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  • Writer's pictureDiego Zancani

Professor David Robey reviews my book in Italian Studies

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

Despite the impression given by its title, this is in the first place a scholarly book with a full apparatus of footnotes and bibliography. A history of British and American interest in Italian food from Roman times up to the present day, it provides a detailed synoptic view of its topic of a kind that would be hard to find elsewhere. Contrary to the common notion that British interest in the subject started with the publication of Elizabeth David’s Italian Food in 1954, Zancani demonstrates conclusively how long-standing and deeply rooted that interest is. Julius Caesar may have exaggerated when he said that the ancient Britons lived on milk and meat, but Zancani shows that almost all the items which subsequently constituted the British diet came in the wake of the Roman invasion: not just wine, olives and olive oil, dates, and figs, but most fruits, nuts, and vegetables as well as techniques of livestock breeding and meat preservation. After the Roman period, trade with the continent continued, and intensified with the arrival of the Normans, although evidence for Zancani’s theme is necessarily scarce and often speculative until the modern period. While rice and pasta seem to have reached England from the late Middle Ages onwards, albeit as relative rarities, how far this resulted from contacts with Italy is a matter for conjecture. Travellers’ accounts are a major source of information, partly by Italians visiting England, notably Poggio Bracciolini and later Casanova, but much more by Britons and Americans visiting Italy. These included well-known figures such as Thomas Coryat and Castiglione’s translator Thomas Hoby, who along with other travellers greatly enlarged British knowledge of Italian food from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. John Florio’s 1598 dictionary was also an important source, as was Giacomo Castelvetro’s 1614 account of Italian herbs, vegetables and fruits. The diarist John Evelyn wrote a detailed book, published in 1699, about Italian salads, including information about artichokes (globe and Jerusalem), broccoli and fennel; tomatoes, which reached Italy in the mid-sixteenth century, did not reach England until much later. Parmesan was quite widely known from the seventeenth century onwards: Pepys famously buried a whole cheese in his garden to protect it from the London Fire. By the first decades of the following century London had a number of Italian grocery shops; other cities followed. When he arrives at the subject of pasta Zancani’s scope expands to include North America, beginning with the pasta-making machine designed by Thomas Jefferson, while travel accounts by Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne, not to mention Dickens, also provide information about the food available in Italy in the nineteenth century, including the extensive use of grated cheese. Nineteenth-century England saw the arrival not only of pasta but also of Italian ice cream, while the cookery books of Eliza Acton, Mrs Beeton, and others are evidence of a small but growing interest in Italian recipes. Italian restaurants appear in London at the end of the century. A chapter on pizza traces its origins in Italy and exportation to Britain and the U.S.A., though pizzerias only became part of the London eating scene in the middle of the twentieth century. The final sections of the book chronicle the rapid expansion of Italian restaurants and food in Britain from the middle of the twentieth century, when Elizabeth David famously remarked on the general difficulty of obtaining proper Italian supplies. After David, the most influential writers have been Patience Gray, Marcella Hazan, and Anna Del Conte, and later Claudia Roden, Jamie Oliver and, probably the best-know alumna of U.K. Italian Studies, Nigella Lawson. Helped by immigration, foreign travel and the growing attractions of the Mediterranean diet, Italian cooking has transformed British eating habits and vastly increased the range of foodstuffs commonly available: cavolo nero is a notable recent instance, almost unheard of in this country until a few years ago, and now quite easy to obtain. But this is not only a scholarly history; it is a very personal book as well. The historical account is interspersed with reminiscences, in an agreeably donnish tone, about Zancani’s home province of Piacenza and experiences in England: the food he enjoyed as a child, starkly contrasted with that provided at his lodgings when he first arrived in Reading; cooking for friends and students; a run-in with Dover customs over a package of coppa sent by his mother. It describes restaurants he has been to, and above all foods and dishes that he likes, especially those of his native province: culatello is treated in some detail. The book is also interleaved with full-page recipes that again reflect Zancani’s personal interests, which give the selection an attractively quirky character: recreations of ancient Roman recipes, osso buco, cardoons, nettle soup, how to cook polenta, fiori di zucca, the Gattopardo’s timballo di maccheroni, rice with cabbage, a Piacentine dish of beans with dumplings, the Tuscan peposo stew of beef and black pepper. These are generally tangential to the historical narrative, as are many of the profuse and beautiful illustrations. Some of the latter relate specifically to the historical topic, with pictures of advertisements and recipes or of places and activities referred to. But many are photographs of fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs, or artworks and prints, that together serve, like the recipes, the larger purpose of celebrating the remarkable range, richness, and variety of Italian culinary culture. A graphic example is the selection of pictures from a mid-twentieth-century pamphlet illustrating the 117 varieties of pasta produced by the manufacturer D’Apuzzo. All this gives the book the misleading appearance of a coffee-table publication (it is very elegantly produced). But with its mixture of scholarly narrative and a wealth of interesting detail, personal reminiscences, recipes and pictures, it is much more distinctive, engaging, and indeed enriching. As the demonstration of a deep and long-standing connection between Italy and Britain, it is also extremely timely. © David Robey, Wolfson College, Oxford

© Italian Studies, vol. 75, issue 3, 2020

© Photo by Gioia Olivastri

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