Long before Jamie Oliver there was Pellegrino Artusi.

Long before Jamie Oliver there was Pellegrino Artusi.
12 June 2016 0 Comment

Pellegrino Artusi wrote his cookbook in 1891 at the age of 71, and it very quickly became the standard in every Italian household.

Long before the celebrity cult of the chef today, along with an endless array of mostly questionable cookbooks, there lived a man more than one hundred years ago who took his keen eye, remarkable intelligence, dry wit and Italian heritage of all things associated with food and wrote one of the great cookbooks ever on Italian cooking. Pellegrino Artusi was born into affluence of sorts, in Forlimpopoli in the Emilia Romgana region of Italy, famed for great food and great cities like Bologna and Ravenna. This was an enviable start to a life that was to eventually give us “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene” or the “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” which sounds terribly dry and lifeless as a title but is truly a celebration of cooking that is both broad in the range of dishes he describes and entertaining as well.

I doubt if any of today’s celebrity chefs can boast the colorful life that Pellegrino lived. As a student he spent a lot of his time in Bologna, hanging out at the bar “Tre Re” where he met the patriot Felice Orsini. In the late 1800’s Italy was a hotbed of political and social upheaval. Pellegrino eventually took over his father’s business making a lot of money in the process. The relatively quiet town of Forlimpopoli on January 25, 1851 was turned on its head when the outlaw Stefano Pelloni (nicknamed The Shepard) and his ruthless gang overtook the place and held the entire local upper-class families hostage! The families were held hostage in the local theater, allowing the gang to rampage through town stealing at will. Tragically the bandits raped several women including Pellegrino’s sister Gertrude. She never recovered from her violation and spiraled into a black depression that eventually had the family admit her to an insane asylum.

In 1852 the family moved to Florence and whilst Pellegrino kept close connection with Forlimpopoli, he lived into old age in the Tuscan capital, single, living with his butler from his hometown and a Tuscan cook. He died in Florence at the age of 91 in 1911. His family wealth allowed him to pursue his passions for literature and cooking which conveniently evolved into his famous cookbook. The original title pays homage to his fascination for the explosion of scientific research that took place during his lifetime. It is said that he tested every recipe in his book with numerous trials and experiments. Pellegrino’s cookbook included recipes from all the different regions of Italy, a unique feature that had not been utilised before, and in doing so he is often credited for creating a truly national Italian cuisine.

A rich life lived to be sure with a great legacy and perhaps the best known and most respected recipe for minestrone every created? Pellegrino told the story himself when in the summer of 1855 he spent some time in Livorno, by the sea. An evening at a local restaurant saw him order their version of minestrone, eaten joyfully and later that evening the amateur chef retired to rooms he had rented nearby. The night was horrible, suffering terrible stomach pains which he blamed on the minestrone he had eaten earlier. He left for Florence the next day and shortly after received news that Livorno had been hit by cholera! With horror he realised it was not the minestrone he had eaten that had caused him so much discomfort but the early symptoms of that dreaded disease. He was soon working on his cooking notes out of which was born his recipe for the humble minestrone soup.

His book still is the benchmark for any fledgling chef and you won’t have to look too hard to find a copy of Pellegrino’s cookbook nearby either. It has been printed and reprinted many times and is still available today. It is a bible that includes 790 recipes from the making of simple broths to the crowning glories of stupendous deserts. I suspect Mr. Oliver is very familiar with this great work and why wouldn’t he be.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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