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  • Writer's pictureDiego Zancani

Food for thought: a new review in the Newsletter of the Association of Oxford University Pensioners

Food for Thought.

Much of the time we probably think as little about the origins and history of the food that goes into our mouths as we do about the words that come out of them. Until I read Diego Zancani’s How We Fell in Love with Italian Food I had never thought to reflect on the etymology of the word companion: ‘The origin of the word…is in the sharing of food (bread, in this case, panis in Latin) with another human being.’ This led to the further discovery via C T Onions’ Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (shamefully underused amongst my books) that a ship’s companionway would have led us to the camera della compagna or storeroom for provisions.

As befits a scholar of Italian literature, AOUP member Professor Zancani appreciates what etymology can tell us about the history of what has become one of the most popular of all national cuisines, and one of the many pleasures of his book is the amount of tasty linguistic nuggets that sharpen our awareness that eating thoughtfully can be more than just a matter of taking fuel on board.

In his article ‘Melons Galore: food discoveries by English travellers in Italy 1550-1650’ in the Spring 2016 Newsletter Zancani gave us a foretaste of the full spread now handsomely laid out by Bodleian Publications; the range and quality of the well-chosen illustrations are a particular source of pleasure. Nevertheless, the cover’s ‘iconic’ image of a fork-full of spaghetti might be underselling one of the book’s striking lessons, namely a reminder of just how much of what we take for granted by way of the ingredients of our own national cuisine we actually owe to the presence of the Romans in Britain. Take, for instance, the vegetable garden, where ‘the Romans’ contribution…was quite spectacular. They brought garlic, onions, leeks, turnips, cabbages, carrots, parsnips, asparagus, radishes, beets, endive, lettuce, navews (a smaller variety of turnip) and skirret, a water parsnip.’ (Happily, the publication of the book coincided with the Ashmolean’s exhibition Last Supper in Pompeii, which vividly presented food production and consumption that would have been familiar throughout the Empire.)

Another essential corrective to a pasta-dominated perspective is well demonstrated by Zancani through his account of the diarist John Evelyn’s encounter with Italian food-ways: ‘After his travels in Italy Evelyn wrote a book wholly devoted to salad vegetables called Aceteria. A Discourse of Sallets. It was published in 1699 and originally envisaged as part of an ambitious encyclopedia on plants and the use of vegetables. Evelyn states that “the more frugal Italians and French, to this day, accept and gather ogni verdure, any thing almost that’s green and tender, to the very top of nettles.’ (Zancani, himself a keen forager, follows this immediately with the recipe he uses for nettle soup – ‘excellent for detoxing’. The book contains a number of favourite recipes – some inherited from his mother – which are charmingly displayed against a kitchen tablecloth backdrop of pink gingham.)

The chronological framework of the argument shows that ever since the arrival of the Romans there has never been a time when this country did not have culinary relations with the Continent. Indeed, even before the Roman invasions some interest was being displayed by ‘members of the Celtic elite in the south of England [who] were carrying on trade with Roman Gaul. Some of them, interested in more exotic provisions, must have seemed like early gastro-snobs who preferred to go beyond the ordinary diet. They were trading some grains and precious metals in exchange for olives, wine, fish sauce, and probably some olive-oil, judging from the amphorae that have been found near the Thames.’

Zancani takes us from these early times right up to the present, with its TV ‘celebrity chefs’, their varying formats and personal quirks. But the story is not just about ‘our’ (i.e. British) love affair with Italian food. One of the most fascinating sections is on the food interests shown by Americans of the fledgling Republic such as Benjamin Franklin and, especially, Thomas Jefferson, and by the travel accounts of the slightly later fellow-countrymen, the writers James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In Jefferson’s case the culinary interest extended to the introduction of Italian peaches, apricots and grapes near Monticello, his property in Virginia, to the importation of macaroni, Parmesan, figs and anchovies, and even to the design of a screw press for extruding macaroni.

Figs were also a commodity that made a great impression on Fenimore Cooper: ‘Somewhere in central Italy a humble priest had taught him that eating a fig after soup was a delicious practice. So Fenimore Cooper decided to adopt it. He confirmed that this represented for him “the very perfection of epicurism, or rather of taste, in the matter of eating. A single fresh fig, as a corrective after the soup, I hold to be one of those sublime touches of art, that are oftener discovered by accident than by the investigation of knowledge.” ’

The book is full of such tempting little incentives to try things for oneself; and Professor Zancani is a most engaging cicerone - with his foraging exploits, kitchen experiments and tips (from which I have in the past myself profited – particularly on the subject of mozzarella, for which see one of the excellent notes, by no means to be overlooked), and personal reminiscences of his first encounters with the olive-oil-less world of provincial English lodging-house cooking in the 60s.

And, no, going to the Chemist for the little brown bottle of ear-ache remedy is not an urban myth: we have all been there!

Laurence Reynolds©

The review is also available online:

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