“While she loved the whole idea of cooking elaborate meals, her forte was in the reading of cookbooks.” Linda Wiken
Yesterday I talked about all the various topics that had crossed my mind as I searched, from the starting point of a lucky dip book, for how to tackle the lucky dip. One of those which I don't think I mentioned, was the fact that I seemed to have a lot of Italian cookbooks. And indeed I do, so today I decided to muse on that, and when I looked again, I found some more. Scary isn't it? This is - I think - my complete collection of Italian cookbooks - just Italian.
Also as yesterday I'm going to quote a long paragraph before I begin my musings. This one is from Julian Barnes' wonderfully amusing but also wonderfully wise little book of essays on food - The Pedant in the Kitchen. This particular essay is called By the Book and these are its opening words.
"How many cookbooks do you have?
(a) Not enough
(b) Just the right number
(c) Too many?
If you answered (b) you are disqualified for lying or complacency or not being interested in food or (scariest of all) having worked out everything perfectly. You score points for (a) and also for (c), but to score maximum points you need to have answered (a) and (c) in equal measure. (a) because there is always something new to be learned, someone coming along to make it all clearer, easier, more foolproof, more authentic; (c) because of the regular mistakes when applying (a)"
Julian Barnes - The Pedant in the Kitchen - By the Book
His solution to the problem of too many books, and the mistakes, by the way, is regular culling. Which I sort of do - well every twenty or so years, which probably barely counts as culling. Mind you I did resolve this year to cull more frequently, and I actually have been doing that, but not on a grand scale. Just picking one to throw out every now and then - and writing about it here. It's been another useful way of getting over writer's block, and also of analysing why I bought it in the first place, not to mention decreasing the size of my collection. So that I can buy more!
To answer Julian Barnes' question though - I score maximum points for wanting to choose (a) and (c) in equal measure. (a) because I can't resist them and (c) because even though I don't want to admit it, deep down I recognise that I do indeed have too many. I'm running out of space to put them - which must be a sign.
My Italian cookbook collection does include some classics - Elizabeth David's Italian Food; The Silver Spoon and possibly Claudia Roden's The Food of Italy, but I have to confess that I don't have the books of the authors that are often held up as the 'must have' Italian cooking writers - Marcella Hazan, Anna del Conte, and Ada Boni, not to mention all those more modern but well-known Italian cooks such as Antonio Carlucci and Giorgio Locatelli and the River Café people. I keep an eye out for them though in op shops and on Readings bargain tables. So that answers (a) - obviously I don't think my Italian collection is complete.
So here is a very quick rundown of the books I do have - in no particular order. Obviously too many. They all deserve a full post each - even if they are ultimately in the culling category.
None of these are illustrated. You have to use your imagination.
Italian Food by Elizabeth David - I wrote about this book in my First Recipe series, so I shall not say more here except that it's invaluable and falling apart, and taught me how to make ravioli, gnocchi, pizza et al.
Leaves From our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross and Michael Waterfield - I think somebody recommended this - either in person or in some other book. Maybe it was Elizabeth David even. It's an old book - published originally in 1899 but a new edition was published in 1973 and my Penguin edition in 1977 which is when I bought it. It's just on vegetables, which was very modern for the time. And it's actually very good - I should revisit.
Pasta and Noodles by Merry White - whoever she is. It's a Penguin handbook and I probably bought it at a time when I was still growing my cookbook collection. In a sense this is a kind of intruder because it covers noodles from all over the world as well as Italian ones. I'm not sure that I have ever made anything from it. Obviously one for the potential culling process, but I should look at it in more detail first. There might be hidden treasures within.
A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi. This one barely counts, as really it's one of those romantic memoirs of moving to a foreign place to find oneself and falling love along the way. But it has a slight cooking emphasis and recipes in the back - only a few though. So it's there for the light beach read rather than anything else.
The Food of Italy by Claudia Roden - there will be more on this as it's my current 'lucky dip' choice. Claudia Roden - say no more really. This one won't be thrown out.
When I say old I mean oldish really, beginning with yesterdays mention The Cooking of Italy by Waverley Root published by Time/Life - a lavishly illustrated book with more emphasis on telling us about the history and geography of the subject than on the recipes themselves, although the recipes are indeed worth looking at. I know I have made the cassata from this book for example, and probably several other things too. I didn't have so many other Italian sources back in the 60s and 70s.
The Silver Spoon - sort of the Larousse of Italian cooking. The source reference book which must have just about every Italian dish ever made within its pages. It's huge. But with not much writing other than the recipes. There are brief introductions to each section with sections on techniques and equipment. If you are looking for something it will be in here. I believe most Italian brides are given a copy as a wedding present. I think my son told me to get it, but I have to say I mostly just use it for reference. Black mark to me though. I assume that if you were going for authentic, this would be the place to go.
Italy the Beautiful Cookbook by Lorenza de' Medici - an illustrious name but I don't really know how well thought of as a cook she is. But it's a gorgeous book. A coffee table book that somebody gave me I think. There are chapters on each region, but the recipes are arranged in a fairly standard manner. More or less everything is covered though - well every classic dish and I do sort of use it, but mostly as a kind of cross-reference. I wouldn't throw it out.
Jamie Oliver has written two books about Italian food with 13 years between the two. He loves Italian food and in the introduction to his first book - Jamie's Italy - he even said he hoped to move there some time in the future. It was written way back in 2005, when he was still young. I wonder if he still thinks the same way. Jamie Cooks Italy was published as recently as 2018. They are both pretty wonderful books - well I think so anyway. Classics are mostly covered but there are also variations on the classics, and lesser known regional specialities. The second book focuses on the nonnas and mommas and their specialities. Beautifully illustrated with Jamie's cheery commentary scattered throughout. Generous in their acknowledgement of his friends, the late Antonio Carlucci and his best friend Gennaro Contaldi as well as of the people he met along the way. I do use these, but not as much as I should. In a brief skim the other day I saw a very tempting looking carrot caponata for example - see above.
Italian Food Safari by Maeve O'Meara and Guy Grossi - a glossy accompaniment to the original SBS TV series. The food in this one is slightly more posh if that's the right word, although not necessarily complicated. Lavishly illustrated and beautifully photographed, with commentary about Italian food in general and recipes from most of Australia's well-known Italian chefs. A present from my op shop connoisseur friend. It's in pristine condition but cost next to nothing and there are some things in there that I would like to try sometime.
Mietta's Family Recipes - I think I found this one on Readings bargain table and because of having enjoyed one or two very memorable meals at Mietta's restaurants I bought it. She, of course, died tragically in a car accident, and I think this was written just a short time before her death. There is a lengthy introduction about the Italian families who made Melbourne's Italian food reputation and the sparse photographs throughout the book are of those people. There are no pictures of the food. There are sometimes introductions to the recipes, sometimes not and those recipes come from a variety of sources - usually acknowledged. Sort of interesting, but I haven't used it much. It sort of sits in Julian Barnes' (a) and (c) categories. I might release this one from my shelves.
Lots of books - I've probably bored you to death with this one. Maybe it was more for me to consider whether it's time for another cull. However, it has made me think how my collection has been built up. Initially because I really wanted to learn about other cuisines - thank you Time/Life, about other ways of doing things, and how to make the dishes I had heard of. So thank you Elizabeth David, and Claudia Roden for that. But then I just wanted to know more, and these days I want to see what today's cooks are doing with the classics. They're good at those little twists that make cooking so interesting.
Would I buy another Italian cookbook? Well if it was one of those classics - the Marcella Hazan books and so on - I would probably buy them without too much perusal. I'm a little tempted by the idea of Rachel Roddy's A-Z of Pasta, but I haven't seen it anywhere. Would I buy any other 'ordinary' Italian cookbook? I'm not sure I would if it was basically just presenting the same old recipes - and there are plenty that do, however gorgeous they may look. Perhaps if there was some interesting writing to go along with the recipes. Will I throw out any of the above? Well there might be a couple there that I shall look at carefully.
Guilty pleasures all and I don't regret having bought any of them.