Turning to writing after retiring from a successful career as a merchant in Florence in the late 1800s, Pellegrino Artusi was to produce the most influential cookbook published in Italy.
His La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene or, as it is known in English, ‘Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well’, was to become one of the country’s most-read books, together with Manzoni’s The Betrothed and Collodi’s Pinocchio. Since publication, it has never been out of print, and few Italian households are without a copy of what is simply referred to as ‘Artusi’.
Designed as a practical manual for the family, his cookbook first appeared in 1891. Because he had difficulty in finding a publisher, Artusi, had one thousand copies printed at his own expense and then sold them by correspondence. After a slow start, to everyone’s surprise, his book suddenly became a best seller.
In the preface to the sixth and all subsequent editions, which he titled ‘The Story of a Book That is a Bit Like the Story of Cinderella’, Artusi describes his problems in getting it published. He was told it would have ‘little success’, and when he donated two copies as a prize in a lottery held in Forlimpopoli, the town where he was born in 1820, the puzzled lottery winners immediately sold the volumes to the tobacconist.
This was a time when complicated and refined French cooking was in style. The king of newly unified Italy, King Vittorio Emanuele II, was a devotee of French food, of butter rather than virgin olive oil. Reflecting this, the cookbooks of the day were written by chefs either trained in France or who wrote in French for other professional cooks.
What made Artusi’s cookbook popular was that its timing was perfect. It was written in Italian when, after unification, Italian, rather than regional dialects, was beginning to be more widely spoken and read among the educated. It appealed to the new, emerging and affluent middle class represented by the housewives who, assisted by domestic servants, cooked and entertained at home.
Comforting in its claim that to be a cook all you need to be able to do is ‘to hold a wooden spoon in your hand’, the handbook provides monthly menus based on the produce in season, as well as menus for holidays and religious feasts. From the original 475 recipes in the first addition, the number grew to 790 by the 13th edition, the last one before Artusi died.
Artusi’s prose is conversational. He is witty and even gossipy, scattering his text with anecdotes like the story of the insatiable but penniless count who gorged himself at the buffet table of a smart hotel in Florence on alternate days, fasting at home on the days in between.
Born into an upper-middle class family, it is unlikely that Artusi ever sullied his hands in the kitchen or actually cooked any of his recipes. Always the charming host, he was encouraged by friends to publish the recipes he had been collecting and experimenting over many years. With the help of his housekeeper and cook—both of whom he generously remembered in his will—he had the dishes tried and retried until he was satisfied. He was strictly taster and final arbiter.
He is sometimes criticised for not being overly precise about quantities, cooking times or oven temperatures, but judging from the letters he received, this did not seem to be a problem. The poet Lorenzo Stecchetti, for example, writes to him from Bologna in 1896, saying that prior to the publication of the book ‘to find a sensible recipe for a family, one had to grope about, try to guess, and blunder. Thank God for Artusi’!
Some also say that Artusi cannot be credited with the birth of modern Italian cuisine because his recipes concentrated mainly on food from Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna and still suffered some French influences. Yet he put on record the best of the food Italians were eating or aspiring to eat at the time. His book propagated these recipes throughout the country and down through the generations. We are still cooking most of them today, in one version or another. All major Italian chefs since his day, like Arrigo Cipriani and Gualtiero Marchesi, have felt his influence. Reflecting then-current society, his book is also a cultural landmark, worth reading even if you can neither cook an egg nor have any desire to do so.
You can also visit his physical landmarks. Artusi lived and worked in Piazza D’Azeglio in Florence until his death, in 1911, at the age of 90. Every June, Forlimpopoli honours its native son with an Artusi Festival and has dedicated a museum to him.