Friday, September 26, 2008


Eat Only the Plants That Are Proven Safe and Accurately Identified

An interesting situation has been reported in the news media, one that has caught my attention and given me real pause for thought. A British chef, Anthony Worrall Thompson has made a significant error in his recommendation of a wild plant to be used in summertime meals. His mistake has had me thinking about two very important observations: One, the common verses scientific names for various plants and Two, the source for food information that chefs pass on to their co-workers and students and ultimately in their food.

The chef misspoke

The story is that this chef in a magazine article stated that “Henbane” would make a nice addition to summertime meals. The problem is that Thompson meant to refer to the plant commonly known as “Fat Hen”. Definitely, he misspoke. “Henbane” (Hyoscyamus niger) is toxic and according to Wikapedia, “can cause hallucinations, convulsions, vomiting and in extreme cases death”.Henbane

In an article in Healthy and Organic Living magazine it is stated, “Henbane is a very toxic plant and should never be eaten. As always, check with an expert when foraging or collecting wild plants”.

One of the problems in using only common names

What Chef Thompson meant to recommend was a plant known as “Fat Hen” (Chenopodium album) which is edible. This brings me to one of the problems in using only common names and not also referencing the scientific and therefore universal name.
For instance, neither of the names “Henbane” nor “Fat Hen” meant a thing to me. But, after a little researching, I realized that I’m totally unfamiliar with “Henbane”. “Fat Hen” however, is another name for “Lamb’s Quarter” (Chenopodium album), a plant that I’ve gathered and eaten for decades.Fat Hen

So, point taken- I will reference by the Latin terms for the plant family and species as I usually do. There are so many common names in so many languages that it is not only confusing to only use them, but potentially very harmful. That is my first observation, the second, (other that a real compassion for the embarrassment that the chef must have felt) is a long hard look at my own culinary use of wild plants.

You may already know of my fondness for wild mushrooms from a previous post entitled “Mushroom Paradise” in which I was careful to properly identify my mushrooms and recommend extreme caution in their harvest.

Fortune was on my side

However, I have been given real pause to think about many other plants that I have used over the years. In particular, the wild Sweet Pea or Lathyrus ochroleucus, which although I have not eaten or tried to cook, I HAVE used the pretty little blossom as a garnish with all sorts of dishes. Never again of course, but fortune was on my side as apparently my mistake has never made anyone sick.

“Chefly” arrogance

I do remember once when catering a private party in San Francisco in the early eighties, I used the blossoms to garnish a lovely cold strawberry soup. I was even confronted by one of the guests about the safety of the flower and my source for knowing that it was safe. In my “chefly” arrogance I answered that of course it was safe and that I had used it for years. I have used it for years and but the truth is I don’t remember how or who first inspired me to use it. My bad, and although not quite the faux pas of Chef Thompson, I was very wrong and have learned a most valuable lesson.

I do love foraging around for edible wild things and was a big fan years ago of the most famous proponent of wild food, Euell Gibbons. I carried around a copy of his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” until it was worn out. I still love wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) and still gather it every spring.

It is a safe bet that in the future if I mention wild foods in this blog or elsewhere it will have proper reference and identification! Eat well and safely!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Italian Cuisine

Why is the cuisine of the Italian peninsula so rich, tasty and varied?

By Don Vito De Carolis, Avanti Savoia’s Italian Partner

Part Three: The Modern Era

During the first decade of the 17th century, chef Giangiacomo Castelvetro published Brieve Racconto di Tutte le Radici di Tutte l'Herbe et di Tutti i Frutti (A Brief Account of all Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit) which was translated into English by Gillian Riley. Originally from Modena, Castelvetro moved to England because of his Protestant background. The book included an in-depth listing of Italian vegetables and fruits as well as their preparation. The chef's preparation of vegetables featured them at times as a central part of the meal, not just accompaniments. The favored preparation (still popular in Italy today) was to simmer vegetables in salted water and serving them warm or cold with olive oil, salt, freshly ground pepper, lemon juice and verjuice or orange juice. Another preparation includes roasting vegetables wrapped in damp paper over charcoal or embers with a drizzle of olive oil, again a technique still popular today in Italy. Castelvetro's book is separated into seasons with mentions of hop shoots in the spring and truffles in the winter detailing the use of pigs to hunt truffle. New World items were not mentioned in this book as they did not become popular until the 18th century.
In 1662 Bartolomeo Stefani a Gonzagas’s chef published L'Arte di Ben Cucinare. He was the last chef to publish a book of Italian high-cuisine, but the first to offer a full section on vitto ordinario (ordinary food). The book contained a section on a banquet given by Gonzagas for Queen Christina of Sweden with details for preparation prior to the banquet, preparation of the food and table settings including each guest having a setting of a knife, fork, spoon, glass, a plate instead of bowls often used up to this point and a napkin. Other books were published at this time to illustrate how the scalco (server) should manage themselves while serving their guests. An important book to take up this topic was Galatheo by Giovanni della Casa. The book instructed waiters to not scratch their heads or other parts of themselves, not to spit, cough or sneeze while serving diners. The book also instructed diners to not use their fingers while eating as well as not wipe their sweat with their napkin.
Much of what is known as Italy today was still governed by France, Spain and Austria in the 18th century. In turn it was at the beginning of the 18th century that the culinary books of Italy began to show the regionalism of Italian cuisine in order for Italian chefs to better show the pride of their regions instead of the high cuisine of France. The books written at the time were also no longer addressed to professional chefs but to bourgeois housewives and their home cook. Originating in booklet form, periodicals such as La cuoca cremonese (The cook of Cremona) written in 1794 gives a sequence of ingredients according to season along with chapters on meat, fish and vegetables. As the century progressed these books increased in size, popularity and frequency, while the price to attain them dropped well within the reach of the general populace.
The 18th century peasant diet consisted of heavy foods. Taken more this diet gave the peasantry their own identity, as well as expressing animosity toward the high cuisine of the affluent which was more refined and delicate, Even medical texts of the time written by the elite warned peasants from eating refined foods as it was poor for their digestion and their bodies required a more substantial heavy meal to suppress their hunger. It was also thought that peasants had coarse stomachs which were unable to digest refined foods. It was also thought by some that peasants ate poorly because they had become accustomed to eating rotten foods and moldy breads to survive.

In 1779 Antonio Nebbia from Macerata, in the Marche region, wrote Il Cuoco Maceratese (The Cook of Macerata). In this book, Nebbia addressed the importance of local vegetables plus pasta and gnocchi. Instead of pureed soups in the French style, they included Mediterranean vegetables along with pasta or rice. For stocks; vegetables and chicken were favored over meat. Similarly, Vincenzo Corrado wrote Il Cuoco Galante (The Polite Cook) in Naples in 1773 which featured regional vegetables and ingredients. Particular emphasis was given to Vitto Pitagorico (vegetarian food) in his words "Pitagoric food consists of fresh herbs, roots, flowers, fruits, seeds and all that is produced in the earth for our nourishment. It is so called because Pythagoras, as is well known, only used such produce. There is no doubt that this kind of food appears to be more natural to man, and the use of meat is noxious." It was also this book that the tomato took its first central role with thirteen recipes. Zuppa alli Pomidoro first appears in Corrado's book which was the early rendition of Tuscan Pappa al Pomodoro. In Corrado's 1798 edition he introduced a "Treatise on the Potato" after the popularity of the potato of France through Antoine-Augustin Parmentier's successful promotion.
In the 19th century changes could even be noticed in the writing of chef Giovanni Vialardi, chef to the first king of Italy. In his book A Treatise of Modern Cookery and Patisserie published in Turin Vialardi wrote recipes "suitable for a modest household." Many of his recipes included regional dishes from Turin including twelve recipes for potatoes. Genoese Cappon Magro is still an integral regional dish today. Published in 1829, Il Nuovo Cuoco Milanese Economico written by Giovanni Felice Luraschi feature dishes regional to Milan including Kidney with Anchovies and Lemon and Gnocchi alla Romana, also popular to this day. Gian Battista and Giovanni Ratto published La Cucina Genovese in 1871 addressed the regional cuisine of Liguria. This book contained the first recipe for pesto. La Cucina Teorico-Pratica written by Ippolito Cavalcanti mentions the first recipe for pasta with tomatoes in his conversational tone not often seen before this time. La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), by Pellegrino Artusi, first published in 1891, is widely regarded as the canon of classic modern Italian cuisine, and its use is still widespread throughout Italy.
At the end of this long story, I want to point out that there isn’t any country in the world with such a long, and complex experience as the Italian Peninsula. For centuries it was a center of new culture, technologies, arts, wars, political experience and international trade. It is just this extraordinary combination of factors that answers the question, “Why the cuisine of the Italian peninsula so rich, varied and tasty?”
Would you like try an original recipe from the 1st century AD / 13th century AD / 17th century? Email me at and let me know.
Please join us on our blog to share your thoughts concerning my opinon regarding that the cuisine of each country is the result of their history, culture and food availability.
We also hope that you will contact us with any questions or comments concerning any of Avanti Savoia’s “Culinary Treasures from around the World”.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Italian Cuisine

Why is the cuisine of the Italian peninsula so rich, tasty and varied?
By Don Vito De Carolis, Avanti Savoia’s Italian Partner
Part Two: The Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was a period of great cultural change and achievement in Europe that spanned the period from the end of the 14th century to about 1600, marking the transition between Medieval and Early Modern Europe. The European Renaissance began in Tuscany, centered in the cities of Florence and Siena and later in Venice. The Italian Renaissance is best known for its cultural achievements.

The main trade routes from the east passed either through the Byzantine Empire or the Arab lands and then on to the ports of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Luxury goods bought in the Levant, such as spices, dyes, and silks were imported to Italy and then resold throughout Europe. The northern section of the country was far more prosperous, with the states of northern Italy among the wealthiest in Europe. The Crusades had built lasting trade links to the Levant, and the Fourth Crusade had done much to destroy the Byzantine Empire as a commercial rival to the Venetians and Genoese. Moreover, the inland city-states profited from the rich agricultural land of the Po valley. From France, Germany, and the Low Countries, land and river trade routes brought goods such as wool, wheat, and precious metals into the region. The extensive trade that stretched from Egypt to the Baltic generated substantial surpluses that allowed significant investment in mining and agriculture. Thus, while northern Italy was not richer in resources than many other parts of Europe, the level of development, stimulated by trade, allowed it to prosper. The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were also major conduits of culture and knowledge.
The city-states of Italy expanded greatly during this period and grew in power to become de facto fully independent of the Holy Roman Empire. Apart from the Kingdom of Naples, outside powers kept their armies out of Italy. During this period, the modern commercial infrastructure developed, with double-entry book-keeping, joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt. Florence became the centre of this financial industry and the gold florin became the main currency of international trade. Northern Italy was divided into a number of warring city-states, the most powerful being Milan, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Genoa, Ferrara, and Venice. The northern regions of the Italian Peninsula started to show a mix of Germanic and Roman culture while the southern portion continued to reflect the influences of Arab culture. Mediterranean cuisine had been spread by the Arabs as they controlled much of the Mediterranean trade routes.

During the 15th century Maestro Martino was chef to the Patriarch of Aquileia at the Vatican. His manuscript Libro de arte coquinaria began to illustrate a cuisine with a more refined and elegant design. In his book contains a recipe for Maccaroni Siciliani which was made by wrapping dough around a thin iron rod and dried in the sun. The macaroni was to be cooked in capon stock flavored with saffron, illustrating the Arab influence. Of particularly note is Chef Martino's shedding the use of excessive spices in favor of fresh herbs. Martino's cuisine created a methodology that respected proper selection and modes of preparation. The Roman recipes mentioned in the text includes recipes for coppiette and cabbage dishes. His Florentine dishes included eggs with a Bolognese torta, Sienese torta and for Genoese recipes such as piperata, macaroni, squash, mushrooms, and spinach pie with onions.
Martino's manuscript was included in a book printed during 1475 in Venice written by Bartolomeo Platina entitled De honesta voluptate et valetudine ("On Honest Pleasure and Good Health"). Platina puts Martino's "Libro" in cultural context reflexing different regions of Italy including the Po Valley, Liguria, Campania, Piceno, Apulia, and Sicily. He speaks of ingredients coming from various regions: perch from Lake Maggiore, sardines from Lake Garda, grayling from Adda, hens from Padua, olives from Bologna and Piceno, turbot from Ravenna, rudd from Lake Trasimeno, carrots from Viterbo, bass from Tiber, roviglioni and shad from Lake Albano, snails from Rieti, figs from Tuscolo, grapes from Narni, oil from Cassino, oranges from Naples and moray from Campania. Grains from Lombardy and Campania are also mentioned as is honey from Sicily and Taranto. The wines he mentions are from the Ligurian coast, Grecco from Tuscany and San Severino and Trebbiano from Tuscany and Piceno.
The courts of Florence, Rome, Venice and Ferrara were integral to the creation of fine cooking in Italy. The court of Estes in Ferrara was a central figure to the creation of this high-cuisine. Christoforo Messisbugo steward to Ippolito d'Este published Banchetti Composizioni di Vivande in 1549. In this work Messisbugo details banquets in the first-half of the book, in the second-half of the book contains a multitude of recipes for items such as pies and tarts (containing 124 recipes with various fillings). The work does emphasize the use of Eastern spices and sugar which was at this time otherwise beginning to diminish.
In 1570, Opera was written by Bartolomeo Scappi personal chef to Pope Pius V. This was a five volume work that encompassed the most comprehensive example of Italian cooking to that date. The work contained over 1,000 recipes, with information on banquets including displays and menus as well as illustrations of kitchen and table utensils. The difference between most books written for the royal courts and this volume, is in its appeal to “modest households". Instead of game and other luxury meats this book includes instead the more available domestic animals and courtyard birds. Instructions are also included on the cleaning and use of lesser cuts of meats including tongue, head, and shoulder. The third book contains recipes for fish, or Lent cookery. Preparations for fish are simple, including poaching, broiling, grilled, or fried after being marinated. Particular attention is given to seasons in which fish should be caught and in which location. The final volume includes pies, tarts, fritters and includes a recipe for a Neapolitan pizza. This was a sweet version of the Neapolitan pizza not the savory version known today, because tomatoes had not yet been introduced to Italy. There were recipes for corn and turkey however, which were items from the New World.
In the fifteenth-century a series of foreign invasions that would continue for several decades marked the end of the Italian Renaissance. These began with the invasion by France that wreaked widespread devastation on Northern Italy and ended the independence of many of the city-states. Most damaging was the invasion by Spanish and German troops' that sacked Rome itself.

3rd part will be on line Friday September 19th 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008

Italian Cuisine

Why is the cuisine of the Italian peninsula so rich, tasty and varied?

By Don Vito De Carolis, Avanti Savoia’s Italian Partner

Part One: Early History

During my career, I have travelled for 30 years across five continents and tasted hundreds of different ethnic cuisines. I now believe that each type of cuisine is related to three distinct elements: history, culture and the availability of various foods. I enjoy history, and have read more then a hundred books learning to appreciate the culture history of societies around the world. I’m also a fan of the arts of all kinds (sculpture, painting, music, dance, gardening, poetry, architecture, etc.) Considering all my interest and experience I have been pondering the answer to the question, “Why is the cuisine of the Italian peninsula so rich, tasty and varied”?

Italian Peninsula cuisine has evolved extensively over the centuries. Traditional Italian cuisine can claim historical roots going back as far as 7th century BC. Through various influences throughout the centuries, including the customs of neighboring regions, conquerors, high-profile chefs, political upheavals as well as famous Italian travellers such as Marco Polo and Cristopher Columbus. The “melting pot” nature of all these influences have combined to form “traditional Italian food,” known today as one of the premiere cuisines in the world.
In the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the Greeks began to imigrate to southern Italy. This included settlements in Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula. With this colonization, Greek culture and the ancient Greek cuisine was exported to Italy. The first “cookbook” was written by Archestratu,s a Greek-Sicilian. In a poem, he spoke of using “top quality and seasonal” ingredients of the freshest nature. During the 1st century AD it De re coquinaria by Apicio was published with 470 recipes. These included 75 sauces, 90 appetizers, 20 soups, and hundred of different recipes for the preparation of beef, pork, poultry, fish, vegetables and 30 different desserts. Suggestions are also given in this book to preserve food, and to make foie gras and Paté ( two Italian recipes and not French).
In the meantime, the city-state of Rome located in the geographic middle of the Italy grew to become one of the largest empires in history. In its twelve centuries of existence, Roman civilization came to dominate Western Europe and the Mediterranean region through conquest and assimilation. During this era, the Romans were bringing foods, spices and recipes home to Italy from all over their empire. The Romans employed the best Greek bakers to bake their breads, imported pecorini from Sicily, as the Sicilians were known for producing the best cheese. Romans were also produced excellent goats for butchering and mastered the cultivation of artichokes and leeks.

The end of the Roman Empire was hastened by waves of barbarian invaders, including the Huns, Vandals, Vikings, Lombards, Visigoths and Ostrogoths from northern Europe and Asia. These “barbarians’ eventually constituted an aristocracy of landowners and militaries. During this time the towns were smaller and considerably more primitive than they had been in Roman times. However, the agricultural estates of the Roman era did not disappear, but continued to produce an agricultural surplus that was sold in the towns. This time period begins the history of the middle-age Italian city-states such as Naples, Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Florence, Milan, Ravenna, Palermo, Pavia, Bari, and it was during this time that the Vatican state developed in Rome.

After the Byzantine invasion of Italy in the early 6th century, the areas in central-northern Italy was under Byzantine control. In this politically unstable situation, the Church often became the only stable institution and the only source of learning. Even the barbarians had to rely on clerics in order to administrate their conquests. Furthermore, the Catholic monastic orders, such as the Benedictines had a major role both in the economic life of the time, and in the preservation of the classical culture.
Muslim Arabs invaded Sicily during the 9th century, as most of what is known today as Northern Europe was being attacked by Viking raiders. The Arabs introduced spinach, almonds, rice and possibly even spaghetti! The first appearance of spaghetti may have been during the 12th century AD when the Viking / Norman king made a survey of Sicily. It was noted that he saw people making long strings made from flour and water called atriya, which eventually became trii, which is another term used for spaghetti in southern Italy. Normans also introduced casseroles, salt cod (baccalà) and stockfish which remain extremely popular today.
In the eighth and ninth centuries towns such as Amalfi and Venice began to prosper because of intra-Italian and international trade in goods including salt and spices. Salt from the Venetian lagoon was sold to other Italians and Italian traders extended their business to cities such as Alexandria and Constantinople. The 11th century signalled the end of the darkest period in the Middle Ages. Trade slowly picked up, especially on the seas, where the four Italian cities of Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa and Venice became major powers.
Food preservation techniques were a necessity, as refrigeration had not yet been invented. The two types of preservation were either chemical or physical. Meats and fish would be smoked, dried or kept on ice. Brine and salt were used to preserve items like pickles, herring and to cure pork meat. Root vegetables were also preserved in brine after they had been parboiled. Other means of preserving foods included oil, vinegar or immersing animal proteins in their own congealed, rendered fat. Liquor, honey and sugar were often used for preserving fruits,
Another cookbook, Liber de coquina was written in Naples and published during the 13th century. Dishes included “Roman-style” cabbage, a bean dish reflecting the Marca di Trevisio and a torta, all of which are extremely similar to dishes prepared today in Italy. In two other books from the 14th century, recipes are found for Roman pastella, Lasagna pie, and the use of salt from Sardinia or Chioggia again reflecting the culinary foundations of the different regions of Italy.

2nd part on line next Wednesday September 17th 2008