Being Mostly about why you should buy a particular book.
When I bought it, I expected to take a long time to read it. Not because it was heavy handed or heavy going, but because it was a history book and English school training tells you, that unless you are a student of history, at a university people have heard of, you don’t read a history book in one go.
I got it on a recommendation from a friend. I was taken by the title, “Delizia”, I was taken by the cover showing a bunch of 1950s Italians, complete with fedora, quiffs, pencil moustaches and white vests, tasting the quality of what looks like a box of cherries. The cover artists have watched Schindler’s List and have done that, make everything sepia except the red, technique. It works. I was taken by the author, John Dickie. At first I confused him with the fellow who wrote Deliverance, but quickly put myself right. That was James Dickey. Close, but very different. I’d quite like to get to know his take on Italian food at some point, but, for now, I’m more than happy with what this Dickie has to say.
He’s an academic, and that makes one heck of a difference. Every year, hundreds of books are written about food. Most of them recipe books that add very little to the canon. Some sell by the shed load, some sell by the crate. All end up in piles at discounted prices in Smiths. None are written by people grounded in detailed research and good writing skills. This one is.
Occasionally a cook, a chef, or someone who wants to be taken seriously as an authority on food (do I include myself here? Possibly.) breaks out and wants to tell a bigger story. If it is a chef then you have the duel dis-advantage that they almost certainly write badly, and that they really don’t know what they are talking about. The ability to cook food does not often mean having deep knowledge of the history of food. Rick Stein does a whole omnibus of food from the Indian sub-continent on some tired phrases and the understanding gleaned from going to a few curry houses as a student. Clarissa Dickson Wright takes in the full glory of the English table from the conquest to the present day apparently by means of a few anecdotes, a half day’s research in the British Library and making all the rest up because it could well be be right. And therefore doesn’t need checking. I enjoyed her book enormously. Rarely have the expressions, could have, might have been, possibly, perhaps, I’d like to imagine and wouldn’t it have been nice if, been used more judiciously. Dickson Wright is a barrister and knows you can say almost anything as being believable if you phrase it in the correct manner…allegedly.
Sometimes a cook gets carried away by the sheer wonderfulness of a type of cooking and goes off to explore it. These adventures are often very good, and I must recommend the much maligned Jamie Oliver for his foray into Italian cooking. He goes, he learns, he absorbs and he comes to a pretty impressive understanding. He cannot resist jamiefying it a bit to make it more pukkah, but it made an excellent series and a decent book.
Sometimes we get someone from the right heritage, invariably with a pretty face and a couple of comely sisters, to tell us all about a food culture. Michela Chiappa is fresh faced and lovely and can make pasta dishes up to A level standard. She’s Welsh and speaks in the gutsy giggly way that made us all love Cerys Matthews. It makes for pleasant viewing but you don’t end up knowing a great deal about either the Italian food culture or, disappointingly, about the Italian/Welsh food culture. I was particularly keen to find out as much about this as I could; as would any fan of Fireman Sam.
No end of chefs have set off in a Range Rover to uncover the secrets of what is invariably called, “Great British Cooking”. We’ve had Spice Men (Who I love), Garry Rhodes (ground-breakingly), Rick Stein (inevitably), Hairy Bikers (chummily), James Martin (cooking the dishes in a market stall near you), and endless others. They usually discover that there are farms where farmers keep cows, dairies that make cheese, fish shops that sell fish and someone with a cockney accent who can tell his apples from his pears.
They all have a need to keep inside copyright laws and invariably throw in a rogue ingredient to make their recipes different to anyone else. They call this “My take on the Great British Fish and Chips, Yorkshire Pudding” etc.) and they destroy, at a stroke, the whole basis for their series; namely, discovering our heritage.
*The Spice Men are exempt from this charge as it is their brief to put a new twist on classic dishes. They didn’t always succeed but they were such fine fellows that we didn’t mind at all.
John Dickie isn’t a chef or a celebrity. He is a very good historian though, a very good writer and a very good guide to the whole history of Italian Food. The book is a thousand year history of this fascinating country told through its eating habits. I tried to read it in small chunks but couldn’t stop myself reading more and more. I expected to hide it back on the shelves when I finished it. I’ve kept it by the bed and dip into its various chapters to send me to sleep happy.
It is simply well researched and authoritative. It brings the culture to life, explains how it came to be and how it owes its unique place in our hearts to poverty, wars, opulence, emigration, regionality, patriotism and its opposite, conquest, competition, pride, needs must, health campaigns, prisoner of war camps and a hundred different causes. It exposes myths, like pasta being brought from China by Marco Polo. (Pasta actually comes from the Arab world and entered Sicily around the time William was crossing the channel with several ship loads of Normans). The same Norman culture had a fair say in how Italian food developed. The Catholic church had a fair say. Conquering armies from France and Austria made their contribution, as did television advertising, the rise of the celebrity cook, (we have Nigella, but they had Sophia Loren … England 1.Italy 10), the discovery of the new world, and the different way the country has done politics.
This book is a fabulous read. It makes you want to put on an apron and try out the food described. It makes you want to look up the low cost flights. It makes you despise (even more) the British who have bought up the villas in Lombardy and then tried to continue a British way of life .. (are all ex-pats obnoxious? No. But, many are.).
It is the best book I have ever read on food. I will be buying copies as this year’s Christmas presents (about time I stopped giving away Van Morrison CDs) and I heartily recommend it to anyone who genuinely wants to know about the most eatable, and distinctive of all European food cultures.