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.


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 





My Kitchen Shelf: Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well

pellegrino_artusi5Ever since I got serious about researching Italian food, I’ve found that there’s a book that, well, refuses to be left to collect dust on my kitchen shelf – Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Since its publication in 1891, this book has become one of, if not THE go-to-source for Italian home and professional cooks.  I’ve always found the story behind the book, not to mention its eccentric author, just far too interesting. I’d therefore like to start my new series of My Kitchen Shelf posts about the Italian recipe compendium that has become one of my favourite stovetop companions.

Pellegrino Artusi was born into a wealthy merchant family in the Romagnol town of Forlimpopoli  in 1820. Educated in a seminary school in the neighbouring town of Bertinoro, he spent his twenties living in Bologna where he frequented many student circles (it’s not clear if he actually attended the university there). In 1850, he returned to his hometown  to take over his father’s business. His family’s lives, however, were changed forever the following year after a group of bandits lead by the notorious outlaw, il Passatore (“the Ferryman”), took all of the town’s wealthy families hostage in the town theatre. The bandits pistol-whipped Artusi, stole as much as they could and raped several women, including Artusi’s sister, Gertrude. She never recovered and was later sent to an asylum in Pesaro. Haunted by the attack, the family moved to Florence where,  Artusi, now considered the head of the family, worked as a textiles merchant. He travelled widely, with his commercial interests taking him to cities such as Naples, Rome, Padua, Milan and Turin. Unlike most of his compatriots, he got to know the territory of the Italian peninsula well.

In 1870, Artusi was able to retire comfortably and live off his family’s inheritance. This left him time to dedicate to hobbies such as literature. He spent a lot of time pottering around libraries and wrote two largely unnoticed books about the poets Ugo Foscolo and  Giuseppe Giusti.  In 1891, after completing his compendium of 475 ‘scientifically-tested’ recipes, he was told it had no future by a literary scholar acquaintance and several Florentine publishing houses.  Undeterred, he printed a thousand copies of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Cooking Well at his own expense. The book failed to make any impact until Artusi sent a copy to the celebrity anthropology professor, Paolo Mantegazza. The professor immediately recognised the merits of Artusi’s opus and endorsed it in his lectures. By 1910, the initial 475 recipes had been expanded to 790 in its 14th edition.  After his death in 1911, it continued to be a bestseller and a kitchen companion in literate households across the country. It truly was ‘a Cinderella story’, as Artusi calls it in the preface to his book.

So, why did a cookbook dedicated to the mutton-chop sideburned author’s white cats become the most influential in Italian history? Basically, Artusi’s cookbook was the first since Italian unification in 1861 to provide his audience with a template for a national gastronomic identity. Up until then, French-influenced cookery dominated recipe books, reflecting the Italian nobility’s preference for the cuisine of its transalpine neighbour. Recipe books  were often written in French by professional French-trained chefs.  Artusi’s recipe sources, on the other hand, were generally literate housewives from various parts of the country who corresponded with him. His sober yet genteel approach to cookery appealed to the small but emerging Italian urban middle class at the turn of the twentieth century.

His book also became popular because it was written in an Italian that his middle class readers were beginning to understand, read and write in. In 1861, a mere 2.5% of the population spoke what we now know as being standard Italian. In fact, several historians argue that Artusi did more to contribute to the unification of Italy, at least in linguistic terms, than anyone else. He rejected the previously in vogue French cookery terms in favour of Tuscan ones such as cotoletta (cutlet), tritacarne (meatmincer) and mestolo (ladle), terms Italians continue to use to this day.

The book is not without its faults.   Artusi’s instructions about quantities, temperatures, preparation methods and cooking times are often vague. As a result, readers may find his recipes difficult to follow. Like other upper-middle class gentlemen at the time, Artusi himself was highly unlikely to have gotten his hands dirty in the kitchen. That task fell to his faithful servants, Marietta Sabatini and Francesco Ruffili , who painstakingly worked on all the recipes that eventually made it into his seminal publication. The imprecision in his recipes may well reflect his lack of hands-on cooking knowledge.

Artusi’s map of Italy’s foods has also been described as distorted, with Tuscany, Romagna and Bologna (the regions and city Artusi knew best) being overrepresented. A cursory glance at his recipe compendium confirms that Sicily only gets token treatment and there is virtually nothing to represent Sardinia and the Mezzogiorno south of Naples. When he does document dishes outside Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna he is not shy either about disguising his biases against certain local culinary specialties. For instance, he dismisses  Neapolitan maccheroni as being appealing only to people who like ‘swimming in tomato sauce’.

Moreover, Artusi made it quite clear that his book was addressed to the ‘comfortably-off classes’ and this shows in the many meat-laden dishes he writes about. In the late 19th century, Italy had a very  low rate of meat consumption at barely 16 kilos per capita per year. Compare this figure with  40 in Germany, 55 in the United States and 58 in the United Kingdom. Much of the population subsisted on a poorly balanced diet. His narrow class outlook and apparent indifference to the undernourished rural poor have therefore been criticised too.

Few, however, would dispute the personal charm of the man. A true eccentric, Artusi had no qualms about wearing his huge mutton-chop whiskers, frock coat and top hat long after they had gone out of fashion. His book is peppered with witty, self-deprecating jokes and a refusal to take himself and the cookbook genre too seriously. ‘Beware of books that treat this subject,’ he jokingly warns his readers in the book’s  preface. An engaging narrative, amusing anecdotes and historical tidbits more than make up for the apparent lack in precision in his recipes.

Artusi was generous too.  A life-long bachelor, he left the bulk of his estate to fund a home for Forlimpopoli’s poorest inhabitants after his death in 1911.  Future book royalties went to Marietta and Francesco, his servants.  It’s easy, in short, to forgive him for the slants and oversights in his work.

Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well isn’t necessarily a record of what the majority of the Italian population was eating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be best, therefore, to describe it as a reflection of what people aspired to eat during that period. There’s no denying though, that Artusi – in his own conservative way – revolutionised the cookbook genre in Italy. His book provided the young nation with a template for a national cuisine and a language of food and cookery terms to communicate in. He was also instrumental in giving a voice to the previously hidden culinary knowledge of women and home cooks. Female writers such as Ada Boni would eventually come to dominate the cookbook genre in Italy in the 1920s and 30s largely thanks to his transmission of his female readers’ culinary know-how.  Italians have a lot to thank him for. Stay tuned in the next month as I share a couple of recipes from this monumental Italian cookbook.

Sources and suggestions for further reading:

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

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

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

Karima Moyer-Nocchi, Chewing the Fat: an Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita

Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

I also came across this youtube clip entitled Pellegrino Artusi. L’unità d’Italia in cucina. It features interviews with historians Alberto Capatti and  Massimo Montanari and chef patron of Modena’s Osteria Francescana Massimo Bottura on the significance of Artusi. There are subtitles in English!