Monday, March 5, 2012

Author and food writer Carol Field is a well known name among Italophiles. If you are someone who is just beginning to be beguiled by Italy, someone who has not yet read all the essential books in an Italian library, you will soon discover Field. But right now is a good time to start getting acquainted with her as Ten Speed Press recently published an updated and illustrated edition of her masterpiece, The Italian Baker.

I've been a huge fan of the first edition of this book, published in 1985 by Harper Collins, and I don't even bake bread, let alone bread sticks, pizza, panforte, panettone, or pandoro. (I do, however, make a lot of soup, and Field's version of the classic Tuscan soup, Ribollita, is to my mind the best one in existence -- though curiously, in the new editon, the recipe is called Minestrone Toscana even though it appears to be identical -- and her version of Tiramisu is without rival -- the key is that it's not made with ladyfingers but with chocolate pan di Spagna.) As I have often stated in my books, really good cookbooks are far more than collections of recipes: they're great resources for learning about language, culture, and history, as well as resources for learning about the foods you'll encounter on your trip. As Fred Plotkin, author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler opines, "anyone who really, truly cares about Italy must read The Italian Baker." Additionally, if you love some of the culinary specialties you tried in Italy, you might be inspired to make them at home - to me, nothing is a better souvenir of a place than a culinary one. After I tried delicious Ricciarelli in Siena, I couldn't wait to make them at home, and Field's recipe here is a winner, as are recipes for Zaletti (those raisin cornmeal cookies from Venice), Baci di Dama (lady's kisses that I first tried in Milano), and Biscotti di Crusca (bran cookies spiked with rum).

"Bread," Field writes, "is such a basic part of life in Italy that every restaurant automatically sets it on the table and imposes a cover charge (coperto) to cover its cost. Almost every street in Italy's large and middle-sized cities seems to have at least one panificio (bakery) and pasticceria (pastry shop), and even tiny towns without bread ovens have a grocery store where bread is delivered warm in the mornings." It is significant then, and not surprising, that there are a great many Italian expressions featuring the word pane. Among my favorites that Field shares are Buono come il pane (as good as bread, said of a big-hearted, down-to-earth person); Dire pane al pane e vino al vino (to call bread bread and wine wine; to call a spade a spade); and Essere pan e cacio (to be like bread and cheese with someone; to be thick as thieves).

Field informs us that every day in Italy more than 25,000 artisan bakers rise early to knead their doughs and shape their loaves. "Knowing the story and tastes of the regional breads that come out of these ovens is like taking a trip through the Italian countryside. Saving and honoring them is like preserving the stone villages on the hillsides or their churches and frescoes, for saving the taste of the past keeps it alive in the present."

The Italian Baker was the recipient of an IACP award in 1986. Her other cookbooks include In Nonna's Kitchen (Morrow, 1997), Focaccia (Chronicle Books, 1994), and Italy in Small Bites (Harper Collins, 2004), which are also great reads and feature some wonderful recipes you'll want to make. But Celebrating Italy: The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods (Harper Perennial, 1997) is one of her earlier books I consider essenziale, as well as The Hill Towns of Italy (Chronicle Books, 1997, with photographs by Richard Kauffman), which is a bit misnamed because the hill towns featured are exclusively in Tuscany and Umbria. But no matter: this book is lovely, and Field proves she knows much more about Italy than just its cuisine. As I note in my own book, Kauffman's photos are among the most unique I've ever seen of these much-photographed regions. He admits that he is a romantic, delighting in the past, "in the picturesqueness of a vanishing (or a vanished) civilization...With my camera, I avoid the roofs bristling with television antennas, the piazzas filled with Fiats (no easy task), and I strive to re-create, as best I can, the hill towns I saw some thirty years ago."

If you're already a Carol Field fan, you know I'm preaching to the choir; and if you're not yet, start reading one of her books -- The Italian Baker is a good one with which to begin -- and join the fan club!

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