Book: Popes, Peasants and Shepherds: Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio, by Oretta Zannini DeVita and translated by Maureen B. Font. (New March 26, 1913)
At least half the fun of travel is experiencing delicious new foods, as Brette Sember, our food travel expert frequently reminds us. Besides collecting the recipes for the meals served in today’s homes and restaurants, it can be so fascinating to ponder how the distinctive cuisines of various countries and regions came about.
Does the Italian food we’re eating in Rome have ancient roots harking back to the Romans? Or did it come about more recently for prosaic reasons like transportation or types of tourists? The new book, Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds, focuses in on the cultural history of everything food-related in one small region.
Oretta Zannini DeVita and her excellent, witty translator, Maureen B. Font, explore the growing of Italian food, fairs and festivals, laws about food, the origins of what we think of as Italian cuisine today and much more. We learn about the food guilds, called Universities (eg. The University of the Fisherman), what various Popes liked to eat and why the Italians love so many bits of the animal that we may shy away from entirely.
More than half the book is dedicated to Italian food recipes, some with very ancient roots. But Popes, Peasants and Shepherds is not to be confused with your everyday cookbook. Many people will be happier just reading the recipes as part of the exploration of the history of how food is regarded and prepared in the central area of Italy, than actually purging an eel in wine or skinning the spinal chord of a lamb.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely plenty of ideas here I’ll try in my own kitchen–various pastas, delightful desserts, several things to do with your garden’s endless output of zucchini. But the approach is hard core traditional–not bending to your Joy of Cooking standards of detailed ‘how-to’ instructions with helpful hints about possible substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients. As the translator explains, this author is unbending about substitutions. If you don’t use the original ingredient, it is not the same dish. And this collection of recipes are traditional–not trendy.
While translators tend to be invisible–hidden behind a curtain of words…Maureen B. Font obviously was a close partner in the development of the book. Her translator’s preface is not to be skipped as she elucidates Zannini DeVita’s approach. She says, “Oretta writes for educated Italians in a spirited and lighthearted way. “
While the footnotes may be brief, she says, and I agree, they “could be jumping off points for explorations in Latin and Italian literature, history, political theory, geography, sociology, urban planning, and agronomy. Oretta touches all these subjects, and more.”
About the recipes, translator Font describes cooks of Italian food as “freewheeling” and says, whether you are reading the metric or English equivalent, “Both sets of measurements are to be taken as meaning ‘about what you would use if (ha ha) you actually measured.”
Another point on which the author refused to bend involves how much salt to use. “Evidently, if we have to ask, we’re probably not ready to be alone in the kitchen.”
Even just flipping through the recipes, you’ll notice some interesting cultural differences from what you thought you knew about Italian cooking. When the olive oil is called for, the recipe specifies, “intensely fruity,” “medium fruity,” “lightly fruity,” “extra virgin,” and other variants. It reminded me of a meal in Le Marche where the waiter ceremoniously brought three olive oils to the table and described each in detail and gave us tastes–a sommelier of olive oil, as it were.
As for the traveler planning a trip to Italy, Popes, Peasants and Shepherds may just tempt you to resist the usual route of skipping from Rome to Florence or Venice while you explore the less touristy and very authentic Italian countryside, or seek out special Italian food festivals. Both the “Recipes and Lore” will lure you to the area.
Sorry, readers, this one will not be given away. It is a keeper for my own kitchen.
(Note: All pictures used here belong to me. Please respect my copyright. The publisher provided a review copy of the book, which does not influence my opinion. I only share books I think you will like. Which is why I include links to Amazon in case you shop on line. Check out your local Independent bookstore if possible, but if you are shopping at Amazon, support A Traveler’s Library by using our links. Thanks.)