Mrs. MM and I are invited to a lunch today to announce the launch of Casa Artusi in the Philippines. The Mayor of Forlimpopoli, Italy (where Artusi was born and spent his formative years) and Chef Carla Brigliadori have flown in for the event. The Ambassador of Italy H.E. Luca Fornari and his wife are the co-hosts along with Margarita Fores. Pellegrino Artusi is one of my food heroes. An avid, nay, bordering on obsessed home cook, he set out to write a “cookbook” in the late 1800’s entitled “La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene” or “The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well” and was turned down by several publishers in Italy who belittled/ignored his work until he finally decided to publish the cookbook himself, with a first print run of just 1,000 copies in 1891. He was 71 years old at the time. The cookbook gained popularity by word of mouth and it has since become probably the most popular cookbook on Italian food ever published. Artusi passed away in 1911, at the age of 91, and his cookbook and all it’s 35 editions have gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies by the time he died! And, horrors, from the perspective of some chefs and food professionals, Mr. Artusi was an amateur home cook! His cookbook was actually “not up to snuff” by modern standards of accuracy, clarity, and recipe writing standards, they asserted, and yet it was so undeniably and stupendously influential on Italian cuisine over the past century! This is my kind of foodie underdog hero! :)
I don’t think Mr. Artusi ever planned to have such far-reaching impact. He wrote a book that covered many key basic recipes of his time, focusing on the foods he was familiar with, having grown up in Romagna and Tuscany. He infused his cookbook with anecdotes, sidebars, comments that were often not even food related, so his curiosity, knowledge and opinions are very much a part of the book. He espoused fresh products, eating rich foods sparingly, he loved his pork LARD for its unique and delicious flavor, and he just strikes you as being a real lover of food. His book was published at a time when the Italian nation and its populace was undergoing upheaval and dramatic change, and where the vast majority of the citizens were extremely poor but within decades a massive middle class was to be created, many of whom looking for some simple guide to help them in the kitchen and spend a little of their increased incomes, according to the Kyle M. Philipps III, the translator of the cookbook into its wonderful English edition, “The Art of Eating Well,” in his foreword.
Mr. Philipps writes further that “(Artusi) was actually a silk merchant…a shrewd and gifted investor…so gifted he was able to retire when he turned fifty. He spent his time between Florence and Viareggio. (From his small fortune) he established a home for the elderly and left money to provide dowries for poor girls. His greatest gift, the (substantial) royalties from his book…went to his servants, on the condition that they be still living under his roof at the time of his death, which they were.” You just gotta love it. :)
To be honest, I have only cooked a few recipes from his book, that has no photos or illustrations, but I think I have used dozens if not hundreds of his tips, suggestions, techniques, etc. This is a very simplified book, and one which you can use to guide you as you experiment and try new recipes. I refer to it often, and sometimes find myself just reading a few recipes every now and again, with no particular dish in mind… One needs to be a confident cook by today’s standards to use it, because it doesn’t explain as much as a modern cookbook would, but it was actually designed for a very simple reader when it was first published, albeit a reader quite familiar with Italian ingredients and cooked dishes… His book very much is the essence of the dishes he describes, focusing on the key ingredients, at the height of their freshness, or using key ingredients like lard for flavor, and simple cooking methods, and utensils, but infused with his knowledgeable opinions throughout… It’s a very, very hard act to follow, but it sure makes me want to revisit my latent need/desire to write a cookbook someday…:)
Oddly, Mr. Artusi does not have a recipe for fried squash blossoms in his book, though he espouses the joys of lightly battered and deep-fried-in-lard vegetable fritters. So in the spirit of Artusi, here is a simple, seasonal dish most folks can replicate at home. It’s one of our house favorites. I started off with a couple of bunches of fresh kalabasa flowers purchased at the market last Saturday (cook them the day you buy them, we had them for lunch that day). Remove the stamens and rinse the blooms carefully. Place a small piece of mozzarella cheese and a sliver of anchovy in the center of each bloom and gently twist the petals while dipping them into a light batter. The batter (Artusi style) is made of an egg yolk, flour, olive oil a hint of brandy, salt and some cold water that you mix and let rest for several hours in the fridge. Just before using, whisk up the egg white and fold into the batter to lighten it. Dip your veggies into the batter and deep fry in lard if you have it. Serve hot. Totally addicting.
P.S. More on the school/center CASA ARTUSI in Manila when I get more information in the months ahead. From what I gather, it is in the earliest stages of planning and implementation. :)
P.P.S. I wrote briefly about the English translation of the Artusi book in 2006, it was sent to me by Sister several years ago.