13 December 2013

Stefano Manfredi’s Italian Food - A gift for someone you love

I first started collecting my army of 'Italian' cookbooks while Antony was dallying in Alexandria. Over the years, the ranks have been decimated (in the military meaning of the word) but of 20-21st c. recruits, there are many sturdy regulars who are still popular: Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook, Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy; The Silver Spoon (which features Stefano Manfredi in its Menus from Chefs section). There are also specialists such as Mira Sacerdoti's Italian Jewish Cooking. Newest in the lines, and one that will never be taken out, is Stefano Manfredi's Italian Food: Over 500 Italian recipes from the traditional to the modern and from the north to the south

I rank this book as highly as the Irish general I love so well (even though she isn’t sound on medlars), Forgotten Skills of Cooking, by Darina Allen—a book that if you don’t have, you must get, especially if you’re squeamish. D.A.: "They are delicate, tender, delicious and inexpensive." (sweetbreads, of course, and I don't mean little brioches)

Stefano Manfredi's Italian Food is truly a cookbook for people who not only take a good one to bed but tweak its ears in the kitchen. The book opens with an absorbing History by John Newton, a fine complement to the whole. This is followed by a chapter on Italian wines; then another on the Italian kitchen (equipment, essentials, techniques, , glossary of terms. basic recipes); and then we embark on our trip around Italy. Each of the 19 regions has a chapter. Manfredi not gives a description of each region’s characteristics, but adds more flavour to the history of the whole. (He is a fine historian himself, and indeed, lards the book with fascinating sidetrips into history as well as foods.)

The bulk of the book is of course, devoted to recipes, presented in the order of the meal: Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Dolci. Manfredi migrated with his family to Australia as a child, and he values both languages, so his use of Italian here is not only fun but informative. Recipe titles are not only bilingual, but he tosses us other delightful tidbits (“saltimbocca: 'leap into the mouth'”—many other readers will know this, but it was news to this ignorant clod). Many of the italicised introductions to each recipe add immensely to the pleasure of the feast.
(on lattughe)“...Even though they’re basically the same article, the Italian desire for expression of the individual leads each pastry maker to respect the original tradition but at the same time confuse and confound it by changing it in every way possible. As if that were not enough, each version is passionately defended as being the authentic, the best-tasting and most genuine. Crostoli or lattughe, or whatever you call them, are traditionally eaten during the Christmas season. They are festive-looking with their snow-white dusting, and perfect accompanied by grappa and espresso.”

Best of all, there is a wonderfully diverse lot of recipes, truly both old and new. In common with Hazan's books in trying to impart a feeling of place, including ingredients from that place, Manfredi's descriptions of say, the fog enveloping the village outdoors while the smell of his mother's cooking wrapped around him inside the house is the stuff of the best memoirs.

Sometimes, even though he is trying always to be accommodating, a recipe is best read, by this reader in the countryside of Oz, as a vicarious eater—there is more likelihood of me being able to persuade a black swan in the nearby lake to submit to some slimming liposuction than there is for me obtaining duck fat to make that delectable polenta shortbread (swans can relax, because he does give an out with “or extra virgin olive oil”). And Manfredi’s urging to try to get gelatine leaves instead of powder makes me want to remind him of how hard it was to find the other-than-usual Australian standards in the big city—like back when his mother bought horsemeat from a pet store. Countryside Australia, for the most part, can only be couch potatoes when it comes to culinary choice. But then there are so few of us that it really doesn’t matter (as proven by our internet coverage).

But then this isn’t a book intent on telling us how to substitute something for something else, thank the gods. Those flourished in the age when Italian spaghetti directions read “pour on ketchup”. Where he can, Manfredi tells how make ingredients that really are special, from grape must to rose syrup—with typically simple steps. As to that favourite ingredient of his, “saba or vincotto” which he explains in his introductory Italian Pantry section is “boiled grape must”--recipe on page 431 of this 632-page book (listed in the index as “grape must condiment”), sometimes this reader with the colander memory could only use when encountering this “saba or vincotto” the one word in Italian in which she is fluent: Buh--meaning “Whah? You’ve totally lost me.” I recommend that in future editions, 1) the glossary is extended and put just before the index. And 2) there is a second index of recipes with their listings in Italian.

As to the making, although I prefer Hazan's archaic preference for the sounds of cooking to not include electric xkkxxs, many other cooks would prefer Manfredi's pragmatic approach. As he said in a previous book, a collectors’ treasure that I also highly recommend, Fresh From Italy: Italian Cooking for the Australian Kitchen, “The kitchen is my studio and my workshop. It must be functional and attractive. It must be uncluttered and organised. It—and the tools it contains—are there to do my bidding. And, if I am to work there for days and nights on end, then it must also be easy on my soul ... You must be the master of technology, not its slave.” Amen!

But ultimately, what is a cookbook for? The food. The recipes themselves are utterly mouthwatering, and as the few full-colour photos show, pure soulfood. Most of the ingredients are easily obtained, and like the components of most Italian dishes, both humble and cheap. Some of his loves are mine, too--such as chickpeas, fennel (luckily this migrant still grows wild all over Australia, especially by railroad tracks), chestnuts, the humble turnip, quinces and lemons and vinegars galore. There are many recipes here that could be standards in your repertoire. Just as these recipes aren't fussy, the food is, not fussy stuff to impress, but for those you love or at least, genuinely respect. When my next lucky visitor stays the night, the cabin will be filled with the mixed scents of baked quince; and the equally heady Red Onion Soup followed by pg 90’s Chillies Stuffed with Eggplant, Garlic and Capers. The farts later that night will make the bogong moths curl up their pheremantlers. or die of unrequited lust.

The layout of the book is beautiful, both clean and elegant without those annoyingly fatuous huge white spaces that have come to infect too many cookbooks today. The double-spread pic of each region gives an intimate feeling to each. My favourite picture is the shot of an orchard in Basilicata, each tree bare of leaves but hosting a horde of flame-ripe persimmons. Oenologists should also be delighted with this book. Manfredi is a man to lift a glass with, and to.

Disclaimer: I’ve been a fan of Stefano Manfredi for years, ever since I started reading his history-rich columns in the Sydney Morning Herald, and subsequently found that he, like me, is besotted with medlars—and not only them, but cardoons! My story “Valley of the Sugars of Salt” is dedicated to him.