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An Italian bible - lucky dip part 2

"This isn't a breezy talkative book. It's not by some personality who shares stories and amusing anecdotes about cooking. This is like a straight-forward textbook for cooking and in that regard it succeeds tremendously. Honestly you can spend hours just turning the pages to see what comes next." Tim Janson -

The Silver Spoon is one of those encyclopaedic books that has a recipe for just about everything - in this case everything Italian. It really is a treasure trove and I should use it more than I do. I'm afraid I generally only use it as a reference when I am checking out a particular Italian recipe. Part of the reason may be its massive size - there are 1262 pages in a hardcover roughly A4 sized format. It is big and heavy which is a bit off-putting. There are some beautiful photographs of some of the dishes, but only some. Mostly the recipes are brief and to the point and unillustrated. But that's Ok because, really most of the dishes therein are not tricky.

It appears frequently on best ever cookbooks list with words like essential, classic and bible applied to it.

The term bible is particularly appropriate, above and beyond the usual association with the word bible meaning essential. The King James version of The Bible, as most of us know it was a book composed by committee. There was no one single author - well translator I suppose is the more appropriate term. Indeed what this committee of translators was translating, was also, of course, not the work of one single author. And what that 'committee' produced - wherever you stand on the religious front - was certainly a great work of literature with as many quotable lines as Shakespeare. And like The Bible, Il Cucchiaio di Argento was produced way, back in 1950 - so 70 years ago now - by a dedicated team of cooks, writers and editors.

Back in 1950 a Milan architectural and design magazine Domus, decided for whatever reason - I'm not sure what - to produce a cookbook that would enshrine the long heritage and varied traditions of Italian cooking.

According to Wikipedia:

"It originated from a post-World War II pricing dispute between the publishers and some of the distributors of the popular Il Talismano della Felicità by Ada Boni."

Although this does not really explain why Domus launched into The Silver Spoon at all.

The introduction to my 2005 English edition notes that the very title of the book is completely bound up with heritage.

"This name stems from an English phrase that symbolises plenty, wealth and good fortune: to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth describes how someone has been born with a fortunate heritage ... just like the culinary heritage The Silver Spoon gives to its readers."

'Cookery experts', whatever that means, were sent to all the far flung corners of Italy to collect recipes from the nonnas and other home cooks, the chefs, and the cooks in tiny restaurants and street stalls. Everywhere that traditional food was created someone was there to write it down. These recipes were then brought back to Milan, tested, sorted, compared, rewritten, edited and published in the first edition of Il Cucchiao di Argento shown here. It had fewer recipes than the current edition(s) but even so it was comprehensive. The recipes were adapted for modern kitchens, and even included Italian versions of overseas dishes - there is the odd French, Greek, Spanish, etc dish - even the odd curry.

"they updated ingredients, quantities and methods to suit contemporary tastes and customs, at the same time preserving the memory of ancient recipes for future generations. They also included modern recipes from some of the most famous Italian chefs, resulting in a style of cooking that appeals to the gourmet as well as the occasional cook"

It was a huge success and became a tradition in itself, in that new brides were given copies as a wedding present, even though some people seem to think that the book is better suited to expert cooks because of the brevity of some of the instructions. A bit like Elizabeth David, sometimes. From my own, admittedly somewhat superficial, browse of the book I would not concur with this opinion. Maybe there are a few places where a bit more instruction would be helpful, but you can always flip over them. Somebody complained about not having instructions on how to make all those pasta shapes. Really? Don't we all just buy them ready-made? There is one interesting omission though. No bread recipes. No focaccia, no ciabatta ... Why?

There was a major revision in 1997 and Domus, in Italy, continues to revise it - now in its ninth edition. But in 2005 one of Phaidon's people - Emilia Terragni went to Italy to discuss with Domus working on a design book with them. Too late for this they offered her The Silver Spoon instead. Whilst Phaidon had not previously published cookbooks they took the chance which led to the massive version I now own - 2000 recipes and counting. An innovation of the 2005 English edition was to introduce a set of menus - with recipes - by some of the world's most famous Italian chefs, including Giorgio Locatelli, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray from the UK, Mario Batali from the US and our own Stefano Manfredi and Karen Martini.

It was a gamble that paid off for the company which is now a major cookbook publisher, and which has spun off several smaller specialist editions of the original book - perhaps in recognition of its size. The latest is this one - Classic - a rather more sumptuous version which features just 170 'essential' recipes. Other versions take different sections of the book - like pasta, or are aimed at a particular audience - vegetarian, children, babies.

They also produced a comic strip version called Chop Sizzle Wow, which, as you can see has step by step pictures.

It is indeed a classic and perhaps the highest praise comes from the Italians because:

"the country itself, for more than half a century, uses the book as a benchmark for its wonderful and worldwide praised cuisine." N.F Simpson - Delicious Days

I once saw a TV program - I can't remember which - in which the presenter asked Italian ladies on the street if they had a copy. Almost all of them did. And almost all of them had used it.

"eating is a serious matter in Italy. Cooking and food are among the finest expressions of Italian culture, vividly portraying the country's history and traditions. Like all other arts, cookery is based on measures and proportions, on the balance and fusion of different elements. It blends ancient traditions with contemporary innovation and evolves constantly, even in the twenty-first century as a result of its position at the centre of Italian family life." The Silver Spoon

Certainly the publishers have a goldmine and are making the most of it by adding, subtracting, modifying and adapting to suit every modern taste. There is even a website for the Italian version, although alas it is not in English. It includes many of the recipes from the book, and more. It did not for example have my palombo recipe although it had about three for palombo - none of them in the book.

We are lazy are we not, in that this kind of compendium cookbook - Stephanie's tome, Maggie Beer's, River Cottage A-Z, even Donna Hay's Modern Classics are so large that they are left on the shelf in favour of something printed out from the internet or in the latest glossy cooking magazine? Maybe those old, falling apart paperbacks from the 60s and 70s. We should get them out more often, open them at random and have a go. Because all of them are full of gems that we could discover.


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