The British historian and journalist, John Dickie, senior lecturer in Italian Studies at University College, and author of the bestselling Cosa Nostra: A History of the Italian Mafia, is about to publish a new book, this time devoted to the evolution of Italian cooking and eating habits.

Based on the theory that Italian food is city food, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food will be a ‘revelatory historical journey through the flavours of Italy’s cities. From the bustle of Medieval Milan, to the bombast of Fascist Rome; from the pleasure gardens of Renaissance Ferrara, to the putrid alleyways of nineteenth-century Naples’.

This week Dickie is conducting a daily ‘blog’ on Fahrenheit, Radio Rai 3’s afternoon cultural magazine programme. In yesterday’s broadcast, he explored the challenges posed by writing the book.

‘I have just written a history of Italian food, a risky undertaking for an Englishman. British food’s terrible reputation in Italy means that my opinions are more likely to provoke indignation or pity than respect.’

Relating his own background to the development of his interest in Italy and its food …

‘I am a product of that culinary culture that so disgusts my Italian friends. I was eighteen years old before I tasted olive oil and wine vinegar for the first time. For the last twenty years of studying Italy, I have also undergone a slow taste education.’

… he provocatively reflected that …

‘Yet perhaps for that very reason I have learned to appreciate how important disgust is. The Italian dread of British food reveals a truth about Italy’s great food culture, and about the most visceral of human emotions. For we are what disgusts us. As we shiver with revulsion, our bodies vibrate in tune with our sternest prejudices. A rule has been violated; a pollution has occurred. Disgust shows who the Italians are. Because an Italian would never eat that.’

… reaching the following conclusion.

‘Taste and distaste, gusto and disgusto, are inseparable partners in the Italian civilization of the table. What is true now was also true in the past. Whenever Italian gastronomy has been strong, then Italians have had a fine sensitivity to what is repugnant. But the rules of repugnance have changed over time. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, garlic stank of poverty. Like many English people today, Medieval and Renaissance chefs liked to boil their pasta until it was very soft. The first accounts of pizza in the nineteenth century talk of it with revulsion: this was the poorest food of the poorest, dirtiest, most cholera-ridden quarters of Naples. Disgust, therefore, is one of the most important instruments available to the historian of the pleasures of the table.’

Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food
by John Dickie will be published in Great Britain on August 9 by Hodder & Stoughton, and in the USA by Simon & Schuster in January 2008. An Italian translation of the book will be published by Laterza in October.

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