Here is a tasty book, by two history professors from northern Italian universities. How was what has now become “Italian cuisine” formed? From this mosaic of terroirs to international food known to all: macaroni, pizza, spaghetti bolognese…

Because Italy is above all a physical and mental space, long before the country was unified at the end of the 19th century. It is open to three seas, with different fish; it has exchanges with France and Germany, but also with Spain and the Levant. The first Italian cookbook dates from the 13th century, the ‘ Liber de coquina’ , probably written in Naples.

But the Italian ‘model’ dates from the 15th century, recycled by the city, a place of exchange and printed production. He notes the function of Arab traders as smugglers; they are the ones who introduced, for example, eggplant from Spain and Sicily, long considered a “Jew’s delicacy”; they also introduced citrus fruits and cane sugar from the early Middle Ages. Green beans, fennel and cauliflower did not appear until the 16th century, the tomato only at the end of the 17th century in the kitchen, in Naples, under Spanish influence, the potato in the 18th century as a substitute for flour during shortages and the pepper in the 19th century, considered “vulgar”. The southernization of Italian cuisine (olive oil, tomato, aubergine, pepper, garlic, anchovies, rock fish) was born only at the beginning of the 20th century, with seaside tourism!

eggplant cheese gratin

Eating Italian is mostly eating herbs and vegetables. Medieval chic is meat; that resulting from the hunting of the nobles or the breeding of pigs in the Germanic and Gallic forests. The Italian regions mainly know plants, which grow well, some cereals and fish. The Church and its custom of making lean pushes to alternate rich flesh and fasting (more than 100 days a year!).

The nobles and the bourgeois of the cities can bring in fresh food at great expense; the rural poor are condemned to what grows in season and to preserves, generally salted or dried, which form a particular taste. This taste, precisely, is distinguished according to the class: whoever is rich likes spice and sugar – rare and expensive –; whoever is poor is content with salt and aromatic herbs and prefers sour to sweet. Minestrone, polenta and risotto are dishes of the poor.

florentine minestrone

And the pasta? It was also a dish for the poor, but “the Romans already knew, like other populations in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, the practice of kneading flour with water and ‘spreading’ it into a wide sheet called ‘ lagana ‘ – the future lasagna – which was then cut into strips before being cooked. » p.84 It was not until the Middle Ages that the method of boiling dough in water, broth or milk appeared.

Dried pasta is said to have been made by the Arabs (in 11th century cookbooks) to guarantee provisions during their caravans through the desert. Long pasta is also due to the Arabs, according to images from the 14th century, where the fork also appears in Italy, so difficult is it to eat hot and slippery pasta with your fingers… Pasta is always eaten with cheese ; the use of tomato in sauce was only adopted around 1820. As for ravioli, they derive from the pie and used to be the only stuffing.

parma melon

A chapter is devoted to dietetics. Since the Renaissance, people have been concerned about the right balance of food, based first on the distinctions between “hot” and “cold” foods of the Greek physician Galen (2nd century). Hence these strange associations, which persist to this day, such as melon/Parma ham, pear with cheese or salad at the start of a meal to “open up” the appetite.

The bourgeois “reduction” reduced the number of dishes with a view to economy and health, valuing thrift and temperance, to differentiate itself from the lords whose profusion and decor were pure ostentation.

With the 19th century, restaurant cooking appears as a quasi-military order: we speak of “chef” and “brigade”, the uniform is white to signify hygiene in the kitchen and black for service, performed as a ceremony. While the “gourmet” was born, a dandy expert in inns and menus, the “kitchen” became the main room of the family in houses and apartments.

cherry tomatoes tapenade tatin

Food is very conservative because we want to be as we eat or what we eat builds us. Italian cuisine evolves between habit and progress, steam pot by M. Papin (1681), artificial cold (18th century), preserves by M. Appert (1810), constant temperature ovens (19th century), refrigeration (1960s only) in the popular)… The internationalization of Italian cuisine only took off after the Second World War: the term “pizza” was still unknown to the ‘ Gastronomic Larousse ‘ in 1938!

How man makes physical necessities (eating) and economic constraints (what is available and affordable) a culture. The kitchen, like the rest, is the fruit of history, it speaks of appearance and prestige, social status, tradition and novelty, well-being and austerity. Culture, yes: “What is the glory of Dante, next to that of spaghetti? asks Prezzolini in 1954. Any uneducated American or otherwise knows spaghetti – but who still knows Dante Alighieri?

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