Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why do we love Italian food so? Two cookbooks give us the answer

Everyone seems to love Italian food. Even people who don't consider themselves foodies will have eaten pizza and their store cupboards will contain the likes of pasta and tinned tomatoes. This is a cuisine that has won over the taste buds of the world...

Perhaps this is why there is a constant stream of Italian cookbooks on the market and it might also be why two of them arrived in my postbox recently (one courtesy of
Quadrille Publishing and the other a prize in a competition run by the very lovely Irish Food Bloggers' Association).

 Neither could be classed as a typical cookbook. The first - The Real Flavour of Tuscany - is very unusual. Its subtitle - Portraits & Recipes from 25 of Tuscany's Culinary Artisans - already gives you a hint that it is far more than a collection of recipes 

Instead, it gives an insight into the cooking culture of this region through the eyes of some of its most celebrated food producers.

There's chef Gianluca Paoli who rises at 6am to heat his 200-year-old cast iron stove so that it will be hot enough to cook his famous arista (or roast pork loin). Gianluca tells of how he became a cook and describes what he calls the 'traditional but extraordinary' food he aims to cook in his Florentine restaurant. He also shares some of these recipes, including the one for that fabulous pork.

There's beekeeper Roberto Ballini who recommends his chestnut honey to be served with pecorino cheese and figs.

There's 70-year-old shepherd Salvatore and his son Giovanni. Salvatore has tended his flock of sheep since the age of seven and now Giovanni makes all sorts of cheese from their milk. The pair share recipes for simple dishes such as braised red peppers.  

There are many others. Massimo Biagi grows 800 different types of chilli and tells us how to cook the classic spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli flakes. There's a young farmer who grows olives, saffron and irises. He gives a recipe for saffron chicken, which is the only dish I have yet to cook from this book and which was tender, flavoursome and simple.

Each of the stories make you hunger to visit Tuscany and devour its food. Reading about beans being fed, one by one, into an empty potbellied bottle of wine, covered with water and flavoured with sage, garlic, salt, peppercorns and olive oil and then left to simmer in the dying embers of the fire overnight made me want to hop on the next plane to Italy. Seeing as that was impossible, the next best thing was being given some recipes to try in my own kitchen in Dingle. 

This book demonstrates just why Italian cuisine has become so popular. It's a peasant cuisine that is based on fine, simple ingredients that have been cooked by people with an awareness of tradition and a respect for quality. I have yet to finish reading about the different food producers in this book as I'm savouring their stories. And I have yet to cook anything apart from the saffron chicken. But that was so good that I'm looking forward to cooking much more.

The second book - Dunne and Crescenzi - is different again.
In 1999, a café and deli specialising in Italian food opened on South Frederick Street in Dublin and it has since become hugely popular with fans of Italian food and wine in the city. I have never visited it but I have heard tell of the quality of the food here: food that is local, seasonal and always of the highest quality and food that brings together the best of Irish with the best Italian products and the traditions of Italian cuisine.

The book is divided into chapters based on a traditional Italian menu. There are antipasti such as the irresistible sounding buffalo mozzarella, aubergine and prawn stack.

There are soups which range from a simple minestrone to a butternut squash, scallop and almond soup.  

 Salad options include such tempting treats as warm chicken salad with pancetta and peppers and orange and fennel salad. This section of the book also includes useful recipes for dressings, sauces and reductions.

Next up is the primi piatti or recipes for pastas and risottos and gnocchi. This book tells you how to make fresh pasta as well as how to create dishes like spinach and ricotta tortelli with parmagiano cream and balsamic reduction. There are simpler dishes too like penne with tomato, garlic and chilli. 

 Main courses range from pan-fried hake with cherry tomatoes to more impressive dishes like chicken roulade with mortadella (a type of salami), spinach and pine nuts.  

There are also side dishes – contorni – such as courgettes with leeks, raisins and pine nuts.  

Finally, there are desserts which include classics such as tiramisu and pannacotta and lesser known favourites such as ricotta and cherry tart or limoncello and peach cake.

The last few pages of the book are made up of a page on coffee and what the Italian terms for coffee mean; a page on wine; and nine pages of suggestions for wines to go with each of the different recipes.

With its easy to follow recipes, its full-page colour photographs, chatty introduction to each section and wine suggestions; this is a book that makes up for the fact that I've yet to visit this popular Dublin eatery. It makes me want to eat there the next time I'm in the city but in the meantime, I can practice recreating their food at home. 

 The Real Flavour of Tuscany by Lori De Mori and Jason Lowe and Dunne and Crescenzi by Eileen Dunne Crescenzi are cookbooks which show just why the world continues to have such a love affair with Italian food.

Addendum: last night, I made a leek and winter squash risotto from The Real Flavour of Tuscany and it was the perfect winter warming dish for a November's evening.


  1. Lucky you to have both books... they sound wonderful! Was in Tuscany once and LOVED the food!


  2. I am lucky, aren't I? It sounds like I'll be eating a lot of Italian food in the next few weeks!
    I've been to lots of different parts of Italy but have yet to visit Tuscany. It's high on my list of places to visit now though!

  3. I really love tuscany! Do you know the tuscan olive oil Laudemio? I think you'll love it. Belive me, it's perfect for all kind of recipes!

  4. Laudemio olive oil? I do not know it but I have just looked it up and it sounds great. I will have to keep an eye out for it in the shops. Thanks for the tip :-)