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The Origins and History of . . .

Italian Food

The mere mention of Italian food conjures up specific imagery, dishes, and even a few basic ingredients. While the stereotypical Italian restaurant in America (and to a great extent any country outside of Italy) reliably serves up plates of hot pasta with tomato or cream-based sauces, this is far from true Italian cuisine. Or, at the very least, the stereotype represents only a small part of the many diverse and multi-regional styles that make up Italy’s total gastronomic picture. The culinary history of Italy is deeply indebted to cross-cultural currents of people and societies from over three thousand years of history that slowly defined the Italian peninsula as a geographical, political, and cultural entity--and that was long before anything even remotely resembling a national cuisine could be established. Indeed, international Italian cuisine often has specific, easily identifiable, common characteristics that can be traced to specific regions or that resemble customs in general usage throughout the country. But the geographically defined area recognized today as Italy itself has a cuisine as diverse and multifaceted as its long, complex history.

Apicius and the Foundations of an Italian Gastronomic Culture

Italy may be home to the world’s oldest known cookbook. This suggests the potential for unifying characteristics within such diversity. Sometimes attributed to the famous epicure Marcus Gavius Apicius of the first century A.D., the cookbook De re coquinaria (On Cookery) is a collection of hundreds of ancient Roman procedures for preparing dishes. The collection was not so much recipes in the modern sense as they were basic directions for the preparation of ingredients intended for the experienced chef. Apicius, a name generally associated with the love for food, likely accounts for the majority of the cookbook, though the damaged manuscripts preserved from a later century are actually a collection of recipes from numerous sources assembled sometime in the fourth or fifth century A.D. (Internet Source). Other ancient Roman writers--including Cato, Pliny, and Horace--identified early place names and their famous goods, from the wild boar of Tuscany and the onions of Pompeii to the cultivated asparagus of Ravenna and the semolina wheat of Campania (Capatti and Montanari 2003). The lists are extensive and are a clear antecedent of famous regional products that define regions within Italy and are available at specialty import markets internationally today.

The cuisine that developed in Italy during the Middle Ages had a number of cultural origins. These influences were deeply rooted in the peninsula such that by the time the recipes and ideas were circulated in humanist texts and other cookbooks in multiple languages across the continent, Italy was beginning to truly distinguish itself from the other political entities that were also emerging at the time. The manuscripts of Roman writers found their way back into Italy in the middle of the fifteenth century, during the Renaissance’s humanist revival of antiquity. But the field of gastronomy may have borrowed less from antiquity than did other intellectual and artistic pursuits of the Renaissance. Renaissance works in gastronomy such as Bartolomeo Sacchi’s De honesta voluptate et valetudine (On Honest Pleasure and Good Health, about 1470) built as much upon the immediate foundations of the Middle Ages as it did classical sources (Capatti and Montanari 2003).

The Making of an Early Culinary Culture

Cross-cultural influence on the early identity of the Italian peninsula was amplified by Italy’s proximity to the great kingdoms of the Etruscans, Greeks and, later, the Saracens from the Arab empire making contact across the Mediterranean. Though the origin of the Etruscan people is uncertain, the major contribution of the Etruscans to Italian cuisine was a kind of porridge eventually called pulmentum, a mushy-grain dish that was a predecessor to the cornmeal-based polenta popular throughout Italy and internationally (once corn arrived in Europe from America). The maritime Greek nation popularized the kind of fish chowder recognizably called bouillabaisse in French and brodetto throughout the south of Italy (Root 1971). The Arabs were especially influential in the south and especially Sicily, where the origins of dried pasta production can be traced. A predecessor to the modern lasagna, called lagana, existed in ancient Rome and points to an older customs of making dough out of flour and water, but the technology of the kind of dried pasta in extensive use today has clear Arab origins (Capatti and Montanari 2003). Other notable imported cultures include the Germanic Lombards who left their mark in the north of Italy as well as the Hapsburg Spanish influence especially on the rich and savory aspects of Neapolitan cuisine (centered around the city southwestern port city of Naples) (May 2005).

The Saracen influence on Italian cuisine was brought from raids in the eighth century and again during the Crusades beginning in the eleventh century, when Crusaders brought back new products from the lands and people upon whom they waged religious war. The eighth-century contribution was a puff pastry that came to be called millefoglie and is used in sweet and savory dishes. Crusaders eventually obtained a wide range of goods from rice, buckwheat, and spinach to tarragon and the true, sweet orange. Fruits such as the lemon and the pomegranate (previously available during the age of the Roman Empire but lost after Barbarian raids cut off routes of trade and communication) as well as a number of spices found their way back into Italy during the Crusades. Moreover, new techniques in food preservation, ice cream and sorbet preparation, and distillation were acquired, with origins ranging from China to the Arab empire. Modern descendants of these technologies include Italian ice cream, or gelato, and grappa, a high-alcohol-content spirit distilled from grapes, though it has its origins in Saracen fig brandy (Root 1971).

An array of dishes, technology, and techniques that found their way into Italy eventually worked their way across the European continent and evolved in cultural entities unique to various countries but not unlike their common ancestors. A similar statement can be made about Italy herself. It is a country defined by diversity, from dialect to cuisine, and yet the overarching culture celebrates a number commonalities that help to unify the people. Still, regional culture and cuisine revolve around the remnants of the powerful city-states that emerged in the Middle Ages and ruled their respective corners of the peninsula throughout the Renaissance. Cuisine was also divided along a “North-South gastronomic boundary, which for 3,000 years was also [a natural and] political boundary” (Root 1971) and despite additional regional characteristics, remains the most basic, reductive distinction of Italian cuisine when considering differences today. Still, there are unifying factors such as the generally long growing season with relatively uniform climates that allow for Italians to celebrate the abundant and high-quality raw materials in their cuisine—from vegetables, dairy products, and meat to fine finished products such as wine and desserts (ibid). Many techniques of production evolved over centuries of practice and became part of long traditions that survive to the present day. Italy continued to build its gastronomic identity (despite having lost a number of products) even during the Middle Ages, an era often misunderstood to be a totally “dark age” on the continent.

Medieval Culinary Evolution and Renaissance Continuity

European intercontinental cultural exchange defines a large part of collections of recipes well into the fourteenth century. National identity was much less rigidly defined and people, especially aristocracy and the upper class, moved relatively freely across borders. Clearly, however, the daily table of the peasant differed vastly from that of the great rulers in terms of manners and quality of preparation. Yet, with the exception of periods of famine, many people seemed to have had access to an array of products relative to their individual place, though the city certainly reaped the abundance of its respective region (Redon et al. 1998). Moreover, regional rural traditions developed “around the consumption of local agricultural products” and in turn were adopted by their respective city-centers (May 2005). The powerful northern and central cities of Italy such as Florence, Rome, and Venice were emerging as urban centers of great seasonal local abundance with access to the world of exotic spices and products. It is most often from the kitchens of those with personal cooking staffs and access to such an array of products that recipes were collected and, as a result, these represent our modern understanding of the exemplary manners and culture of each region (Redon et al. 1998).

The Liber de coquina (Book of Cooking) from the late thirteenth century is considered the oldest book on “Italian” cuisine, incorporating manners and styles from across the country as well as elements of the Roman style. It chronicles dishes from every corner of the peninsula, from Lombardy to Campania to Apulia, as well as incorporating styles from individuals, cities, and neighboring cultures. While the significance of a number of the dishes might be attributable to individual honors or celebrations, what is important about the cookbook is its apparent acknowledgment of regional specialties. De re coquinaria had recognized quality in individual products from specific regions and extolled extravagance, and the Liber de coquina took the next logical step by pointing to dishes becoming important to specific subgroups of the many small states (Capatti and Montanari 2003). Within those regions, the cultural activity of cooking “obey[s] geographical dictates when it comes to supplies, as well as norms, rules, and customs inherited and adapted by the society in which it is practiced” (Redon et al. 1998).

Some of the cultural activity of Italy’s common culinary experience may be attributed to Bartolomeo Sacchi’s Renaissance treatise On Right Pleasure and Good Health, which not only articulated humanist ideals for living but is also believed to have incorporated the culinary mastery of Maestro Martino de Rossi, whom Sacchi deemed “the greatest cook of his time” (Redon et al. 1998). Martino had compiled a recipe collection called Il libro de arte coquinaria (Book on the Art of Cookery, about 1464-65), perhaps in collaboration with Sacchi, and not only stamped “the earliest important signature in the history of Italian cooking” but also gave “voice to an interregional cultural spanning the entire peninsula” (Capatti and Montanari 2003). Sacchi's work contextualizes recipes into their society by focusing on local realities. He examines individual products and describes methods for their preparation while outlining the manners and customs dictating those local realities, all in a way that feels truly Italian. He highlights regional goods such as Sicilian honey and sugar, wines from Liguria and Tuscany, as well as Neapolitan oranges, and bass from the Tiber river, among many other examples.

Perhaps most importantly, when describing the cook, Sacchi suggests he (or she) should have “skill and long experience, [be] patient with his work and wanting especially to be praised for it. He should lack all filth and dirt and know…the nature of meats, fish and vegetables…[and] be alert enough to discern by taste what is too salty or too flat…” (Milham 1998). Indeed, Sacchi explicitly cites Maestro Martino in this section, suggesting any cook should be “completely like” him.

Italian Cultural Cuisine and Identity

In the sixteenth century, authors such as chef Bartolomeo Scappi attempted to create a kind of synthesized Italian culture (even under foreign domination) in voluminous texts that listed products “generally used in Italy.” But such efforts gave way in the seventeenth century to an “emphasis on regional diversity” that oversaw the emergence of catalogs of regional specialties. But, according to Capatti and Monanari, Italy’s gastronomic development experienced a lull for a number of decades in the early eighteenth century as French cuisine swept the continent. Only after French practices of cooking found their way into Piedmont (the region in northwest Italy on the border with France) and were fully integrated into Italian cuisine through the second half of the eighteenth century did Italian cuisine experience a (2003).

Finally, after Italian unification in the middle of the nineteenth century, individual “compartments” of the Italian peninsula made distinct, individual contributions to the total gastronomic picture. Out of that picture emerged influential cookbooks such as Pellegrino Artusi’s La Scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangier bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) which collected typical Italian household dishes. In the middle of the twentieth century, Italy saw a revived focus on the natural flavors of quality ingredients, and that emerged in large part due to improvements in transportation that have made regional specialties and tastes accessible across the entirety of Italy and throughout the world (May 2005).

The result has been a globalization of Italian cooking. In past decades, international Italian restaurants were very similar in large part because poor Neapolitans in search of opportunity, who Waverley Root suggests migrated easily and took their talent for cooking with them, operated them. The result was the popularization of Neapolitan specialties such as pizza and spaghetti as well as dishes from other regions such as ravioli from Genoa and a light custard dessert called zabaglione from Sicily (Root 1971). But more recently, diners around the world have learned to appreciate Italy’s regional uniqueness. Also, Italian import shops offer the best of the peninsula for customers to enjoy at home. The more recognizable choices include everything from aged balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil to pancetta (cured belly fat of the pig) and prosciutto (salted and aged pig’s leg) to the mascarpone (triple-cream cheese made from crème fraîche) used in tiramisú (May 2005). An emphasis on good, healthy living made up of well prepared food that insists upon high-quality, distinctively regional ingredients is at the center of the Italian gastronomic cultural tradition today. And this is what supports and exports the Italian tradition of enjoying prolonged, multi-course meals that celebrate life and cuisine as equal counterparts at the table.

-- Posted April 20, 2008

References

Capatti, Alberto and Massimo Montanari. 2003. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. Aine O’Healy, transl. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Grout, James. 2007. "Apicius" in Encyclopaedia Romana. Accessed: March 14, 2008.

May, Tony. 2005. Italian Cuisine. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. Redon, Odile, Francoise Sabban and Silvano Serventi. 1998. The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. Edward Schneider, transl. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Root, Waverley. 1971. The Food of Italy. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Sacchi, Bartolomeo. 1470. On Right Pleasure and Good Health. Mary Ella Milham, transl., 1998. Tempe, AR: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.