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  • Writer's pictureDiego Zancani

Professor John Wilkins reviews How we fell in love with Italian food in Food & History

In the early years of the twentieth century Italian immigrants came to the UK, often to work in food retail, selling ice cream or fish and chips, in Scotland in particular. They left the poor valleys of central Italy and adapted themselves to the indigenous population, selling an Italian product in one case and in the other either bringing south Italian and Neapolitan frying with them or adapting to the fried fish of the British. Some missed their homeland and returned in more prosperous times, others went from strength to strength, evolving in the well-established tradition of Italian retailers (p. 74) into such celebrated stores as Valvona and Crolla in Edinburgh (p. 168). A century later, Italy has recovered from two world wars and endemic emigration to richer countries and continents to become one of the most favoured cuisines in Europe and the world.

How did the British interact with this process and move from dislike of “oily” food to embrace the pizza and estate-bottled olive oil? Zancani’s book sets out an answer. Sometimes the impact is direct, as with importers, but at other times it is indirect, either through Italian-Americans, multinational corporations such as Heinz (spaghetti hoops), Starbucks and Pizza Hut, or through British adaptations such as Pizza Express, to which Zancani repaired for lunch in the 1960s when he escaped briefly from his desk at the British Library. British adaptations may be more or less “authentic”, as with their curries and Chinese foods: Zancani shows that many Italian restaurants in the twentieth century adopted French clothes in order to reassure the British of their quality. No longer!

I suspect one important reason for the British love of Italian food lies in the appeal of bland dishes such as a pizza dough and pasta to children and cautious adults. From an early age the child accepts “Italian” dishes, and the sophistica- tions of toppings and sauces can progress apace as the palate matures, until the full puttanesca can be ordered by the young adult. There is much scope here for mass production, as in Italy itself. Canning led the way, and then dried pasta, followed by ready meals of lasagne. The impact is quantitative but also qualitative, and it is the latter that Zancani addresses in his final chapter, “From Markets to Supermarkets”. One striking result of the popularity of pasta and pizza is a move away from the roast beef of Old England and the meat-and-two-veg diet, with meat maintained by the decidedly non-Italian burger.

In this engaging book written from the perspective of an Italian scholar who has lived in the UK for 50 years, Zancani follows 2,000 years of Italian food in Britain, broadly defined: for example, “Italian” Romans are not distinguished from “Syrian” or “Egyptian” Romans at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall. Zancani is an Oxford professor who likes cooking and likes the UK, even after his predictably unpromising beginning when his Reading landlady and her daughter could not understand why he should want olive oil on his vegetables. Other personal moments, such as being aloft in a tree in his native Piacenza, are grafted on to a historical survey of the impact of Italian food on Britain since Roman times.

In the first six chapters he covers “how it all started”, “early English travellers to Italy”, “adventures in the seventeenth century and beyond”, “they call it macaroni”, “Italian food in London”, and “pizzerias and trattorias”.

“How it all started” covers his own project as well as the chronology. Unlike the ice-cream sellers, Zancani came to the UK by a more traditional route, that of scholars, diplomats and merchants, rather as Chaucer (p. 24) had gone to Genoa to negotiate deals for the king, while knowing Italian well from his vintner background. Zancani has gone native, including himself in the title, “How we fell in love with ITALIAN FOOD”. There are many personal moments, such as the notable failure of his mother’s coppa to make it through customs in Dover (Mediterranean mothers still send food to their children in the UK), but the wider “we” are mainly the metropolitan people of London and Oxford, Zancani’s own stamping ground. There are references to Glasgow and Edinburgh (indeed the mayor of Edinburgh observes, “the Italians have come to look for a better life and they have taught us a better way of living”, p. 198), and Totnes, but Scotland and Wales remain “outposts” (pp. 168-69), unfairly I think, since Taruschio’s Walnut Tree near Abergavenny (p. 169) was I believe Elizabeth David’s favourite restaurant.

At all events, Zancani has fully acclimatized to the insularities and international vagaries of the UK, and gives a splendid overview, dipping into manuscripts and texts, while also linking into historical moments such as the reign of James I/VI, at whose court Castelvetro held a cooking/diplomatic post (p. 60). Dipping into texts gives rich rewards, such as Poggio finding too few Classical manuscripts in England but “very learned” cookery books (p. 38) or possible Italian recipes in the Curye on Ingylish (p. 28). This initiative makes me want to check what the English co-editors of the Aldine Galen found in Venice in the 1520s, and what Byron and Shelley noted food-wise. Giacomo Castelvetro, we learn, dedicated his book on Italian raw and cooked roots, herbs and fruit to the Duchess of Bedford, neatly bringing Italian foods and plants to an aristocratic audience who would be ever more interested in the plants and gardens of Italy and China. Zancani’s contribution to Castelvetro’s plants is his mother’s cardoon recipe. Poggio Bracciolini meanwhile brought Renaissance learning from Italy to potentially receptive English scholars, even if he in fact did not make it to Oxford. A traveller in the opposite direction was Margery Kempe whose diary in the early fifteenth century (pp. 36-38) reveals a vegetarian pilgrim traversing Italy en route to Jerusalem, who promised (unsuccessfully) to spare her fellow travellers religious stories at mealtimes. Not all verbose table companions are so self-aware.

Treatment of travellers such as Kempe, diaries, journals and literary texts is always well done, as is discussion of cookery books, still as good in the UK as Poggio found. Zancani extends to film and TV spin-offs such as Sophia Loren’s cookbook, and in the UK Nigella Lawson’s books: the latter is photographed with Anna Del Conte (p. 184), who writes splendid books herself, but also brought the Italian-American Marcella Hazan’s book to an English audience (p. 174). Zancani brings us to the present day by way of Eliza Acton and Elizabeth David,

whose Italian Food (1952) has been less influential than her later works on French cooking. David’s early encounters with Italy were unpromising. She was arrested with her partner in a boat at Messina in 1939, en route to a Mediterranean diet on Scyros, but Italy was the subject of the first of her works which broke the mould in home and commercial cooking in the UK. It seems its quality was slow to catch on: Zancani quotes Dorothy Hartley from 1954, “English cooking is old-fashioned, because we like it that way” (p. 186). Jane Grigson, who with Elizabeth David was one of the great writers on continental and British food in Britain in the mid-twentieth century, notes in her foreword to Gillian Riley’s translation of Castelvetro that she first read the great man in the Linnaean Library in 1976/7.1 The spectrum of British opinion remains wide between the old-fashioned and the lovers of French and Italian food.

Zancani’s book is not setting out to make a case, such as France’s dependence or not on the cuisine of Catherine de Medici, or Britain’s continental influences discussed in All Manners of Food.2 Too genial to attack the easy target of Britain’s post-war food record, Zancani instead surveys interactions between the two cultures around food and dining, not always to Britain’s disadvantage. British travellers in Italy, for example, are said to have been part of the stimulus to improve food for travellers in eighteenth-century Italy, where inns and dishes were of very varied quality. (He cannot resist a swipe at British sandwiches in the 1960s, however (p. 173).)

Some details I would challenge. The date of 997 BC cannot be right for the first mention of pizza: which language would it be in? The context suggests something closer to 997 AD. Pre-Roman Britain is said to have short supplies of even wild ingredients (p. 10). I find that surprising and support is needed for the claim, since the standard account of Iron Age Britain is for a flourishing agricultural society: Roman legionaries at Vindolanda after all had no shortage of local meat to draw on. It is true that the Romans brought many plants and some animals, but Tacitus calls Britain a desert after the Romans came, not before. The benefits of imperialism are mixed: Tacitus refers to military savagery, but dental analysis in Dorset suggests those in Roman burials had better nutrition than native teeth. Julius Caesar is quoted on the British diet of meat and milk, but this too needs contextualization: the Greeks and Romans routinely say that Scythians, North Europeans and Libyans eat much meat and milk, an ideological category contrasting with the Mediterranean with its wine and fewer animals, especially cattle. Hilary Cool on food in Roman Britain would be a good point of reference.3 Members of the local British elites used Roman goods and drinking sets before the arrival of the Roman army (p. 10), but “gastro-snobs” does not do justice to ruling groups tapping into the latest international dining practices.

“Jet-set” would be a closer 1960s equivalent for people with international networks: once the Roman army arrived, less expensive dining practices were the norm and the average Celt could then get a bit of gastro-pub action, some olives and a cup of wine. An additional note I would make is on the Genoese pasta tria, which Zancani compares with Arabic itriyya (p. 25): this looks like a derivation from itria, honey cakes in Galen’s nutritional treatise written in Rome around 180 AD and translated into Arabic in the ninth century.

The final pages bring us bang up to date with Britain’s relationship with the EU and global warming. An illustration shows a flooded garden gate, apparently in Italy, balancing words on the tolerant Brits and young farmers producing a wider variety of plants. There are an illustrated glossary of Italian foods, endnotes and an extensive bibliography. The volume is beautifully produced, with recipes (personal, and “not tested” according to the publisher, p. 248), splendid illustra- tions and extensive quotations from archival sources.

©John WILKINS, University of Exeter

© Food & History, vol.17:2(2019)

  • 1 Giacomo CASTELVETRO, The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy (1614), translated by Gillian Riley (Totnes, 1989; 2019).

  • 2 Stephen MENNELL, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Oxford, 1986).

  • 3 Hilary COOL, Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain (Cambridge, 2006).

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