The Food of Italy and other foodie ramblings…

Claudia Roden has just issued a 25th anniversary edition of The Food of Italy, with previously unpublished recipes (£25 if you’re feeling keen, or £16.99 including p&p, from the Guardian).

Amazon, meanwhile, are peddling the original version, for the Kindle, for a tenner – but look, guys, it’s a book full of colour photos – crap on the monochrome Kindle! Oddly, the Guardian uses the same book cover to illustrate its ad as Amazon does, so I’m not 100% sure who is selling what! And Amazon says Roden’s new book is out next year – go figure.

If you have a decent tablet, though, go for it – the Kindle Fire HD makes a great, if rather heavy, colour ereader, though as a conventional tablet it falls short, let down by Amazon’s sucky apps.

Entirely by coincidence,

I’m currently re-reading the original version of The Food of Italy which, for me, at least, is far better than Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. I have to ask, though, how many previously unpublished recipes there are, and how much related additional text is there? These questions, despite the Obs magazine plugging the book this week and next, remain unanswered, at least in detail.

The Guardian bookshop says this:-

“More than 30% of the recipes have been updated to fit modern tastes, with new inclusions such as farro salad and burrata.”

The Burrata dish is in Sunday’s Obs magazine (all 4 recipes are new), but the book’s main focus seems to be on tweaking existing recipes, more than adding new ones. But tweaked to suit whose modern tastes? And how does that differ from, say, Nigella’s poorly-received book Nigellissima – her tweaking of traditional Italian recipes?

This is what Roden, herself, says in the Obs magazine:-

“For this illustrated 25th-anniversary edition, I had to update it as so much is available now that had not been, because so much has changed in the way we cook and eat, and because Italy, too, has changed. Italians pull from tradition what suits them best. They want to update and revitalise old dishes, not embalm them.”

Is that really true? I have no way of knowing (but the impression I get is one of traditionalism, along the lines of Spain and France), but having read what Roden says, I am still no nearer knowing why I should buy this book, as I have no desire to pay twice for material I already have, tweaked or not.

Nor am I sure what foods are available now that weren’t in 1989, when the book was first published (and in the context of Italian cuisine), with a little initiative.

What did change, when online shopping arrived, was the ease (eventually), with which ingredients could be sourced, but I’m having a hard time thinking of ingredients I can buy now that I just couldn’t buy then. Though perhaps I was spoilt by working in Liverpool, where pretty much any nationality was catered for. As in London, too. The only major changes I can think of is in the zillion varieties of pasta now available, compared to 1989, and the fact that you can now buy fresh plum tomatoes. Though canned are still often the better choice in terms of quality.

I do love cookbooks, I read them for the inspiration to create my own recipes, rather than use theirs, but only a completist would, I think, be attracted to the anniversary version for its own sake if they have the original. And I, of course, do.

And the Obs magazine is publishing unpublished recipes (4 this week, presumably the same next). If these are recipes from the book then it diminishes the value of the new content (unless there is a hell of a lot of it).

Before I decide whether or not to buy, I’ll wait for the reviews, rather than rely on advertorials.

I can, though, see the need for a new edition, as the original is rather lacking in some areas – the question is, are those shortcomings addressed? For example, the Ingredients section – and bear in mind that this embraces a country of many differing culinary traditions – runs to a mere 2 pages and 11 items, which is quite absurdly parsimonious. In Roden’s excellent The Food of Spain, by comparison, the Ingredients section spans a far more realistic 20 pages (I’d count the items, but I don’t have the strength to hold the damn book!).

For a novice cook, I’d recommend resisting temptation and getting the paperback version of the original – if you use it in the kitchen, it’s going to get mucky, and you don’t want to ruin a pricey hardback. Some paperback versions have no photos so check out the used market for copies with photos – the photos do add considerably to the enjoyment of the book, as well as showing you what some of the finished recipes look like – useful for a newbie.

But something has just plopped into my Inbox which made me think about Rosen’s mention of change in the way we cook – which is to say, we too often leave it to machines if this is anything to go by, the blurb for the new Tefal OptiGrill:-

“Designed with six dedicated cooking programmes – burger, sausage, bacon, chicken, red meat and fish – an automated sensor measures the thickness of your food to ensure it’s fully cooked.”

I find that immensely depressing. Not to mention the fact that sensing the temperature is rather essential, too, as fridge-cold food takes longer to cook than that at room temperature.

None of those things, though, are hard to cook. Nothing is hard to cook, once you know how but, with a gadget like this, no-one actually learns how.

And yes, I know that makes me sound like a Luddite, but if there’s one area of our lives where machines are entirely superfluous, it’s cooking (no objection for using machines for prep, though I’m more likely to take a balloon whisk than a stick blender to a sauce). If the much-touted technological meltdown ever comes, a lot of people are going to starve for the lack of skills which were fundamental to previous generations.

I showed a few recipes of mine, from this blog, that I’d printed and bound, to a friend who doesn’t cook at all. Despite the fact that, as you probably know, my recipes are detailed – if you can read, you can make them – and that she’s eaten and enjoyed most of them, she was horrified at how “complicated” they were, and protested that most people wouldn’t have the ingredients (well, no, not if they didn’t cook!).

The most “exotic” ingredient was organic Deglet Nour dates and, hell, even Sainsbury’s and Tesco sell those now!

I’m reasonably certain that she was perfectly capable of cooking any of the recipes had she been willing to apply herself but, looking at three and a half pages of ingredients and instructions (16 ingredients just for soup**), I think panic set in. If I could get her in front of my stove, and talk her through it, she’d realise how easy it really is. I’d probably have to do all the prep, though, as my knives worry her – a lot.

**I’ve criticised weekend supplement foodies for this sort of thing – using what looks like too many ingredients for a simple dish – yet here I am doing the same thing, and there’s not one ingredient I consider inessential. Ah well…

My friend who doesn’t cook is afraid of my knives. which made me think. I’ve known a lot of women who are knife-phobic – it makes me wonder how much that accounts for a reluctance to even learn to cook?

Me, at school, I was absolute rubbish at woodwork (the only useful skill I brought out of woodwork class was how to put a razor-edge on a blade – a skill every good cook needs), not a great deal better at metalwork, but give me a good, sharp, knife and a heap of food, and I’m in my element. I started at 10, was cooking seriously at 12, and better than many adults. I’ve not stopped since though I’ve slowed down considerably, and consider myself lucky if I’m able to cook once a week in recent years. DWP snoops please note!

In 1954 my father, probably in self-defence, bought my mother (who was firmly in the “put the Brussels sprouts on for Christmas dinner in April” camp), the Good Housekeeping cookery book. She never opened it. I still have it.

Then, as I do still with such books, I read it from cover to cover. Several times. The only recipe I ever made from it was shortbread, but it did inspire me to cook and it provided sensible timings and temperatures for doing so. I can still remember the amazement when my sprouts emerged from the pan bright green, perfectly al dente, and not as an olive-drab mush! Oh, and cutting a cross into a sprout stalk accomplishes nothing – cutting one into the top just allows water to penetrate where water shouldn’t, and makes it soggy.

I know a lot of people, who actively promote cooking as some semi-mystical, esoteric, skill-set, acquired only after years of dedicated study, will hate me for saying this, but COOKING IS NOT HARD!

Having said that, just as there are some people who should never be allowed behind the wheel of a car, there are people who will never master cooking. But they are a tiny minority – most who claim not to be able to cook simply can’t be bothered trying.

And that is their loss.