Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

When someone offers me a book to review, I think twice. I get offered more than I can comfortably deal with, and not all of them actually fit in with either my blogs' concerns or even my own. In this case, my interest stems from the development of the slow food movement originally conceived in Italy as a protest against fast food in general and McDonalds in particular. There are common themes here with rediscovering the pleasure of good food - locally sourced ingredients - a more connected way of life with a greater sense of community. It has been fascinating to me to discover how much of our local green activists' time is centered around food. This started with ideas like harvesting the fruit that neighbours were not bothering to collect themselves from their own gardens - which could be delivered to the local food bank. Community gardens have been shown to play a key role in increasing neighbourhood security. And here, offering to cultivate the gardens of others that were otherwise an expensive burden just to maintain as lawns, is producing local food and at the same time reducing the need for artificial weedkillers and fertilisers.

This is a big book. I put in on my kitchen scales and it came in at 1.5kg or 3 and half pounds. 295 pages - large format - with 150 colour photographs and 25 original illustrations. This is the sort of book that I probably would not buy for myself, but I would give to as a gift, and the timing of its publication is obviously aimed at the Christmas market. Because of its large size, and beautiful format, I would be hesitant to actually have it on my counter while I am cooking. There are cookbooks on my shelves that have been treated this way - and they fall open to favourite recipes where the pages are grease spattered. One of them - Delia Smith's Cookery Course - has for a long time been a staple. And that includes Osso Buco with Risotto. That offers a clear comparison with one of the early menus in this book. Delia aimed for simplicity and ease of replication so those unfamiliar with the dishes - and not having a handy Italian Granny - could be sure of producing something acceptable. Jessica Theroux is more interested in authenticity. The recipe she got from Mamma Maria has twice the number of ingredients as Delia's. That being said there is, of course, never just one way of cooking any meal - and I regard most recipes now as merely starting points. It helps if you have a good idea of what you are aiming for - and this is the sort of meal that is very accommodating to both the needs of the household - it won't hurt if it is kept waiting for a while - and adaptation to what is at hand. My partner noticed that Delia's version is almost bereft of vegetables - a great loss she thought. There's certainly more in Maria's.

This is not food for the faint of heart - or those concerned about their diet. "After two weeks of cooking with Mamma Maria, I had mastered the basics of Lombardian cuisine and added two inches to my waistline."

The recipes are only part of the book. The main attraction for many will be the narrative of how she met the women, and what they talked about. "This is a book about women and food and listening" is right at the front - and there were times when as a man I felt that I was intruding on the sort of discussions that woman have in kitchens - that they stop as soon as a man puts his head around the door. I am not sure I really wanted to know about some of the more intimate details discussed here, though I am sure that the people involved were consulted before their personal histories were published.

Theroux used the Slow Food Movement as a major resource in her explorations and according to her much of the content of the book was due to contacts and the willingness of people to recommend those of like mind. This makes reading the book much more pleasurable than the average recipe book. It is not only literate and informative, but full of stories - and we all love stories. For several evenings in a row, I simply settled on the couch and read them, delighting in the sense of belonging that they created. Sadly these days I am not called upon to create meals for many people. The recipes have to be scaled down for my kitchen. The quantities are given in the American fashion as volumes (not weights) so it is quite simple to adapt them. I somehow doubt that Italian Grandmothers are quite so precise. In my experience - especially with things like bread dough - the variability of such things as temperature and humidity can have significant impact on say the amount of flour needed to produce the sort of dough that will work easily. And whenever I talked to my Granny's - or my Mother for that matter - about cooking there was usually quite a range for many ingredients.

It would take a lot of time and effort to do this book justice. Trying out the recipes alone might take a year. Assuming one could source all the ingredients readily. Perhaps in major urban areas with Italian populations this will not be a problem, but I can see it causing some effort further afield. But worth trying, nonetheless. I am certainly going to try the sourdough bread next.

One thing I feel bound to comment upon is the disparity in pricing for the US and Canada - common to most books. While our currencies may be at par at present, book prices are not. This book retails for $40 in the US but $47 in Canada. Though you might, of course, find bookshops that will discount those amounts. It is certainly well worth $40 -and I can think of several members of my family who would be happy to find it in their stocking.

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