Saturday, April 6, 2013

Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds

The University of California Press recently republished Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds – Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio (2013) by the great Italian food historian Oretta Zanini De Vita and translated by Maureen B. Fant. This book, originally published in 1994 in both English and Italian by Alphabyte Books, explores the Eternal City and its region’s gastronomic history and character. Although not cookbooks, both the original and the reworked and expanded editions include traditional regional recipes—nearly 250 recipes in the latest version—that compliment the author’s research. Like Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta (2009), Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds will sate both scholars and lay readers interested in the food of Rome.

In Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds, Zanini De Vita explores the social history and geography that define cucina romanesca. Chapters include: The Agrarian Landscape of the Campagna Romana; The Tiber and Fish in Popular Cooking; Water and Aqueducts; Mills on the Tiber: Bread and Pasta in Rome; The Jewish Kitchen of the Roman Ghetto; The Papal Table; Hollywood on the Tiber; and Coastal Lazio and the Sea. The original version of the work interspersed recipes throughout its chapters; the revised edition collects all of the recipes in the book’s second half. These recipes fall into six categories: Primi piatti (First Courses); Secondi piatti (Main Dishes); Verdure e legumi (Vegetables and Legumes); Sfizi (Savories); Condimenti (Sauces and Condiments); and Dolci (Sweets).

Regular readers of A Serious Bunburyist might expect me to dive right into Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds’ pasta offerings, but first permit me to briefly digress. One of the many pleasures of Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds is Fant’s introduction to the book’s recipes entitled Thoughts on the Interpretation of Italian Recipes. As someone new to translating, I found her two-page discourse useful and entertaining. Consider this excerpt:

The verbs of Italian recipes can be delightful—you accommodate the fish in a pan, you moisten or bathe with wine—but, after a flirtation with this colorful vocabulary, I reverted to the prosaic “put” and “add.” I felt enough was being left to the imagination without having to worry about making the fish comfortable.

So now on to the pasta. Zanini De Vita supplies 28 recipes. Although all are traditional, none of these recipes would feel terribly out of place on today’s modern table. That said, if you want to make Rigatoni con la “pajata” (Rigatoni with Veal Intestines) you might have some trouble finding pajata, the “Roman name for the first section of the intestine of the milk-fed calf, used with its chyme.” Instead, you might consider another straightforward and simple recipe. One of my favorites is Spaghetti al pomodoro con le alici (Spaghetti with Tomatoes and Anchovies). This recipe serves 4.

2 garlic cloves
¾-inch (2-cm) piece dried chile
4 tablespoons intensely fruity extra-virgin olive oil
4 salt-packed anchovies
9 ounces (250 g) canned tomatoes
14 ounces (400 g) spaghetti

Crush the garlic cloves and put them in a skillet with the chile and oil. Sauté over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Add the anchovies and cook until they are completely dissolved. Now add the tomatoes and cook the sauce over a lively flame for about 20 minutes, mashing the tomatoes with a folk as needed to break them up. Discard the garlic and chile.

Drop the spaghetti into about 4 quarts (4 liters) boiling salted water. When al dente, drain, transfer to a warmed serving bowl, and toss with the sauce. Serve immediately.

In addition to its recipes, Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds also contains an excellent Glossary of Terms and Ingredients. Its anchovy entry explains how to prepare the salt-packed version for cooking: “rinse off all the salt and divide the fish (which will be headless) into two fillets, discarding the skeleton.” No need to be afraid of salt-packed anchovies ever again.

Warm thanks to the University of California Press for continuing to present Oretta Zanini De Vita’s work to an appreciative English-speaking audience. Happily, the Press plans to follow up Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds with the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Italian Pasta Sauces. I can scarcely recall the last time I heard such exciting news!