Pellegrino Artusi’s ‘Gnocchi di farina gialla’

Perhaps we should file this under the ‘I-find-Robert-Hollander-hysterical’ type of blog post.  Those kind that reveal how few thoughts outside of my studies I’ve had for the past few months.  Whether it’s commenting on the eating behaviors of the Italians, providing ridiculous recipes or giving dubious diet advice, Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina is interesting not only as a piece of culinary history, but as a piece of cultural history.  And as a modern amusement, of course.

I’ve encountered lots of laughter-inducing passages, but my favorite is ‘Gnocchi di farina gialla.’ Farina gialla is polenta and gnocchi made from it is called semolina gnocchi or gnocchi alla romana.  In america, semolina gnocchi is most frequently seen alla sorrentina,* a gratin-style dish with tomato sauce and cheese.  It is, in a single word, heavy.

That’s why reading Artusi’s description of ‘gnocchi di farina gialla’ is so hysterical.  He opens the recipe — recipe 90, if you’re wondering — saying ‘After a bout of exuberant eating, turn to a soup with gnocchi.  Thanks to their lightness, they counteract a heavy meal. Follow the gnocchi with an easy-to-digest fish plate.’  The idea of making gnocchi after eating a lot — say, after a Christmas meal — seems hysterical.  Our modern mind says turn to steamed vegetables or a simple soup.  Gnocchi — imbued with the exotic so much that Olive Garden can’t serve them — are not that simple digestion-correcting meal.


If the gnocchi don’t clear up your stomach, then the workout you get turning from pan to Artusi’s recipes should do the trick.  As always with Italian cookbooks, the directions are left vague, relying on the oral traditions from which the recipes came.  Although Artusi tells us to use our left hand to gently pour the polenta into the boiling water, he doesn’t tell us how much to use.  Don’t think about getting advice on how much to butter, pepper or tomato sauce to use on top.  Of course, if you want something snazzier on top, Artusi will give you a suggestion: sausage or ragù alla bolognese.  He does not specify how this will affect the digestion.

To be fair, Artusi’s ‘gnocchi di farina gialla’ are lighter than modern gnocchi alla romana.  There’s no mention of egg, butter or cheese in the dough.  He doesn’t have you cook them after using a glass to cut the dough into circles.  Yet, even circles of well-cooked polenta aren’t going to grace the cover of Eating Well as the next health food.  The next food to try out at your dinner party?  Sure thing.  Monday’s dinner?  Nope.

Reading La scienza in cucina is amusing because it illuminates these different attitudes towards food in surprising ways.  Although the reader encounters some stalwarts of Italian food and attitude — the emphasis on digestion, for example — Artusi for the most part presents Italian cuisine in flux.  The dishes appear to be the ones we know but aren’t.  ‘Gnocchi di farina gialla’ seem familiar, but don’t resemble modern dishes.  Giallo Zafferano — an online epicenter of Italian cooking — doesn’t have a recipe for gnocchi made with polenta.

It’s your choice.  If you feel like turning to Artusi’s advice after your next indulgent meal and making some gnocchi, go for it.  I’ll be leafing through the pages of my cookbook, looking for laughs.

*Are they really eating this in Sorrento?  Debatable.

-Here is the best ‘modern’ recipe for gnocchi alla farina gialla that I could find.

On the ‘foodie’ ‘gastronome’ divide

Taos from Tacombi @ Fonda Nolita

The word ‘foodie’ is so impossibly zeitgeist-y typing it makes me feel sick.  What is a ‘foodie’ anyway?  Is it someone who likes to eat?  Or is it your friend who has tried the newest food truck and waited on line for a cronut?  Urban Dictionary has no polite words for this person describing them variously as ‘A douchebag who likes food,’ ‘A proletarian or member of the middle class who occasionally eats … “exotic” food of foreign lands,’ and ‘A person who has no actual interests or hobbies.’  Fortunately, Merriam Webster rescues the word, calling the foodie ‘a person having an avid interest in the latest food fads.’  It seems that no matter how you define ‘foodie’ you cannot get away from its trendy nature.

Unfortunately, avoiding the ‘foodie’ shadow is impossible if you’re interested in food.  Calling upon the ubiquitous term remains the easiest way to justify an encyclopedic knowledge about cafes in Europe or an independent study about Slow Food.  Shouldn’t there be a way to describe an interest in or passion for food that transcends ramen burgers and bacon doughnuts?  If chefs can cook food that approaches art (as Julian Baggini argues in the wonderful Virtues of the Table), there deserves to be a better word than ‘foodie’ to describe those willing to pay and experience gastronomy.

Dinner in Copenhagen

I’m convinced this word doesn’t exist.  The only comparable word I’ve found, ‘gastronome,’ certainly doesn’t describe this new breed of food-lover.

Although the term ‘gastronome’ has existed in various forms throughout the years — Brillat-Savarin’s ‘gourmand’ is like a proto-gastronome — I’ve become acquainted with it through Slow Food.  According to Slow Food, a gastronome is a person who takes an interest in the entire process and identity connected to ‘good, clean, fair’ foodstuffs.  The gastronome isn’t content to simply drink the wine or eat the cheese, they want to know who made it, how it was made and what the tradition is behind it.  They want to know this even if it means reading a label that’s longer than a bread machine instruction booklet.  Perhaps the only people who fit this description are Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters (okay, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, you’re gastronomes as well).

Despite the word’s imperfection, it does fix foodie culture’s major failing: the disregard for knowledge.  You don’t need to know how your shake burger is made to relish it.  Although major foodie outlets like Eater and Serious Eats run columns about the ‘how’ of certain foodstuffs, I’m willing to bet that these posts don’t generate the bulk of their click-throughs and hits.  If you look at recent-hit blogs, you’ll notice that photos outweigh the words.  Foodies don’t care about the story behind their meal, as long as it tastes good.

Bread and cheese from Copenhagen

On one hand, I don’t think that’s so bad.  After all, isn’t more pleasure more pleasurable?  Yet, the satisfaction you get from instagram-worthy chicken and waffles must be different from what you experience eating a meal at either a restaurant or home with some thought behind it.  The first is a hedonistic pleasure, the latter nourishes the mind and body.  Does that mean that we should only eat locally grown kale and eggs from named chickens?  Absolutely not!  The knowledge and story behind foodstuffs are subtle.  There’s no reason that Alder’s pub cheese can’t provide both physical and psychological satisfaction.  I just doubt whether modern foodie culture gives sufficient attention to culinary knowledge that extends beyond pretentious wine tastings and social media clicks.

In a perfect world neither ‘foodie’ nor ‘gastronome’ would have negative connotations.  They would describe different ways to enjoy eating.  People would accept that pleasure from food is a normal, good and healthy experience.  People would accept that understanding and honoring the process behind a food isn’t elitist, but a way to enhance meal’s psychological taste.  Moving between these, and other, ways of interacting with food would be accepted and respected.  Until that happens, those of us who are passionated and interested with food will just have to get used to articulating the reasons we find the culinary/food world so fascinating.  As long as we avoid the word ‘organoleptic‘, I’m okay with that.

Foodie?  Gastronome?  Would you choose to identify with one or another?  Why or why not?

Robert Hollander makes ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’ hysterical (no, really)

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If you’re going to read the 1000+ pages of Hollander’s translation and commentary on the Divine Comedy, you need something to keep your spirits up.  Fortunately, Hollander understands this.  Rather than getting up for yet another tea break, Hollander peppers his commentary with more surprising remarks than Dante makes sideways threats to Pope Boniface VIII.

Don’t believe me?  Here are the gems he slips into his commentary (I swear I haven’t made any of these up).

  • “Siena jokes being for Florentines what Harvard jokes are for Yalies.” (Holl. comm to Purg. XIII.151-154)
  • “Three days later they [Mary and Joseph] find him [twelve-year-old Jesus] in the temple, explaining a thing or two to the rabbis.” (Holl. comm to Purg. XV.87-93)
  • “The daring of these lines, far beyond approaching that which in Yiddish is referred to as chutzpah, is perhaps not imaginable in any other poet.” (Holl. comm to Par. II.13-15)
  • (in paraphrasing what Dante says) “… but those bastards will never allow me to come back home …” (Holl. comm to Par. XXV.1-9).
  • “Surely a highly competitive candidate in any annual ‘Worst Tercet in the Divine Comedy’ contest …” (Holl. comm to Par. XXVIII.28-30)

What I learnt about Italian food in Italy

Lunch in Parma
Last month I went to a ‘North American’ society meeting, bonding with Canadians and Californians over our preference for pants as opposed to trousers. We discussed our favorite Brit drinks — several enjoyed Strawberry cider — our degrees and the usual university details.  As soon as I mentioned my year abroad in Italy, they said in a heavenly chorus: ‘Was the food ah-mazing?’

‘Well, yes,’ I replied with trepidation, ‘but I did get bored after a while.  They have such a different way of looking at food.’

‘What was the best thing you ate?’

Momentarily forgetting Spadaro I blurted out, ‘My host mother’s soup!’

‘You stayed with a family!’ I could see the images of rolling Tuscan hills and pasta sauce bubbling for hours on the stove floating before them.  Perhaps fortunately, they knew nothing of Pan di Stelle, Esselunga or Viva la Mamma! Box.  ‘You must have learnt so much about Italian cooking.’  The statement threw me.  Did ?  If so, what did I learn?  In a cider and Dante induced haze I replied simply, ‘I guess I learnt you can freeze pesto.’

spremuta 'fresca'

You can make fresh pesto and, adding less oil than you normally would, wrap it up in aluminum foil and freeze it in single serving portions.  When it’s time to eat, gently add pasta water to the frozen sauce, whisking with a fork to liquify it.  I learnt that lesson over lunch with my host mother, moments after arriving in Pavia.  But that was by no means the extent of what I learnt.

Learning about Italian food isn’t about following recipes but about understanding techniques.  It’s learning what al dente means and about the holiness of orange juice.  These techniques combine with attitudes to create an Italian food vocabulary.  This vocabulary is the building blocks of Italian meals.

Gnocchi con porri e pistacchi

So what did I learn?

  1. See above about pesto.
  2. Uses for tomato concentrate include (but are not limited to): a ketchup substitute and a pasta sauce to be watered down with pasta water.
  3. A ball of mozzarella, even from the grocery store, makes an acceptable second course.  You can add olive oil and oregano if you aren’t on a diet.
  4. Those soup mixes of beans and legumes are good.  Soak, cook, puree.  Cheese and oil are optional but expected.
  5. Insalata = anything you dress with oil and vinegar (insalata bianca = iceberg lettuce, insalata rossa = radicchio, insalata mista = from a bag at the grocery store).
  6. There is (barely) any meal that doesn’t go well with bread.
  7. Meat and cheese combined are bad for digestion (lasagna is not a frequent meal).
  8. The polite way to eat fruit is with a knife and fork.  Including oranges.  Including when on a train.
  9. Anything sweet is an acceptable breakfast food.
  10. Impress your guests with cauliflower: put the whole head into a pot with a bit of water.  Cover.  Let cook until tender when pierced with a knife.

Do you have any favorite cooking techniques?

The Best University Italian Magazine You’ll Read

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For some reason I thought it would be a good idea, in my final year, to join the editorial team to create and produce Bristol University’s first ever Italian Department magazine.  It was more work than I anticipated, involving more meetings when all I could think about was Dante/Fascism/Food.  Looking at the end result makes it all worth it.

You should flip through La Civetta today.  We have articles about everything from Dolce & Gabbana models to an interview with my independent study supervisor.  And an illuminating food section, if I do say so myself (guess which section I edited?!).

Cookbooks from Eataly

Slow Food Books

Browsing the cookbooks in an Italian bookstore is an interesting experience.  Gone are the fancy coffee-table recipe collections.  The blogger-turned-cookbook author doesn’t occupy much shelf space either.  Ethnic cooking is barely represented.  What you find instead oscillates between celebrity chefs, non-fussy recipe collections and a handful of ingredient-specific books.

Osterie d'Italia cookbooks

Last year I would go to Feltrinelli on Saturday afternoon and browse.  Sometimes the celebrity chefs fascinated me (read: Benedetta Parodi), other times I flipped through the ‘cooking in your dishwasher’ book (I don’t joke) and there were days when I couldn’t stop looking at Il cucchiaio verdea riff on Il cucchiaio d’argento, The Silver Spoon.

Italian Baking Books

Eataly Turin Lingotto doesn’t offer quite the range your average book store does, but what they do offer is fascinating.  Who would think that a store which uses the slogan ‘Italy is Eataly‘ and greets you with Wendell Berry’s famous line ‘Eating is an agricultural act‘ would stock books about cake pops and cupcakes?  I sure wouldn’t.

My favorite Italian cookbook story is this: there was an early cookbook that had a recipe for gnocchi.  It listed the ingredients — potatoes, flour, eggs, etc — and under directions it said combine ingredients, boil and serve.  Ever since I read this during my time at the British Library I’ve told the story countless times.  It represents what Italian cookbooks are to me, though they evolved since then.

What’s your favorite type of cookbook?

Scenes from Eataly, Turin Lingotto

Eataly Lingotto
I’ve been to the Eataly mothership: Eataly Torino Lingotto.  Nestled right next to the old Fiat factory, 8 gallery and Lingotto exhibition space, this outpost of the Italian goods supermarket is like walking into a temple to Italian food rhetoric.  Or like walking into a carefully designed space that wants to make you think not of a Carrefour style supermarket, but of a quaint outdoors market.  Like it used to be, come una volta.

There’s nothing to distinguish the space as you approach.  We’re not visiting Eataly-in-the-countryside, nor are we waiting on line at Eataly New York.  The people who visit Eataly Lingotto are going to do the weekly shop or to get a nice, quick meal.  They’re going because they know they’ll get good food, better than they’d get at the corner bar.

Garofalo Pasta Display

That’s the major difference between Eataly in Italy and Eataly abroad (especially so, I’m guessing, for Eataly Japan).  In Italy, Eataly is a supermarket.  A supermarket that is at once concerned with ‘alti cibi’ — a clever play on alta cucina — and saving a few euros — ‘mangiare meglio, pagare meno’.  It should be a paradox, but Eataly is determined to use any means possible to show us that it’s not.

From 1 kg bags of pasta to freshly baked bread; from fresh fruits and vegetables to shrink wrapped pre-cooked ones; and from Italian beer to wine-on-tap Eataly finds products and ways of displaying these products that make us think we’re getting a bargain or make us forget that we’re not.  The pasta can be bought in large or small quantities, the price below overshadowed by the history of the pasta company, and the reason why you should buy their unique product, above.  The slices of focaccia are freshly made — in addition to this being stated on the bag they give it to you in, you can see the bakers making it — softening the blow of the higher-than-average price tag.  If you choose fresh vegetables, they’re piled high in baskets on counters with red and green awnings over head to evoke the feeling of an Italian outdoor market.  The pre-cooked vegetables are nearby, so you don’t have the shame of choosing the easy way out; even the bargain basement is of superior quality.  When we choose a drink to go to the meal, we go downstairs to the pseudo-wine cellar, spatially confirming that every bottle is worthy of being preserved, regardless of the price tag.  Eataly makes sure that we don’t think any product is a lesser one.

Vegetable Display

Eataly Lingotto surprised me more than I expected to be surprised.  The lavish displays of abundance, the routine glee with which the customers bought their italianità and the complete order of the space all merged to fashion an atmosphere that made Italian foods seem like the most attractive ones to consume.  It’s easy to comment on the rhetoric and the design from afar, forgetting how casually and how easily it wins you over.  Eataly might have spread around the world, but Eataly Lingotto is an experience onto itself.

Have you ever visited an Eataly? Which one?  What did you think?