off for a stroll on the Lungomare. Curiously enough such behaviour is not found when the serving is done by waitresses. My most extreme experience in this respect took place in a pizzeria/ristorante in the pleasant Adriatic resort of Grado where the entire male waiting staff disappeared entirely, having served the food, to watch the second half of AC Milan versus Juventus. All efforts to pay the young woman who had emerged from the kitchen to clear the tables proved unavailing: she was not allowed to handle money. Nothing for it but to wait for the final whistle.
One of the great pleasures of reading Elizabeth David is that she is (was) a food writer rather than a cook or chef – indeed I’ve heard it said that not all of her recipes work. But you can read a book with pleasure that is more than a simple recipe book and is in fact stuffed (truffé) with the lore of food and illustrated with anecdotes illustrating the (in France) sometimes stern temperaments of those who have devoted their lives to gastronomy, and all of this enriched by a tone which I’m sure was just right for The Spectator fifty years ago but which now sounds not unpleasantly antique. Besides it is not necessary to devour everything whose principles of composition are laid out in a cookery book any more than it is necessary to commit all the sins that are listed in the catechism. Much pleasure can be derived from just reading:
Warm autumn fruits with Amaretto cream
500ml white wine
250g vanilla sugar
A cinnamon stick, broken in two
3 firm pears
6 small dessert apples
A squeeze of lemon juice
200g unsalted butter
200g brown sugar
200g whipping cream
6 ripe figs
4 Amaretti biscuits
Total number of calories in these words: 0.