What I’m reading
If I could, I would fill my house with books. Being someone who tends to move around a lot, having a love of collecting books can really work against me. I’ve basically left shelves lined with books in every place I’ve lived – with a plan, of course, to one day come back to them. But there are some books that I can’t leave behind, that I will always carry around with me, wherever I go.
It’s no secret that I love historical cookbooks, especially ones that shed light on regional, traditional Italian cuisine. Probably the best example of that is Pellegrino Artusi‘s book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (originally published in 1891), one that goes everywhere with me, sometimes even on holiday. With around 790 recipes, this book has a tendency to reveal something that I haven’t seen before each time it gets picked up. It’s not just about the recipe inspiration; Artusi’s anecdotes that precede each recipe range from hilarious to personal to little gems of gastronomic history. In other words, there is rarely a dull moment when flicking through this book. One of my favourite recipe anecdotes is the one for Minestrone soup, while some of my all-time favourite recipes of his is the Torta Margherita, a sort of gluten and dairy free sponge cake made with just three ingredients and this Rose Petal Jam.
I could say the same for The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (first published in 1954). Even though it’s a mostly French recipe book, I find it incredibly inspiring. I picked up this dog-eared, worn copy from a lovely second hand bookshop and cafe in Sydney called, funnily enough, Gertrude & Alice. Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein’s lifelong companion. They lived as American expats in France over two world wars. While Stein may have been the more famous writer, Toklas was no amateur either. Both were fabulous foodists, entertaining the likes of Hemingway, Picasso and even squatting soldiers of the Italian Army. The book is not only an account of their life but an incredible collection of family recipes, traditional French recipes (long before Julia Child’s time) and it is a fascinating read – just take a glance at the chapter ‘Murder in the Kitchen’ on Toklas’ first experience killing a fish and you’ll be hooked. It reads very much like a food blog, actually, which is perhaps another reason why I like it so much.
Elizabeth David‘s books are another wonderful source of recipes, entertaining anecdotes and culture. Reading her books are like being instantly transported to a dreamy Mediterranean country town, sharing food with the locals. She has a no-nonsense approach and stays true to the traditions, openly denouncing the fakes of butchering of genuine recipes in her British homeland of the second half of the twentieth century. So much is still to be learned from David, you’ll never get tired of having these books in your collection. Her chocolate cake recipe is the ultimate chocolate cake recipe – so simple, so delectable.
Then for real history buffs, there is Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera, a publication from 1570. The chef of Pope Pius V, this is a doorstop of a cookbook and admittedly more useful as a historic resource than one you would cook from. Nevertheless, not all Renaissance recipes are unsuitable for modern tables. From Gillian Riley’s Renaissance Recipes, this is one from Platina, who wrote a cookbook in 1465, that I tried and loved, biancomangiare, a delicate almond and chicken pudding of sorts, the ultimate comfort food.
I do have a thing for historical cookbooks because they tell so much about tradition and culture. I love seeing the change – or lack of – in what was on the table. Looking back to history, to the classics, and mastering those, is a great way of getting inspiration and of continuing traditions, not only in the kitchen, but in any creative area, from art to music. But that’s not to say that modern cookbooks don’t make it to my bookshelves. In fact, my Christmas wish list would include these books, which would satisfy any Italophiles out there:
- Tessa Kiros’ latest book, Limoncello and Linen Water. Another Tuscan adopted writer with a background that spans continents, her books are a visual feast that those with wanderlust will love.
- Coming out in just a matter of days (I can’t wait!), I Love Toscana, by my wonderful friend and passionate cook and food blogger, Giulia Scarpaleggia of Juls’ Kitchen. A recipe book that reads and feels like a journal.
- Elizabeth David’s biographies (thanks to Rachel from Rachel Eats for recommending these!), both the official and unofficial versions.
- Michael Ruhlman’s Salumi – the king of charcuterie is back and this time he’s doing it the Italian way. Marco’s already plotting how to turn part of our garage into a salumi-curing area.
- And although I already have it (but you may not), Sarah Fioroni’s A Family Farm in Tuscany. An account of life on her family’s farm in San Gimignano, you can read a bit more about it (and catch some of my photographs for the book here) and check out the perfect autumn recipe from the book.
What have you got on your wish list? Happy Reading!