About the Author
Elizabeth Romer was born in Wales, went to the Royal College of Art and lived for many years with her husband in Egypt. In 1972, Elizabeth Romer and her husband bought a farmhouse in Tuscany, near Arezzo, where she wrote her first book, The Tuscan Year (1984), describing the daily lives and cuisine of her farmer neighbours.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
FINDING BEPPINA I came upon the above-mentioned collection of nineteenth- to early twentieth-century recipes in 1990, while on a walk from my apartment at the summit of the old city of Arezzo down through the Via Madonna del Prato, which skirts the church of San Francesco. At the time, this narrow lane, edged by the massive church and silent palazzi, had a few small food shops which served the quarter. A bread shop sold saltless Tuscan bread, home-made grissini flecked with sesame seeds, hard almond biscuits stored in glass jars, and little else. Further down the lane was a seed shop that also dealt in pulses; coarse hessian sacks of dried beans, peas and lentils filled the windows. Next to that was a greengrocer, his wares piled onto orange crates from Sicily. In winter, cardoons were hung like heraldic devices from the iron brand holders driven into the stone façade of the shop, iron rings that once held blackened oily flares to light the concealing shadows of the street. His shop was usually full of talkative housewives who came twice a day to buy fresh vegetables, the odori for the sugo, or seasonal fruit, always sufficient for just one meal. Twenty one years later, however, in 2011, perturbing statistics gathered by Censis (Italian Centre for Social Investment Studies) and Coldiretti announced that roughly 60 percent of Italians – and 60 percent of those female – shopped for food once a week, 27 percent daily and 10 percent once a month. The habits of society were changing. Today, a simple greengrocery has become a rarity in the centro storico of Arezzo, and now some of the shops in the lane are specialist purveyors of fine ice cream, clothes, flowers, and perfume. Close to the now long-vanished store that dealt in seeds and pulses there was a small antique shop. The window was full of pretty oddments, Stile Liberty china, Venetian glass, small pieces of silver. Inside, the fifteenth-century vaulted room was lined with bookshelves, because its owner was mainly a dealer in antiquarian books. That evening I stepped into the shop to escape the cold and to enquire if there were any old cookery books for sale. I was shown a copy of the fifth edition of La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) by Pellegrino Artusi, which was first published in 1891, thirty years after the Unification of Italy. The fifth edition published in 1900, with 35 new recipes, brought the number of printed copies of Artusi’s book to 10,000. Copies of the first edition of Artusi are extremely rare and those of later editions printed in his lifetime not commonly found – this for the simple reason that cookery books such as this were consulted in the kitchen and have been consumed by time and handling. Between the index and the back cover of the volume lay something of exceptional interest, a bundle of papers covered in copperplate handwriting. I established later that these were recipes which had been collected by the original owner of the Artusi edition, a woman called Beppina, probably a diminutive of Giuseppina – Josephine. Beppina, then, was one of the thousands of Italians who, by the turn of the nineteenth century, in a climate of an ardent middle-class interest in domestic cookery, had bought a copy of this influential work. Here in my hands I had a microcosm of Aretine middle-class culinary taste at a very particular period of time.