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Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi

Pellegrino Artusi was born in the small Italian village of Forlimpopoli in 1820 and died in Florence in 1921. His achievements were many and spanned the fields of science, business and gastronomy. He was an enigma. While others in Italy at the time were looking for things that were common across this newly united nation, he was putting together a book that celebrated regional difference and diversity. However, he didn't see what he was doing as in any way diminishing the move to nationhood.

When we are asked to choose our favourite cookbooks it is always tempting to choose recent releases. Therefore the fabulous Bouchon by Thomas Keller or Thai Food by David Thompson or The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers immediately spring to mind.

But more sober reflection brings us to two or three older books that have stood the test of time and that have made a serious contribution to the development of gastronomy throughout the world. French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David is one such book. And the more we delve into it, the more the classic Italian offering 'Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well' by Pellegrino Artusi inveigles itself into our consciousness.

Artusi had a lot of problems getting someone to publish his book as it was thought at the time that no-one would want to but a collection of regional recipes. Yet it was an instant success. First released in 1891 it had reached its fourteenth edition by 1910 when the author died.

This retired silk weaver stuck a chord with the Italian public, perhaps because he wrote in Italian and did not use French culinary terms that were de rigueur in publications of the time. He also (possibly because of his scientific background) was an early pioneer of precision in recipes at a time when many writers used broad descriptions rather than exact measurements. He was therefore an important contributor to this field, anticipating the later contributions of Fannie Farmer and Auguste Escoffier.

In fact its popularity in Italy has lead to some confusion as there are now dozens of editions both in the original Italian and in various translations. (The edition that we have reviewed here is the Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library published in 2003.)

Artusi begins with a Preface where he sets the scene:

"Cooking is a troublesome sprite. Often it may drive you to despair. Yet it is also very rewarding, for when you do succeed, or overcome a difficulty in doing so, you feel the satisfaction of great triumph."

Eventually, after diversions into health guidelines and the nutritional value of meats, the recipes begin. They are divided into 23 sections starting with "Broths, Aspic and Sauces" and finishing with Miscellaneous Recipes. The very first recipe is a meat broth for the sick. He then moves into first courses that include pasta shapes for soups, soups, pasta dishes and more - in fact there is a total of 110 recipes in this section alone and most of them would sit very comfortably on today's dinner tables.

Each of the recipes is described and some have been developed with lists and measurements by the current editors.

But we keep going back to his prose and the way in which he describes the recipes.

His sense of humour certainly comes through when he describes a recipe for Polpettone (better known as meat loaf).

'Dear Mr. Meat Loaf, please come forward, do not be shy. I want to introduce you to my readers.
I know you are modest and humble, because, given your background, you feel inferior to many others. But take heart and do not doubt that with a few words in your favour you shall find someone who wants to taste you and who might even reward you with a smile.'

He includes as well a recipe for Polpette di Trippa which he says comes from a treatise dating from 1694. This is almost certainly the treatise of Battolomeo Sacchi who published "On Right Pleasure and Good Health" at about that time. Artusi acknowledges that the original recipe included raisins and pine nuts but he has omitted them from his version.

Also check out his recipe for sausages with red grapes - we found it to be a great combination of flavours.

In all there are 790 recipes in this edition and all of them are interesting and relevant. This is a must-have book for all food lovers.

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Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well

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