First Courses

What images does Italian cuisine conjure up for you? Pasta, polenta, pizza, cream or tomato based sauces; flavorsome dishes using local produce; grilled fish at the coast; dishes made from parts of animals that other cultures reject: tripe, sweetbreads, brain, lungs. A cuisine so different from those of its neighbors in France, the Adriatic and North African coasts, that it appears to have resisted outside influences and focused instead on creating more sophisticated recipes for simple peasant dishes. Of course, that is very far from the truth.

With its long coast and seafaring tradition, Italians have been open to fresh ideas from earliest times. Ancient Romans acquired many new foodstuffs from the countries they later conquered or traded with – from the British Isles to distant Asian lands.  Italy too was occupied by other cultures: Arab domination of Sicily brought Middle Eastern flavors, sorbets and cassata, to the south of Italy; Bourbon kings shared the tastes of Spain in their kingdom of Naples, and Austrian dishes followed the Hapsburgs in their northern Italian states.  But it was the discovery of a world unknown to Europeans by the Genoese seafarer, Christopher Columbus, that introduced ingredients that would transform Italian cuisine. The most significant of these were the humble tomato, corn and potato.

From Puls To Polenta
The Italians were slower than the empire-building British, Portuguese and Spanish, to adopt new crops. Corn was first recorded around 1530 in the Veneto area where it was studied by early botanists. Initially Europeans found corn difficult to digest but they soon discovered that they could harvest 1800 pounds of corn on the acre that had given them only 600 pounds of wheat. At first Italian farmers used corn as fodder for their livestock but soon began to grind it and use it place of the farro, chestnut, millet, spelt, or chickpea flour that they had used to make puls, a polenta, that had sustained soldier and peasant since Roman times. As early as 1570, in his Opera dell'arte del cucinare (The Art of Cooking), the Renaissance cook Bartolomeo Scappi was already writing about cooking polenta with sausage and cheese, cinnamon and saffron, which he made for his papal employers. The main consumers of corn polenta were poverty-stricken Italian peasants who had little else to eat. While it saved many from starvation, this diet had a darker side – it gave them a degenerative disease called pellagra, caused by a deficiency of niacin, an essential nutrient. Native Americans had learnt to boil the corn with alkaline substances for it to release this vital nutrient. Fortunately, modern polenta does not have this affect.

Red Gold Love Apples
Today it would be hard to imagine Italian cuisine without the tomato but it too was regarded with suspicion in Europe, and even among early settlers in America, particularly in the north. Botanists identified the tomato, aubergines and potatoes, as members of the belladonna family and many regarded them as potentially poisonous. The French called them ‘pommes d’amour’ or love apples, and grew them as ornamental plants. Italians called them golden apples or pomi d’oro a name that stuck and became pomodoro. The first mention of tomatoes in Europe was from the pen of an Italian scholar, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, in 1544, who noted that Italians cooked and seasoned with salt, oil and black pepper. Spaniards in Southern Italy showed the Italians to fry tomatoes up with aubergines, squash and onions, creating the sauce that became ratatouille. Italian peasants, especially in the south where tomatoes grow so well, ate them regularly with other, raw or cooked vegetables, oil and seasonings, along with bread or other cereal as their main meal.

Fit for a Queen
By the late 18th century the first recorded evidence of tomato sauces and pastes appear. Chef and author, Vincenzo Corrado, mentioned salsa al pomodoro for the first time in 1778 in his book ‘Cuoco galante,’ (The Chivalrous Cook). But it was not till the early 1800s that Neapolitan street sellers started using tomato on their pasta. Many years later, in 1889, a pizza in the colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil), was presented to Queen Margherita of the newly united kingdom who gave it her name.

Food of the Devil
As with tomatoes, potatoes were initially regarded with suspicion, distaste and fear. Even peasants refused to eat from a plant that produced ugly, misshapen tubers and cultivated by a distant heathen civilization. Unfortunately some brave souls ate the poisonous leaves and flowers of the plant confirming that they were indeed the produce of witches or even the devil, fit only for animals, convicts or the starving. Eventually the potato emerged from botanical gardens and onto the dinner table, thanks to the encouragement of the highest in the land. In France, Louis XVI sported a potato flower in his buttonhole and his queen Marie Antoinette popped one in to her coiffure! Generals discovered that potatoes were a good source of nutrition for their soldiers during the endless wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which beset Europe.

Little Dumplings
Soon ever-inventive italian cooks began to fashion foodstuffs. One of these was the little dumplings known as potato gnocchi. Gnocchi, little knuckles or knots, made from different types of flour and water had been around for centuries and may have predated pasta. Potato gnocchi soon became a staple throughout Italy. Potato gnocchi where born in Lombardy close to Milano and there they are firstly documented in history as an item on sale in a  marketplace.  Later the recipe was picked up in Rome too where they quicly became a staple plate of Thursdays before the fast of Friday.

Pellegrino Artusi, a wealthy businessman turned cookery teacher, published one of the earliest recipes for potato gnocchi in his book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Filled with amusing anecdotes as well as recipes, his book has been a best seller in Italy since 1904, and is still available in several other languages. His 89th recipe underlines the importance of adding sufficient flour with the story of what went wrong when a lady pupil failed to do so: when she dipped her ladle into the pot, she found nothing: the gnocchi were gone. ‘Where had they gone?’ asked another lady. He laughingly replied: ‘She believed a little elf had spirited them away,’ adding that ‘the strange phenomenon is natural: those gnocchi had been mixed with too little flour and as soon as they were in boiling water they dissolved.’ His recipe couldn’t be simpler:

Potato Gnocchi

Large yellow old potatoes, 400 grams / 14 ounces.
Wheat flour, 150 grams / 5.3 ounces .

1. Wash the potatoes and cook them in boiling water, or steam them.
2. Peel them and press them through a sieve.
3. Mix with the flour and knead it.
4. Roll the mixture into a thin cylinder to cut into pieces about an inch long.
5. Sprinkle them lightly with flour and press them with the thumb on the back of a fork to create the little ridges to soak in the sauce.
6. Bring a large pot of water to boil, add salt and gently add the gnocchi. When they bob to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon.
7. Transfer them to a plate and pour your sauce of choice on top of them. Serve immediately.

There are many variations for making gnocchi and their accompaniments. The Veronese simply smother them in butter and sage, others eat them with a tomato or ragù.
From Menagerie to Dinner Table
Italian aristocrats and wealthy churchmen imported exotic animals and birds for their amusement and delectation. Early in 1520, Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci was delighted to receive a breeding pair of turkeys from Alessandro Geraldini, a bishop in Haiti. Ten years later Cardinal Salviati had a whole flock of turkeys strutting through his garden in Rome, perhaps the offspring of Pucci’s pair. In 1522 Giovanni da Udine included the first known depiction of a turkey, alongside an ostrich and peacock on a vault in Cardinal Medici’s villa outside Rome.  Undoubtedly roasted turkeys soon appeared at banquets alongside capons, peacocks and other fowl, stuffed with a mixture of grated cheese, crushed walnuts or almonds, raisins, eggs, pepper, ricotta, sugar, raisins, spices, eggs, milk or other ingredients.

Turkeys bred well in Italy and before long were more widely available, even on tables of peasant families, for instance in a Scottiglia, a traditional stew from Tuscany. It was a poor people’s potluck dish where everyone brought a little meat, which was all cooked together. It was likely to contain veal, pork, chicken, turkey, rabbit and, occasionally, lamb. The meats would have been boiled over a fire, flavored with wild herbs, into a stew, dark red in color, with a robust flavor and pleasant fragrance and eaten in hollowed out stale bread. Left over stew could be taken to the fields or forests by laborers to eat with bread. Here is a version you could adapt using any meat you wish:

Scottiglia (serves 6 - 8)   
2.5 - 3 lbs of mixed meats such as beef, chicken, pork, turkey, game, sausages, diced.
2 large red onions, finely chopped
2 carrots, diced in 1 inch pieces
2-3 stalks celery, sliced
2-3 bay leaves, fresh or dried
½ tsp chilli flakes
¼ ounce each of rosemary, flat-leaf parsley, sage, thyme
3-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
8 ounce canned tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef stock
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup water
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1.    Heat the oil in a large heavy bottom saucepan over moderate heat. Brown each meat separately, removing each one from the pan and setting it aside.
2.    Add the onion, carrot, celery and spices to the pan. Fry gently for about 10 minutes until the onion is soft.
3.    Return all the meat to the pan, add the wine and turn up the heat. Let it bubble for 30 seconds.
4.    Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, stocks and water. Mix well, bring to the boil and turn down the heat to low. Cook for 1½ to 2 hours or until the meat is very tender.
5.    Taste and season. Remove from the heat and leave to stand for 5 minutes. Place a thick slice of sourdough bread on the plate and ladle the stew over it.

These are just a few New World foods that have become staples of modern Italian cuisine. Others include various beans, chilies, aubergines, squashes and, not least, chocolate, which Italian chefs have used to create sublime desserts. 

A table of two worlds works!

Buon appetito!

By Celine Castellino
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