Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Fruit, Herbs, & Vegetables of Italy - Giacomo Castelvetro

Winter made an unwelcome return today - when it wasn't raining it was snowing, and although I don't doubt the garden will be appreciative of all the water I would have preferred it if it had fallen on any other day of the week; day off plans were comprehensively washed and frozen out. It's not been a total loss though, there was some really very good carrot cake (from 'Short and Sweet' with added raisins, and I would say excellent but I never manage to get the cream cheese frosting just quite right) and a lamb and apricot pilaf from Claudia Roden's never yet beaten 'A New Book of Middle Eastern Food'. Inbetween the cooking and watching rubbish daytime telly there's also been some reading. Come to think of it that could have been a much worse day off.

The book that's been reminding me of warmer climes today has been a classic of early 17th century food writing; 'The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy' written by Giacomo Castelvetro, translated by Gillian Riley, and published by Prospect books. Castelvetro is an intriguing character, he had to leave Italy on account of his protestantism and the unwelcome attentions of the Roman Inquisition and spent much of his life travelling around Europe. He eventually returned to the charity of his friends in England but his last years don't seem to have been altogether happy. 'The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy' was written late in his life and circulated  in manuscript form to would be patrons including Lucy, Countess of Bedford (she who was a friend of John Donne). He was a passionate advocate of fruit and vegetables, and although not quite a vegetarian doesn't seem to be so far off. 

It's interesting (and entertaining) reading, Gillian Riley talks of how much she enjoyed Castelvetro's voice and I enjoyed what she did with it. His format follows each fruit or vegetable as it comes into season - something that's right back in vogue - and explains how it's cooked and eaten in Italy along with some of it's health benefits and occasional anecdotes. Perhaps because the things you can do to vegetables and salad haven't changed so very much this doesn't feel like an antique account (although modern cookbooks don't tend to focus quite so closely on cures for constipation and urine infections - at least not the ones I tend to consult - in this case it's endearing). What I found particularly interesting was an insistence on cleanliness; hands have to be thoroughly washed, the English, Germans, and French all do a poor job of washing salad - which again has to be done properly and then dried. There are frequent exhortations to make sure bowls are properly washed too, I think the modern cook would feel quite comfortable in Castelvetro's kitchen. 

There is also an excellent glossary which explains and expands on much of the text. I'm fascinated by culinary history - you wouldn't believe how excited I get about mince pies and Christmas pudding ever since I realised just how old they were - and the links with middle eastern cooking - that's the taste of history (and Christmas) which is quite exciting for something Mr Kipling makes. 'The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy' has ensured I'll never take a salad for granted again.

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