Book Review | Science In The Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well

Pellegrino Artusi is a legend in Italy, an artist in Florence, where he resided for many years, and a god in Forlimpopli, where he was born and is now celebrated by Festa Artusiana, an annual festival of food.

For a country with an endless number of cookbooks, it is hard to believe sometimes that the Italian home cook always returns to the great favourite – the Artusi interpretation of regional Italian food (and more besides), first published in 1891 by the author after his tome was rejected by numerous publishers.

Artusi had an edge. His book was the first to be written with the home cook in mind, especially those who could not speak or read French, the language of cookbooks in 19th century Italy.

Italian language publishers did not see the point of producing a cookbook for the home cook. Artusi persevered. He employed Florentine typographer Salvatore Landi and managed to get the Florentine publisher Bemporad and Figlio to distribute the book. By 1910 La Scienza in Cucina had sold 52,000 copies and was being recognised, according to Luigi Ballerini, as ‘the most significant Italian cookbook of modern times’.

With 790 recipes Artusi set a trend that continues today with modern Italian cookbooks that often contain 800 recipes in big thick tomes. Many of these modern cookbooks are compiled by food writers who collect recipes from chefs and cooks clearly influenced by Artusiana. The Artusian influence resonates down the years to us. Yet one thing is always missing in these modern cookbooks and that is Artusi’s idiosyncratic prose.

Knowing it would be foolish to patronise a home cook he kept his instructions to a minimum and always imparted a little wisdom. Some have said his manner was typical of the Florentine he had become. More likely he realised he would not get away with anything but common sense.

His opening lines in the section on broths, aspic and sauces (always the place to start in any kitchen) illustrate this perfectly.

‘As common folk know, to make a good broth you must put the meat in cold water, and bring the pan to a very slow boil, never letting it boil over. If, instead of a good broth, you prefer a good boiled beef, then put the meat in boiling water without any special care. Everyone knows that spongy bones add flavour and fragrance to broth, but a broth of bones is not especially nutritious.’

His explanations often touched on irony.

‘Couscous is a dish of Arab origin, which the descendants of Moses and Jacob, in their peregrinations, have carried around the world. But who knows how many and what kind of modifications it has undergone in its travels. Nowadays it is used as a first course by the Jews of Italy, two of whom were kind enough to let me taste it and see how it is done. I then made it again in my own kitchen as a test, and can therefore guarantee its legitimacy. However, I cannot guarantee I shall make you understand it:

For it is no simple thing to seek this odd concoction fully to describe,

For a tongue that human words can speak.’

(The latter being a play on words from Dante’s Inferno, where he has difficulty describing the bottom of the universe – the lowest circle of hell.)

He laced his entries with anecdotes.

‘I questioned a street vendor in Romagna on the subject (of castagnaccio – chestnut cake). I described this chesnut cake to her, and asked why she did not try to earn a few pennies selling it.

“What can I tell you,” she replied. “It’s too sweet, nobody would eat it.”

“But those cottarone you are selling, aren’t they sweet? Still they are selling,” I said. “Why don’t you at least try the chestnut cake,” I added. “At first, distribute them free to the children, give them a piece as a gift to see if they start liking the taste. And then the grown-ups are very likely to come after the children.”

‘It was no use, I might as well have been talking to a stone wall.’

In her foreward to the University of Toronto Press English language edition, Michele Scicolone makes a very relevant point.

‘The recipes in La Scienza in Cucina have withstood the test of time and rarely seem dated or outmoded. Ricotta cake, saltimbocca, and frittatas are as familiar and as easily prepared and enjoyed today as they were one hundred years ago. Few restaurants that claim to be Italian would be without bolognese-style ragu, ravioli filled with meat or cheese, pasta with beans, risotto, and roasted and stewed meats on the menu, all of which can be found in La Scienza in Cucina. Though Artusi would never have imagined it, his recipes continue to be used by cooks the world over who appreciate Italian home cooking.’

The fact of the matter, as Artusi might have said, is obvious. If you want to know what traditional Italian food is then look no further than this book.

It is one of a kind! Arguably one of the most entertaining cookbooks ever written.

La Scienza in Cucina has been translated into various languages.

A complete translation in English with an interesting foreword and an extensive introduction is available here.

See here for biographical and current information on Artusi and his legacy.

All books reviewed in FF will shortly be available to purchase direct from Small World Wholesale.