More on how Italy became the cradle of good food and conviviality
In History of Italian Cuisine I and History of Italian Cuisine II we looked at its Roman origins and the early medieval Medieval and Renaissance relationship of Italy with food. In particular, we discovered that the rich and powerful of Italy’s most influential cities, from Florence to Rome, from Ferrara to Venice, used food as a means to show their wealth and position, but also to exorcise the natural fear of hunger and death, which was so much intertwined with life in Europe up to the modern era.
We’ve also seen that, in spite of great efforts placed in proposing astonishing dishes, it was the desire to surprise, rather than a wish to create a gastronomic tradition, to inspire Italian chefs. With the coming of the Renaissance, however, the first signs of a “national” cuisine (I use inverted commas because, as we all know, Italy as a state didn’t truly exist until the 19th century, even though it did certainly as a cultural nation) appeared, especially thanks to figures such as that of chef Messisbugo in Ferrara. The Renaissance also had the merit to introduce new cooking methods and ingredients on Italian tables, as well as creating standards to follow when it came to table manners: it is from these centuries that the worldwide famous Galateo by Monsignor Della Casa was born. What not many people know is that, in fact, Della Casa took a lot of his ideas from old Latin texts on the topic: even Cato wrote about manners in his own time!
Essential, when it comes to what Italians actually ate in the Renaissance, is the role of literature. If it’s true that historians had kept track of what happened at banquets and who attended them, dishes and flavors were the realm of the arts. For instance, we got to know from Il Baldus and Le Maccheronee (texts reminiscent in content and style of the better known works of Rabelais) by Teofilo Folengo, that in the 16th century Mantuans were fond of chestnut polenta, soups made of bread and beans or chickpeas and peas. The mariconda, still a typical dish of the area today, was popular on feast days: it consists of a mixture of eggs, cheese and bread crumbs, boiled in a broth.
Italian classics such pappardelle also hail from Renaissance times, just as potato gnocchi, maccheroni and tagliatelle do. Gnocchi, in particular, may have Roman origins, but the first written attestation of their presence on Italian tables comes from 15th century texts. We’re talking about simple, yet well-balanced cuisine, in which meat barely appeared, even though it was certainly more of a fixture on the table of the wealthier. We’ve discussed the enormous influence the discovery of America had on Italian dishes and cooking habits, especially with the introduction of the tomato colture, which promoted the diffusion of the most quintessential of all Italian recipes: the pasta al pomodoro.
The History of Italian Cuisine in the 17th and 18th Century
The love story between tomato and pasta (the dried version created by the Arabs and popular in Italy since the early Middle Ages) began sometimes in the 17th century, thanks to the work and inventive of Trapani‘s longshoremen, who used to boil the pasta (usually spaghetti or maccheroni), drain it and add chopped tomatoes on top. Shortly after, Neapolitans would grow tomatoes to make pummarola. About one hundreds years later, vermicelli with pummarola was already the staple dish for a large chunk of Southern Italians: an icon of Italian cuisine was definitely born. A curiosity: even if, as we said, dried pasta entered Italian kitchens very early and the Neapolitans were to adopt it, in the 1700s, as their staple dish, in the centuries in between pasta was not commonly consumed. Up to the 17th century, people from Naples were known as mangia foglie (leaves eaters), because of their large consume of vegetables. Vermicelli arrived in the city’s streets only after 1647 and the revolt of Masaniello. It is then that Neapolitans became mangia maccheroni (pasta eaters).
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the history of Italian cuisine very much coincided with that of European cuisine as a whole: Italy was the country to follow when it came to food and culinary tradition. Things began to change in the middle of the 17th century, when France entered powerfully the game of food and flavors, becoming Italy fiercest rival: a rivalry still extant today.
The 17th century, then, as a moment of stall, in a way, for the popularity of Italian cuisine abroad, but also a moment of definition of what “Italian cuisine” really is. Up to then, chefs and stewards had tried to create a national, pan-regional ideal of cuisine, which comprised elements of each area and region of the peninsula; the 1800s, on the other hand, sign the coming upon the stage of regional cuisines and of the celebration of all their differences. In a way, it’s with this aknowledgment that modern Italian culinary tradition was born: unity within variety.
Mind, though: Italian cuisine produced some true culinary legends in the 1600s: did you know that one of our most famous desserts, tiramisù, may hail from those years? Some people believe, in fact, that the first tiramisù-like dessert had been created in Treviso sometimes in the 17th century, by a famous chef whose restaurant was next door to a brothel. Well, as the dessert was considered an aphrodisiac, it used to be served to the brothel’s clients so that they could –ahem– perform better once they met their ladies.
Or so does the legend say, of course.
In truth, there are other versions relating the story of tiramisù, which is certainly one of the most famous Italian desserts. Funnily enough, they all hail from different regions, creating a pretty entertaining regional dispute over the birth of this delicious cake, very much as it happens when it comes to another famous Italian treat, torrone. Tuscany also claim to be the fatherland of tiramisù: served for the first time in the 17th century at the court of the Duke Leopold de Medici of Tuscany, he liked it so much the dessert became known as the zuppa del duca, the duke’s pudding. Just as the Trevisan version of the story, the cake was believed to be an aphrodisiac and hence got the cheeky name it has today.
It’s not over: Piemontese believe tiramisù was created in the 19th century in Turin, to honor and cheer up a much tired Count Cavour, after the diplomatic and military hardships caused by the unification of the country: nothing better than its creamy, sweet yet energizing flavor to pamper the soul and the body of the political father of unified Italy. And as any well crafted Italian tale, here comes the plot twist: in spite of the regional diatribes, based on textual attestations of the dessert in the areas at the times mentioned, the actual recipe of tiramisù as we know it today was only published in a cooking book in the 1970s: is tiramisù, in the end, a child of the 20th century, just as we are?
Whichever the origin, we’re talking Italian cuisine nobility here!
The first, modern cooking books
If up to the Renaissance writers strove to create volumes reflecting a national aspect of cooking, it’s the regional connotations of recipes to take centre stage in the 17th century. In 1634, Giovan Battista Crisci pubblishes La Lucerna de Corteggiani, a text focusing on southern cuisine throughout the year: Crisci’s work is important because it’s the first southern cuisine catalogue in the history of Italian culinary tradition. His work’s focus is no longer centered exclusively on Naples, but on all southern regions and on all produce and products, from cheeses to fruit, to selected delicatessen, that came from the South. In its pages, we learn about soppressata and salsiccioni di Nola, about the olives from Gaeta and Maranola, or those from Caserta or the Cilento; we get to know that Aversa has the best melons and Avellino the best lettuce. Peaches and lemons are at their most delicious in Amalfi.
Many of the cheeses mentioned by Crisci are still known today: Aversa’s mozzarelle, Basilicata’s caciocavallo, Capua’s salted ricotta and goat’s ricotta from Pozzuoli. Crisci’s organized the content of his book according to the different periods of the year, so that his readers could enjoy fresh ingredients all year round.
Another publication of great relevance in the history of Italian cuisine is the work of Antonio Latini, which produced a recipe book in several volumes, organized in a list form. To prove the quintessentially regional taste of Latini’s work is the fact its first volume is entirely dedicated to the description of the Kingdom of Naples and of its wealth of produce and natural beauty.
The 19th century
The 19th century is a crucial moment in the history of the country and so is it in the history of Italian cuisine: it’s the century that witnessed the birth of Italy as a sole, whole country and also that of what is still considered today a seminal Italian cuisine’s recipe book: the Artusi. More of it in a second.
The 19th century is also the time when scientific research changed people’s eating habits the most: yes, people spoke about food then, but more from a scientific, rather than culinary, point of view. The development of machines and the use of organic fertilizers increased agricultural production, which resulted in a lowering of prices and in a higher accessibilty to food for many; the improvement of communications, with the creation of an ever-growing rail system and the updating of naval transport, made it possible for produce to reach all areas of the country more efficiently and considerably faster. Moreover, the celerity of transports also allowed for fresh products, such as meat and cheeses, to be delivered everywhere with ease.
Sterilization for food containers was ideated by Nicolas Appert and pasteurization by Louis Pasteur, around 1880: these two procedures also changed profoundly the way Italians ate, because a plethora of products, such as meats and dairy, could be packed and preserved for longer, decreasing their production costs and, therefore, making them more accessible to a larger section of the population. All this contributed greatly to bring Italian cuisine a step closer to what we know and cook every day today.
More staple dishes of Italian cuisine were developed in the 19th century, some of them with a more mysterious history than others.
But let’s start with something we’re sure about: the history behind pesto and pizza. Pesto, a symbol of the city of Genoa and of Liguria as a whole, has found popularity in its current form in the 19th century, even though basil based recipes were in use, apparently, as early as the 11th century. Story goes that Genoese warlord Guglielmo Embriaco, along with many others from his city, participated to the First Crusade, providing support for the conquest of Jerusalem. Captain Bartolomeo Decotto was a member of Embriaco’s army and, fascinated by the scent and use of basil in the Middle East, he brought some seeds of the plant back to Genoa,where he began growing it for its medical uses. After a while, he discovered basil was pretty good to eat, too, especially when ground with a mortar and mixed with some local extra virgin olive oil. However, the recipe as we know it today, with ground pinenuts and parmesan (or pecorino), was refined only in the 19th century.
The history of how pizza was born is pretty famous, as the most popular of all pizzas, the pizza Margherita, was created by Raffaele Esposito in honor of the Queen of Italy, Margherita di Savoia, in Naples. However, Neapolitans had been eating bread dough with tomatoes and olive oil for at least 200 years when Esposito “invented” the Margherita: nothing really new, so, but certainly the pizza Margherita gave to a wholly Neapolitan recipe the attention of the whole country, which quickly adopted it as one of its culinary masterpieces.
More mysterious and not at all clear are, on the other hand, the origins of another Italian dish very popular abroad, pasta alla carbonara, as we have already written in an another article. Let’s refresh our memory: a dish characterized by a bacon, parmesan and egg sauce, some believe it was Roman coalmen who created it. Because their job kept them away from home, they needed non-perishable ingredients to prepare their meals. They would use, instead of oil which was very expensive, lard or bacon preserved in pepper, mixed with egg and cacio, giving us the current recipe of the dish. Other people believe carbonara hails from Naples, as attested in 19th century cookbooks. To support this theory is the presence, in Neapolitan cuisine, of a sauce where egg is added and mixed with pasta or vegetables, just as we do with carbonara itself.
Last, but not least, a most curious story about the first time carbonara was cooked: some believe it was American soldiers in Italy during the Second World War who introduced the country to the bacon-and-egg duo already popular on the other side of the Atlantic. We Italians, always the pasta lovers, decided to try it with spaghetti and voilà, a classic was born.
Il Manuale dell’Artusi
In truth, it seems the people of Italian Risorgimento had little interest in what and how Italians ate. The only information came from a series of official reports divulgated by the goverment, which highlighted the poverty of a large chunk of population, who suffered from a chronic lack of proper food, a lack that often turned in sheer hunger during the harsher Winter months. Of course, this wasn’t peculiar to Italy: hunger and famine were daily occurences on a continent, Europe, continuously at war, were healthy men were often drafted to fight and left fields and pastures to waste. Italy, divided as it were in several small states, also suffered from crippling social divisions that only emphasized the increasing gap between the higher and lower echelons of society. This gap was present also in the kitchen: what peasants ate was profoundly different, in ingredients and quantity, from what was laid daily on the wealthy’s tables.
Keep this well in mind: the majority of the information we have about Italian food tradition, up to the coming of Artusi on the culinary panorama of Italy (exception made, probably, for some information we have on Roman cooking habits), referred to the banquets, the habits and the excesses of the aristocracy and seldom mirrored what the larger part of Italian people truly ate. Artusi managed to change this because, for the first time, his recipes were not only and exclusively those of a wealthy kitchen, but those of all Italians, rich and less so.
The Manuale dell’Artusi: La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene (The Artusi Manual: Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), published for the first time in 1891, outlined the basics of how to cook and feed one’s family without excesses and waste. It was a book written about and addressed to a wider section of the public, which included traditional recipes borne of the well-established, daily habits of the people of each region of the country, which Artusi collected, tried and proposed in his work.
For the first time, the people of the young Kingdom of Italy (when the Manuale was published for the first time, Italy had been a country for just 30 years) got to know dishes from each of its regions: the risotti of Veneto and the polenta of Piemonte entered the homes of the Romans and the Neapolitans, Tuscan bread soups and Neapolitans maccheroni those of the Milanese and the Bolognese. Artusi truly unified Italy from a culinary point of view, without forgetting – but rather emphasizing – those regional differences that make Italian cuisine so special and delicious. Regional cuisine becomes national and, with it, Italians became more so.
The importance of Artusi’s work is evident, but there were issues: first of all, a blatant disparity between recipes from the North and the Centre of Italy and those from the South, which was mainly represented by Neapolitan cuisine. Even though later editions of the text were updated with several recipes sent to Artusi by his readers, allowing for a better coverage of the national territory, certain regions were merely represented: Sicily, for instance, only figured in with three recipes and Sardinia was entirely absent. It would take years to fill such an omission and finally create a geographically complete edition of the Manuale.
Food and Art
The 19th century is also a time when art and food came together as never before.
Musicians, writers, poets and painters all concurred in creating, through debates and habits, a true aesthetic of food. This wasn’t a phenomenon only limited to Italy, of course: the main artistic pole of the time was without a doubt Paris, the magnificent Ville Lumière that plenty of artists, including major Italian names, had made their home. It was in Paris that this new aspect of food loving probably appeared with more power. Modigliani, Picasso, Rivera, but also, before them, Balzac, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Rossini, all concurred to associate food and conviviality to art. The table became a place for creative exchange and for aesthetic diatribes, as well as a place of sheer pleasure and decadence. Often, food was a topic for compositions and artistic works: Dumas’ last publication was, just to say, a culinary dictionary.
The closer we get to the beginning of the 20th century, the more the table strenghtens this creative liaison with the world of art.
In the History of Italian Cuisine IV, we will look at the last 100 years of history of Italian food: from the Belle Époque, through the years of the First World War, to the Ventennio Fascista, all the way to the roaring 1960s and the yuppy trends of the 1980s, we’ll explore the changes in tastes, flavors and ingredients that characterized the last century. Read on!