My Kitchen Shelf: Giuseppe Chioni’s Arte culinaria

arte_culinaria (4)After Italy’s defeat at Caporetto by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in October 1917, over three hundred thousand Italian soldiers were taken prisoner. The Italian government and military forces, embarrassed by how easily the weaknesses of their forces near the River Piave had been exposed, were quick to find scapegoats. The POWs, stamped as deserters, were made to take the blame for their country’s defeat by the Central Powers. Scattered in lager across Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italian authorities made a point of not sending food parcels to their captured compatriots. Subsisting on desperately meagre rations, the mortality rate of Italian soldiers in captivity was even higher than it was on the frontlines. One in six prisoners died, often from hunger-related diseases.

The captured soldiers’ inevitable response to the enforced inactivity and starvation was to talk about food. “Little by little, hunger became a kind of delirium: we talked of nothing but eating, and waited only for the moment when the miserable bowl of slops was distributed,” wrote the POW Giovanni Procacci in his memoirs. At some point, the Genoese Second Lieutenant Giuseppe Chioni, interned in the officers-only camp of Celle, near Hannover, felt compelled to alleviate the hunger and physical hardship he and his fellow prisoners were enduring by compiling a recipe compendium called Arte culinaria  (‘Culinary Art’). In his preface, written on the lined paper of a flip-pad, Chioni writes of “the metamorphosis that has turned us from warriors to cooks”:

Long periods of fasting force us to stay curled up so that the cramps of hunger feel less strong, and to remain motionless for whole days so as to waste less energy. Bear this in mind, and it will seem natural that, in our need for the home hearth, each of us has remembered the exquisite meals and appetising sauces prepared by the delicate and caring hands of a far distant mother or wife.

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That unassuming flip-pad, now stored in L’Archivio storico della Provincia di Genova,  was probably the most geographically representative Italian cookbook that had ever been written. As we saw in the first edition of My Kitchen Shelf, Pellegrino Artusi’s culinary map of the young nation in 1891 was distorted in favour of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, the regions the eccentric bachelor from Forlimpopoli knew best. Many other places were overlooked or given tokenistic treatment in Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Chioni, however, transcribed the recipes of comrades hailing from regions all along the peninsula and its islands in Arte culinaria.

An enormous amount of thought went into Chioni’s prison-penned manuscript. Containing over 400 recipes, it is divided into eleven sections: antipasti, sauces, soups and pastas, pizzas, fish, meat and game, omelettes and eggs, polenta, bread, vegetables, and beans, sweets and jams. Each section commences with a title page featuring an illustration of the foods in question. Poignantly inexpert drawings of a fish, a squid and a skillet for frying accompany the Fish section, for instance. The recipes, ranging from Piedmont’s bagna cauda to Sicily’s cannoli, are recalled with care and longing. Only a handful, such as a Zuppa stravagante (“Extravagant Soup”) containing lard, pancetta and ham, seem to be the hallucinatory stuff of dreams of starving men.

Chioni’s recreation of an Italian Land of Plenty also provides us with clues to the evolution of many traditional Italian dishes. Surprisingly enough, the sauces ragu alla bolognese and pesto alla genovese, often subject to futile attempts at codification these days, appear to have been prepared in way that would have today’s culinary purists raise their eyebrows. The ingredients list for Bologna’s most famous export, for example, includes veal, mortadella and ham which are to be fried in butter. Absolutely no mention of pancetta, carrot, celery, onion, tomato, white wine, milk, broth, olive oil – all ingredients held to be ‘authentic’ by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina – is made. The pasta it is be served with, held to be tagliatelle (never spaghetti!) these days, is not specified either. As for pesto alla genovese, here is how Giuseppe Chioni, a native of the port city, would have prepared it:

Pesto alla Genovese. Basil, garlic, parsley, a little onion, marjoram, spices, Sardinian pecorino cheese. Grind everything in the mortar and reduce it to a pulp. To use, add raw oil.

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The manuscript is also remarkable for its inclusivity. Artusi, in contrast, made no attempt to disguise any biases or value judgements he held about certain preparations in Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Cooking Well, especially those he held to be unrefined or not belonging to ‘the comfortable classes’. Curiously enough, one of those ‘unrefined’ dishes was pollo in porchetta, a dish featuring an ingredient – a whole spit-roasted chicken stuffed with ham – that the majority of Italy’s mostly peasant and sharecropping population would have probably only dreamed about eating at the time! The officers, on the other hand, included the rich, meat-laden dishes that only the well-off would have been able to afford as well as humbler fare such as polenta, legume and vegetable-based preparations. Any trace of snobbery regarding food from the home hearth had vanished with the officers’ hunger.

You can’t help but imagine the officers’ conversations either. For Chioni and his fellow prisoners, this was probably the first time they had come into contact with the many different dialects and accents from their young nation. It is amusing, for instance, to see how Chioni has recorded the recipe for spaghetti alla amatriciana, a Roman primo made with tomatoes and guanciale (‘jowl bacon’). The ingredients and method are all correct but he’s transcribed the dish as spaghetti alla madrigiana. To Chioni’s northern Italian ears, that was probably how the dish’s name sounded when pronounced by one of his presumably Roman comrades. Chioni, however, made a faithful record of the country’s ‘anchovy’ divide. Southern recipes which include these fish call for alici while the word acciughe features in northern and central Italian anchovy-based preparations.

Writing about Italy’s gastronomy sustained Chioni until the armistice of November 1918. He then returned to Genoa, got married and returned to his previous occupation as a deputy stationmaster. In 1959, he died at the age of 64. His handwritten opus was kept secret for two generations, until its contents came to the attention of his granddaughter, Roberta Chioni, the Archivio storico della Provincia di Genova and the historians Fabio Caffarena and John Dickie. In 2008, alongside another World War I recipe book penned by the Sicilian POW Giosuè Fiorentino, Arte culinaria was finally published in the Italian-language volume La fame e la memoria: ricettari della Grande Guerra. It is my hope that Chioni’s recipe compendium, one of the most remarkable and moving documents in Italian culinary history, will one day be available in English and other languages too.

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Sources and suggestions for further reading:

Pellegrino Artusi, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well

Giuseppe Chioni e Giosuè Fiorentino, La fame e la memoria: ricettari della Grande Guerra

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food

Massimo Montanari, Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or Food and the Nation

Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

Nicholas Walton, Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower 

 

 

 

 

Homemade Almond Milk

homemade_almond_milk-12No, I haven’t suddenly realised the errors of my ways after advocating the consumption of offal in my previous post and gone vegan or dairy-free. My motto is, and always will be, all foods are fine (unless you have a valid health reason obviously!) in moderation. Basically, it’s another case of intending to post about something (in this case, a Sicilian dessert) which calls for this plant-based milk and then realising this milk itself deserves its own post. An aromatic and satisfying drink, almond milk also has a long and interesting history as a cooking staple.

Unlike today, medieval and Renaissance cooks rarely relied on animal milk due to its short shelf-life, particularly in warmer climates. Milk merchants had a reputation for spoiling their wares and diluting their product with water. Only the freshly milked white liquid from a cow was trusted. Lenten dietary injunctions against animal-derived products, moreover, meant that consumption of animal-based milks were forbidden for a good part of the year. All Fridays, the forty day period of Lent and other important days of religious observance were designated as giorni di magro or ‘lean’ days. Almond milk, less perishable than animal milk, was therefore an important kitchen staple during this period. The white liquid  extracted from prunus amygdalus was used to make soups, butter and cheeses. Bartolomeo Scappi, secret cook to Pope Pius IV, devoted the third book of his 1570 cookery compendium Opera to ‘Dishes Proper for Lean and Lenten days’. Several of his lean day preparations include almond milk. Here is his recipe for mock ricotta:

Get two pounds of almonds, shelled in cold water; they should have soaked for twelve hours.  Grind them in a mortar, moistening them in reduced pike broth so that what is ground becomes like milk. Put that through a strainer, adding it to three ounces of finely ground sugar, three ounces of flour starch and four ounces of rosewater. Put it into a casserole pot with salt and cook it, stirring constantly with a spoon until it thickens. When it is firm, take it out. Splash a ricotta mould with rosewater and put the almond mixture into it. Leave it in a cool place until it is quite cold. Then serve it garnished with sugar and flowers on top.[i]

Scappi added flour starch, a thickener and not a coagulant, such as rennet, vinegar or lemon juice, to his almond milk. So, technically speaking, this ricotta is really a set dessert or pudding made to look like the aforementioned whey cheese.

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These days, almond milk is the key ingredient in a Sicilian pudding I’m quite fond of, biancomangiare.  This concoction, meaning ‘white food’, appears to have originated in medieval monasteries. Its ancestor dish, which was popular with convalescing aristocrats and people on the pilgrim route all over Europe, was made with a typically of the time agrodolce or sweet-sour mix of almonds or almond milk, shredded capon or chicken breasts, spices and sugar. After the Renaissance, Italian and other European aristocrats’ enthusiasm for liberally adding sugar and spices to otherwise savoury foods waned. The contemporary version is completely sweet and is generally made with almond milk, cream[ii] and sugar thickened with cornstarch or gelatin.

I never ended up making biancomangiare. After an almost twenty-four hour period of soaking almonds, removing their skins, grinding, pureeing and finally, filtering, I was curious to try the fruits of my labours. I poured the resulting milk into a glass. It was more watery than the full cream cow’s milk I’m used to drinking.  It had body though and the drupe’s[iii] distinct aroma.  I kept refilling my glass until I no longer had enough of the restorative liquid for making the silken white pudding I had been so keen to try. I’ve made almond milk at least five times for purely drinking purposes since.

Italian supermarkets and health food shops are full of cartons of ready-made almond milk. Here, there are also condensed syrups, powders and pastes for making latte di mandorla. In theory, they make the soaking, blanching and all the other hard work involved obsolete. I‘m certain though you’ll be more satisfied with the results when preparing the almonds yourself. Not only will you understand the principles behind the extraction process better, you’ll also know exactly what ingredients have been put in it. Those almond milk cartons and pre–prepared mixes often contain sugar (I prefer my milk unsweetened) and unnecessary additives. I won’t lie, you’ll need to plan ahead when making your own almond milk from scratch. After soaking the almonds overnight, set aside at least an hour to remove their wrinkled skins. Maybe you could enlist another set of nimble fingers for this rather slippery and painstaking task too!  You’ll also need a muslin cheesecloth, a nut milk bag or a very fine mesh sieve for filtering the almond puree.

The following method for preparing almond milk was adapted from the Italian eco-food blogger Lisa Casali’s book Autoproduzione in cucina. Please note that the quantities of water (1 litre) and almonds (300 grams) I’ve indicated are changeable. For this reason, it’s not a strict recipe. It’s the method that counts! If you prefer a watery milk, simply decrease the amount of almonds or add more water. Want a denser and richer milk? Add more almonds or lessen the amount of water. You could also add 3-4 bitter almonds or apricot kernels[iv] to your mixture for extra flavour. Don’t add any more though as they naturally contain trace amounts of cyanide and consuming them raw in large quantities is poisonous.

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Ingredients (makes about 1 litre of almond milk)

  • 300 g almonds
  • 3-4 bitter almonds or apricot kernels (optional)
  • 1 L cold water

Method

Soak almonds and (if using) apricot kernels in cold water overnight. Remove skins from almonds and lay them on a clean tea towel to dry. Grind almonds in a food processor while adding water in a steady stream until you get a puree. Leave almond puree in refrigerator to infuse for 2-3 hours. Line a colander with several layers of muslin cheesecloth and pour the puree through the lined colander. Using the back of a large spoon, press the pulp[v] that has accumulated inside the colander to extract as much liquid as possible.  Transfer milk to a bottle, cover and store in refrigerator. Best consumed within three days.

[i] Extract from Terrence Scully’s 2008 translation of The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): The Art and Craft of a Master Cook

[ii] Some versions use almond milk exclusively though.

[iii] Almonds are actually a drupe and not a true nut. They belong to the prunus genus like cherries, peaches and apricots.

[iv] In Italy, these are used to make the liqueur Amaretto and in amaretti biscuits.

[v] Don’t throw away that pulp! Here’s a link to a recipe from our friend Pellegrino Artusi for making sure it does not go to waste.

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