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  • Writer's pictureDiego Zancani

Great turnout at St. Hugh's College, Oxford, a TOIA event, in conversation with Samuel Fanous

Updated: Nov 8, 2019

Event organised by The Oxford Italian Association, Mordan Hall, St Hugh’s College, St Margaret’s Road, Oxford, in conversation with Samuel Fanous, Head of Publishing, Bodleian Library Publishing. Thursday 7th November, 7.30 p.m. drinks reception, 8.00 p.m. talk. Entry: Members £2, non-members £5, students under 30 free of charge.


It has taken over three years of extensive research necessary to write this book, but it has been a very pleasurable pursuit. And it has been a great satisfaction to receive the appreciation of the experts, and above all from Anna Del Conte, the doyenne of Italian food writers in Britain.

When did the Brits get their first taste of Italian food? How did pasta and pizza land on their tables? Did they look and taste different from today’s recipes? These were just some of the questions I asked myself, and like a story from Monty Python, this one too started from the time of the Roman invasion.

After all, the Romans brought with them new types of cattle, improved breeds of pigs, fruit, vegetables and herbs. When they left around 410 CE there was a period of turmoil, but big changes took place with the arrival of the Normans in 1066. They, in turn, brought French culinary habits, but the contacts with the Normans in Southern Italy provided some of the earliest examples of a Mediterranean diet.

Later, Geoffrey Chaucer visited Italy on at least three occasions, and, given his interest in food, as proven in his Canterbury Tales, he may have tried some local specialities in Genoa or Milan. In the following years numerous English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish people travelled to Italy, and many of them left travel diaries that informed us of what they found on Italian dining tables. Most of them were impressed by the abundance of fruit and the variety of melons, especially the stunning watermelons in the summer.

And what of other famous produce? When did Parmesan, a cheese originally known as ‘Piacentine’ from the name of my hometown, Piacenza, arrive in England? In Italy, it had been well known from at least the fourteenth century. Did Chaucer sample it on his journeys to Italy? We shall never know.

However, we do know that about 100 huge wheels of Parmesan were sent by Pope Julius II to King Henry VIII, perhaps in an attempt to avert the divorce from his wife and from the Church of Rome. In the seventeenth century, this cheese was a delicacy well known to the upper classes who could buy it from the so-called Italian warehouses in London.

I enjoyed dedicating various pages to eighteenth-century ladies travelling in Italy, such as Margaret, Viscountess Spencer, who enjoyed ‘an excellent polenta’ at Novara.

In the middle of the nineteenth century large numbers of immigrants started arriving from Italy. Some of them made a living selling fruit or chestnuts in the streets, and in summer they produced ice-creams. These activities would lead to the opening of small cafés and shops, and eventually to proper trattorie and restaurants.

Nowadays pasta, pizza, pesto and olio EVO (extra virgin olive oil) are familiar items, but it was not like that in the Fifties or Sixties. The revolution in the produce available through supermarkets really started in the mid to late Seventies. I remember that when I taught at Liverpool University, in 1973–74, my local Tesco had an abundance of tinned and frozen foods, with a few sad vegetables as the only fresh food. However, some tinned ravioli had arrived from America, prepared by an Italian chef, Ettore Boiardi (known as chef Boyardee), and for some people this was their first introduction to Italian food. The essential contribution of good restaurants helped to improve its image, and the increase in popular travel also exposed people to the huge variety of items available abroad.

Now a generation of British chefs are promoting Italian food, and some of the ingredients including cured meats, cheese and vegetables are produced in Britain to high standards. May all this delicious activity continue for a long time!

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