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Pellegrino Artusi Cookbook
Italy’s most famous cookbook was not put together by a chef. In fact, he is rarely even described as a cook – although cooking was a hobby. No, Italy’s most famous cookbook was written by a rich merchant who retired early and had a lot of time on his hands.
This is not to take any credit away from him, because Pellegrino Artusi was to create a book that would define Italian cooking for the first time in history.
The cookbook I’m referring to is called ‘La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene’ in Italian, which translates as ‘The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well”.
Perhaps he gives away his background by (I think, incorrectly) calling cooking a science, rather than an art. But I’ll agree with the second half – that there are many creative ways to eat well!
Artusi put together his cookbook by travelling the country and collecting different recipes. He would try eating them, and he would try cooking them, and he then wrote about them – often with some amusing anecdotes.
When he published it in 1891, it was just 20 years after the unification of Italy. The country was brand new and made up of many regions that had individual cultures, long and deep, and their own unique cuisines.
To compile all of this into one book was modern and exciting, and one of the reasons it became a hit and is still a phenomenon today.
Casa Artusi Museum
Artusi was born in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, in a little town called Forlimpopoli, which has a population these days of around 15,000 people.
Not long after I arrive here, a local woman comes up to me as she is walking home from the small market being held in the town square.
She asks where I’m from and I tell her Australia. Her eyes light up like she can’t believe it. Someone has come all the way from Australia to her little Italian town! She almost seems to skip away in excitement.
Of course, it is not so strange that someone would want to visit Forlimpopoli, because the home of Pellegrino Artusi has been transformed into a culinary centre. It’s called Casa Artusi and it’s a celebration of his life and work – and, more importantly, a celebration of what Italian food stands for.
Casa Artusi has a large room dedicated to Pellegrino Artusi where you’ll find copies of different editions of the Artusi cookbook, many of them translated into different languages (a Japanese edition will be released next year). There are also other items related to his journeys across Italy and the collection of recipes.
The woman showing me around, knowing what I do, jokes that “perhaps he was Italy’s first food blogger”.
Upstairs, there is a larger library that is open to the public, full of books about cooking and food. It’s aimed at both the casual cook who wants to come and get some ideas, as well as researchers who want to be able to compare the work of different chefs and regions.
But there’s another room that is of much more interest to me today – it’s the cooking school.
Casa Artusi Cooking School
By the last edition of his cookbook, Pellegrino Artusi had collected 790 recipes. Here at the cooking school in his old house, I am going to try to make some of them.
Of course, I’m getting some help. First, the main teacher, Carla, demonstrates to the class how to make the dishes. We sit in stadium seating (drinking coffee, of course) as she shows us the right ingredients and the the right way to turn them into the dough that will become pasta.
I try to take mental notes but I know from previous experience that even the things that look simple will prove to be hard when I try to do it myself.
Luckily, this is no ordinary cooking class. After the main teacher has demonstrated everything and I go to my cooking station, I’m joined by another woman who is going to help me and my neighbour through the process.
There are about 8 of these women and they are all local volunteers. They come here for the love of the food and, probably even more so, the love of sharing the food.
They have the nickname ‘Mariettes’, named after Marietta Sabatini, who was the maid and cook for Pellegrino Artusi (whom he remembered in his will, she was so important to him). In total, there are 140 of them (and, although most are women, there are some men).
They will be here for the whole class to help us, but there’s a warning – we can’t go overtime because they all have to go home and cook lunch for their families!
The first of the Artusi recipes that I tackle is number 7 – ‘Cappelletti Romagna style’.
The cappelletti are small pieces of pasta that are shaped like hats so that they’re not too heavy to eat. In his recipe, Artusi offers the instructions of how to make them… but also a bit of texture.
“Cook the cappelletti in the capon broth, as they do in Romagna, where, on Christmas day, you will find braggarts claiming to have eaten a hundred of them. This can also suffice to kill you, however, as happened to a friend of mine. For a moderate eater, a couple of dozen cappelletti will be enough.”
Artusi’s style of writing is a perfect fit for the style of the Mariette who is helping me. Her real name is Delia and she speaks enough English to constantly compliment me, even as she deftly fixes my mistakes.
We laugh the whole time, the cooking almost becoming secondary to our chatting and playful antics.
I hardly realise that we’ve moved on to Artusi recipe number 71 – ‘Tagliatelle Romagna style’ – where I cut the folded pasta sheet into strips and then unravel them by lifting them up on the edge of the knife.
Meanwhile, Carla is making the sauce from recipe number 104 – ‘Country-style spaghetti’ – to go with the tagliatelle.
After all the cooking, and all the laughter, the Mariettes head home to their families and the rest of us sit down to eat what we have created.
It’s no coincidence that the recipes chosen from the Artusi cookbook are those from the Emilia-Romagna region.
Of course, that’s partly because it’s where we are at the moment. But it’s also because this is generally considered as the food bowl of Italy. Some of the best produce is grown here and, as a result, some of the most iconic recipes were developed here.
Artusi Pellegrino may have united the country through food, but it’s fitting that he’s commemorated here in his home of Emilia-Romagna.