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The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book (California Studies in Food and Culture) Hardcover – January 3, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
In his informative, if ponderous, introduction, Ballerini offers a window into the life of 15th-century culinary whiz Maestro Martino, who's credited by most scholars to be the father of modern Italian cookery. As a chef to one of Milan's most important families, Martino had the most far-reaching influence of any chef of his day. Much of what we know about Martino comes from the writings of his friend Platina, who recorded many of Martino's greatest recipes and culinary advice in a book called The Art of Cooking. Those recipes-and others culled from obscure Martino-Platina texts-are faithfully reproduced in this highly entertaining, if sometimes uneven, volume. Only the most die-hard culinary enthusiasts may attempt Martino's Eel Torte or his Lenten Caviar Pottage, and recipes like Flying Pie, which incorporates live birds that fly away when the cover is removed, are, as Martino notes, just "for amusement." But much of the advice in chapter six, "How to Cook Eggs in Every Way," remains salient today. In addition, there are dozens of recipes that even novice chefs could attempt, such as the Roman-Style Macaroni with fresh-grated pecorino romano and the fennel-rich Fried Squash. Whether attempted at home or not, these recipes offer readers something far more compelling than practicality: a fascinating glimpse into a long-departed world where Papal Torte (a cheesy dish containing capon and "fatty, well-cooked veal teat") was served for breakfast and chefs for the upper classes needed to know not only how to cook tasty meals, but also the fine art of flamboyant presentation (i.e., "How to Dress a Peacock with All Its Feathers, so That When Cooked, It Appears to Be Alive and Spews Fire from Its Beak").
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From the Inside Flap
"I applaud the publication of The Art of Cooking by Maestro Martino. With this fine translation of his culinary opus, Martino will be restored to his rightful place in gastronomical history. Stefania Barzini’s adaptations for the contemporary palate will surely inspire many readers to try their hands in the kitchen."―Carol Field, food critic, author of The Italian Baker
"This book will make available to a large public one of the most important culinary treatises in the history of Western cuisine."―Fabio Parasecoli, author of Food Culture in Italy
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The recipe section abounds with sentences like "Martinotti's recipe is sweet, but we've made it savory because that's what modern diners are used to" and "We've eliminated the broth, changed the seasonings and added ingredients of which he would have never heard. Isn't it wonderful?"
Honestly, no. If I wanted modern Italian recipes I would buy a modern Italian cookbook. There are many. The whole point is that it's Martinotti's cookbook. The reader with an interest in historical cooking would have been much happier had you turned your significant talents and impressive learning to giving examples that would allow one to create food in the style and tastes of the time. Likewise, if a recipe has remained unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years why provide it instead of guiding the reader through the difficult parts of dishes with which he or she would not be familiar? We know how "air fritters", marzipan and sage fritters are made. As the authors crow, there has been no change over the centuries. It seems a waste to dedicate pages to these when there are so many dishes that are mysteries, truly novel and difficult to decipher.
There is also the question of measures. I count three different possibilities for the "libra". There is the Ancient Roman libra, the old French livre and the libra mercatoria. Martinotti could be referring to any of them given his background. They all represent different amounts. Some guidance as to which the writers thought was meant or at least a recognition that there is some ambiguity would have been welcome.
In short, the translation itself is a great service to the cook who wishes to delve into history. The modernized recipes often do little but confuse the issue and frustrate those who are looking for Martinotti's cookbook rather than Parzen's.
The text from Maestro Martino himself is translated by Jeremy Parzen, a food historian and musician (I will wager that his musical speciality is the Renaissance). Fifty modern versions of Maestro Martino's recipes are interpreted by Stefania Barzini, a Roman food historian and journalist for Italy's National Food Channel (Shades of Molto Mario). The Introduction, endnotes, and textual editing are done by Luigi Ballerini, a poet, translator, scholar, and instructor of medieval and modern Italian at the University of California.
By far the most engaging part of this volume is the introduction that chronicles Maestro Martino's career and his times in Renaissance Italy. Allowing for the rather dryly scholarly presentation, this often reads like a pitch for a cinematic costume drama starring Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn, with the evil cardinal played by Orson Wells or Sydney Greenstreet. All this steps right out of the pages of Machiavelli's `The Prince'. So much so that Machiavelli even shows up as a character in the story of Martino's career. As a journeyman scholar, I can attest to the fact that the story is thoroughly documented so that anyone wishing to pick up where these authors left off will find plenty of material to establish a starting point.
From a culinary point of view, the most interesting facts spelled out by the introduction show that modern trends in decorative plating are a faint shadow of the kinds of extravagances created by chefs to the princes of the Italian city states and the cardinals, the princes of the church, who were often as wealthy as their secular brethren. The most important contribution of Maestro Martino appears to be the introduction of vegetables from the peasants' cuisine into the meat laden dining of the nobility. This confirms all the talk from experts of contemporary Italian cuisine that this is based heavily on the food of poverty, but it does not refute the very important observation by Paula Wolfert that one of the requirements for the rise of a great cuisine is a nobility and the corps of chefs enlisted to serve them. A secondary contribution of Maestro Martino is the extent to which he standardized culinary terminology in Italy. This was an era in which no dialect on the Italian peninsula was dominant. It was hardly a few hundred years after the publication of Dante's Divine Comedy and Boccaccio's Decameron and the invention of moveable type. And, the unification of Italy was still almost 400 years off. The editor's citing this as an accomplishment reaffirms my concerns when I find culinary writers using the wrong term to describe certain cooking actions. This only reassures me that if words are not valued, the result is Babble.
By far the most interesting experience I have in reading the recipes is in the similarities I see in these Renaissance dishes to the Medieval fare described in `The Medieval Kitchen', written originally in French by Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi. Both books document the love the 13th to 15th century nobility had for the `cookie spices', nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and sugar. These ingredients literally show up in virtually every dish. No wonder there was such an interest in finding a way to get these little darlings more cheaply. One can almost hear the echos when we read of Sicilian cooks and recipes which like to add nutmeg to their greens. This practice is not only hundreds of years old, it is `home grown' and not as much an influence from the Saracens as one may think. And, Maestro Martino's introducing local vegetables may have been one of the things which changed tastes away from Asian spices, although I suspect their rarity and the arrival of New World ingredients had a lot to do with this trend as well.
As a source of no more than fifty recipes written so that a modern cook can follow them, this book will not be a very good practical cookbook, especially since the dishes will tend to be either too sweet or too tart for modern tastes. The modernized recipes really are best taken as a means of understanding the connection between Renaissance dishes and their modern equivalents. The only thing I would suggest to the scholars who gave us this really fascinating volume is that pairing the original recipe texts with the modern interpretation would have done much to show us what the original author said versus the modern interpretation of his recipe. I also missed a good recipe or explanation for `verjuice' which the Larousse Gastronomique describes as a sour extraction from grapes; very similar to the wine vinegars we use today.
This book and some of the others I have read recently really fuel my interest in reading a good history of gastronomy. And, if I can't find one, this book is a totally welcome treatment of food of the nobility in Renaissance Italy.
Highly recommended for anyone with scholarly interests.
I can't say I'm that impressed with the modernized versions of the recipes, but then, I'm a member of the SCA and I look for authenticity!