Support Your Local Chef

Budding chefs are now flocking to Italy to learn their trade, no longer to France, the classic destination for practitioners of haute cuisine in the past. To meet this growing demand for knowledge about the Italian gastronomic heritage, an Italian regional cookery school, the Master of Italian Cooking, has been opened in Jesi in the Marche region of central Italy. It caters exclusively for foreigners who work in the trade, and since its syllabus encapsulates the quintessence of the national culinary art – namely its strong local connotation – it serves as an excellent promotion for Italian regional cuisines. The fact that it is impossible to speak generically about an Italian cuisine as such has historical roots and a logic charted by the publication of recipe and cookery books over the centuries.
In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Italian courts turned out masses of recipe collections, all packed with dishes constructed more for the purpose of visual impact than for effective flavor enhancement. Then, from the start of the seventeenth century until the middle of the eighteenth, Italian culinary publishing fell silent, dominated by France, where the formation of a unitary state had made it possible to lay the bases for a truly national cuisine. Recipe books abounded and the ones by La Varenne and Massialot were later to become veritable gastronomic bibles. In Italy, instead, culinary knowledge was handed down by word of mouth and it was thus that the national gastronomic tradition took on an extremely localistic makeup.
The emergence and consolidation of this distinctive trait was accompanied by a revival of Italian culinary publishing, which began with the printing of Il cuoco piemontese perfezionato (The Perfect Piedmontese Cook) in Paris in 1766. The book was a huge success and, albeit the product of the French culinary tradition, contained the germs of a regional cuisine. Its publisher reiterated the concept with his next book La cuciniera piemontese (The Piedmontese Cookbook). In view of the commercial potential of this type of operation, culinary literature – home cooking for the middle classes – began to flourish in Italy, and books entitled Cuoco galante(Naples), Cuoco maceratese and Cuoca cremonese and so on began to appear.
Italian cooking’s localism was consecrated by the unification of the Italian state. Subsequently, that great bon vivant from Emilia-Romagna, Pellegrino Artusi published Scienza in cucina e l’arte del mangiar bene (1891), the most earnest attempt ever to codify the Italian culinary art. It is no coincidence that Artusi classifies dishes and recipes on a regional basis – though he tends to neglect the South – in an attempt to take peasant traditions to his urban bourgeois public.
It was Artusi who ushered in modern Italian cuisine. His book, in fact, was the first to highlight the chief characteristics of Italian gastronomy. Subsequent publications, osterie and the diffusion of pasta, pizza and other Italian specialties worldwide did the rest.

Carlo Petrini

from La Stampa 09/06/2001

(English adaptation by John Irving)

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