Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Unification in the Kitchen

While Italy's history stretches back a few millennia, the peninsula as a nation is rather young, having only been unified in 1861.  But shortly after the official act that formed the nation, a book helped bring the country together more surely than politics or paper-signings every could.  It wasn't a treatise or ideological discourse; it was a cookbook!

The concept of a national cuisine is even younger than the Republic.  Regionalism still abounds, providing the peninsula with loads of variety as you travel around.  The specialties of Bologna are quite different from those of Napoli, for instance, and until relatively recently, residents of those areas would have been quite unfamiliar with each others' recipes.

Nowadays, Milanese-style risotto or a meat-rich Bolognese sauce can be found in kitchens and trattorias nationwide, thanks in no small part to Pellegrino Artusi.  He's so famous only one name is necessary. Every Italian regardless of age knows immediately who you're referring to.  That's because Artusi wrote the book on Italian cooking, literally.  His cookbook, La scienza nella cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) was the first to be made available to the masses, and the first to unite regional specialties of the peninsula into one tome. 

It was also the first one to be written in Italian.  Up until Artusi, cookbooks tended to be written in French and distributed among the upper classes, or they were penned as booklets in regional dialects, focusing on the local dishes of a small, provincial area.  Cooks from Lombardia couldn't read a booklet from Sicilia, and vice versa.  His book was considered to be an excellent example of the usage of modern Italian language.

Artusi was a 71-year retired silk merchant when his book was first published in 1891, and it has been in continual circulation ever since.  He couldn't find a publisher for it, so he financed the printing himself.  After a couple of years, word spread and he was printing more and more runs.  Artusi expanded the book through the years, adding recipes that were sent to him by readers.  By the time he died in 1911, he had published its 14th edition and it had grown to a whopping 790 recipes.

Today there is hardly a household without L'Artusi; the most prized copies, with treasured hand-scrawled notes and splatters, are passed down from mother to daughter.

Pellegrino Artusi was born in the central region of Emilia-Romagna, then moved to Florence at the age of 32.  His book is very heavy on recipes from those two areas, but he did take care to include the dishes from other regions, such as ossobuco from Lombardia, riso from Veneto, maccheroni from Napoli, and sorbetto from Sicilia.  This was completely unique, and in doing so, he cracked the kitchen window to the aromas and flavors of the diverse regions of the country.

The Green Cross

Pharmacies in Italy are easily distinguished by the green cross outside their doors.  Almost always lit in neon, it's a beacon to the beleaguered who need cold remedies, aspirin or lip balm.  They carry the normal array of health and wellness goods that you would expect, along with various lines of natural shampoo and cosmetics, too.

Some are homeopathic-oriented with natural and homeopathic remedies available.  They might also carry a range of organic health food products and gluten-free foods. 

The pharmacist is often the first point of consultation for minor ailments rather than seeing the doctor.  They have some medical training and offer advice and possible treatment options at no cost.  They're able to dispense prescriptions for many conditions without a doctor's visit. 

There is always a pharmacy available 24-hours a day and on holidays.  They take turns on the night shift to accommodate emergencies.  A weekly listing is published in the newspaper and posted outside each pharmacy.   While you can get treatment for minor ills at a pharmacy, serious medical emergencies require a trip to the emergency room (pronto soccorso).

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