learning Italian in the kitchen

A combination of two pleasures: the language in your mouth and the taste of the food on your tongue. The connection between learning Italian and cooking Italian is commonly made. There are courses designed for both, part of a tourist experience in Italy. A young academic at MIT, Paola Rebusco, has experimented with a course for beginners along these lines. I don’t know how successful a strategy Speak Italian with your mouth full is, but I have to admire anyone who also wants to teach American undergraduates how to cook. It was my own American undergrads who introduced me to the term ‘cooking from scratch’. I had never heard the expression before. It turned out to mean ‘using raw ingredients’, that is, cooking, or cooking without cans of pre-prepared and packets of frozen whatever.

It was obvious that I would combine lingua and cibo in my own adventures with the Italian language, since I spend so much of my time cooking. It is true that the Italian terminology of food preparation wont help much in everyday language use in Italy but the words from the kitchen are just as delicious as the food: strizzare, to wring out, sbriciolare, to crumble, rosolare, to brown, frizzante, sparkling, bubbly. Learning Italian for me began with learning to shop for food with sufficient knowledge and patter, and learning to cook traditional recipes from Italian cookbooks.

Cantucci 1There are four cookbooks I am working my way through (eating my way through) at the moment. Paolo Petroni’s Ricette della Cucina toscana (Giunti, Firenze, 2013) is a robust serving of Tuscan cooking arranged rather like a long meal. (opposite: i miei primi cantucci)   Pellegrino Artusi’s La Scienza in cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene (Giunti, Firenze, 2013) was the first attempt, (in the mid-nineteenth century), to bring together the cooking of the various regions of Italy. The book has never been out-of-print. (Anyone with those spectacular whiskers has to do well!)


ElisabettaTiveron’s Il quaderno dei Frutti spontanei (Kellermann, Treviso, 2008) is a delightful book of recipes and drawings, (by Roberto Da Re Giustiniani), in which she recalls the cooking of her grandmother, the meals from wild fruits, greens and herbs gathered from the fields. It reminds us  —  more than that, it tells us  —  that once cooking was entirely dependent on what was available in the garden or the field, that it was an intimate relationship between cucina and campo, in a time before everything was available, a time before everything was always available.

The fourth book I have had for years now and it is now starting to disintegrate, although the recipes remain intact. Dall’antipasto al dolce (Instituto Geografico de Agostini, Novara, 1976) is a guide for the housewife of 1976 from the town of Novara in Piedmont. The paper is old, the photographs are grainy and the recipes include photos of women preparing the dishes, each one in a different coloured apron. There is a certain old kitchen quality (there are no dishwashers in this world) that proclaim only the food is important.


My favourite recipe from here is the Pollo ripieno arrosto (roast stuffed chicken) in which the chicken is boned in one piece (except for the legs) and then stuffed, so that it appears when cooked as a chicken at one end and a terrine at the other. The Italians eat it hot like a roast chicken but it is also delicious served cold at lunch as a terrine with fig and pomegranate relish, salads, fresh bread and a chilled wine.


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