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Cookbooks, Cookbooks in Context, Il Cucchiao d'Argento, Italy, Timeless Recipes

Why One Italian Cookbook Only Uses Butter

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Let me take you on a journey through Italy’s olive groves. 

We’ll start beyond the boot, across the strait of Mesina in Sicily. You’ll step sweating out of a broken-down dilapidated car and follow an old man in a newspaper boy’s cap up a dirt road. He’ll tell you in a dialect that seems more Arabic than Italian that here olives are grown up to 700-800m above sea level and this year alone they have grown olives on 160,000 ha.

You’ll look at the stout twisted porous trunks and the patches of yellow grass surrounded by dirt and wonder at the wealth of olives weighing down the branches to near breaking point. You’ll fix the car and continue. Across the strait in Calabria the rolling hills and huge olive groves continue. 

You drive beyond Rome and on to the rolling hills of Tuscany. Old limestone villas and roads lined with cypress trees greet you. This time a man wearing a sheep’s skin vest and with a dialect that you can almost perfectly understand, after all this dialect was the basis of modern day Italian, tells you that here 108,000ha are produced.

By the time you arrive in Piedmont there are no more olive trees. 

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The last month I been translating recipes from The Silver Spoon. Throughout this book there has been a very strange correlation…

I made rabbit fricasee. They instructed:

rabbitw-butter
Add a nice bit of butter.

I made chicken liver pate. They instructed: chicken liver pate w-butterAdd 30 grams of butter and melt it until it is very hot.

I made Brussels sprouts and garlic. They instructed me to. Can you guess?:

BrusselsSproutsw-butter
Add butter.

After a while this got to be a little ridiculous. So I sat down and went through the book looking for recipes where olive oil rather than butter was used. Only two dishes used olive oil.


But isn’t Italy the land of olive oil you say? Perhaps, but perhaps like every other generalization this is only partially true. Especially when we are referring to a cookbook written in Northern Italy during the 1950s.  Every cookbook reflects a specific time and place, and I may have overstated just how important the Silver Spoon is for Italian culture. What I had originally seen as the bible of Italian cooking may instead be a book written specifically for upper middle class Northern Italians who too often were trying to emulate French cuisine.

Here are my theories why so many of these recipes have butter (a special thanks to my favorite Facebook group the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery for helping me mull over my thoughts.)


 

Some dishes will always require butter.

Today Italians do consume a lot of olive oil. In fact, only Greece and Spain consume more olive oil. However, there are some classic Italian dishes that will always require butter. Risotto for example, often uses butter not olive oil.

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Great quality olive oil didn’t exist until the 1960s. Enter extra-virgin olive oil.

Today, when we buy olive oil it’s most likely extra virgin olive oil. Until the 1960s, the technology needed to make extra-virgin olive oil did not exist. Using very traditional techniques, the oil was ground with stone mills, and then crushed in presses. This created a lower quality olive oil than what we have today. In the ’60s and early ’70s, stainless steel replaced the old stone and centrifuges were introduced to get the most oil out of the paste. And all of a sudden, oil was significantly better. So much so that a new name was given to the product: Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Given that olive oil had to be transported over a significant area and at that time may have had residual pieces of olive left in the olive oil. I might have chosen to cook with butter as well.

ADDITION TO ABOVE POST

A note from Victor Hazan, Marcella Hazan’s husband (I asked a Facebook group why there are so many recipes with butter): Marcella loved butter and olive oil, and lard for that matter, equally, but not for the same recipes. There are Italian restaurateurs who believe, mistakenly, that butter has no place in traditional Italian cooking. There is a restaurant in Venice that is very highly regarded by foreigners. The owners, one of them American, were originally our friends. One day when we dined there we noticed that there was a card on every table declaring, “We never use butter”. That was the last time we ate there. The Silver Spoon, a grossly overesteemed tome, is a poor choice as representative of good Italian cooking, whether from the industrial north or the agrarian south. There is a huge error in Ms. Matland’s account of the quality of olive oil, when she claims that the use of modern stainless equipment created superior olive oil. Olives crushed between stones produce equally fine, in the opinion of some, even finer oil than in stainless steel. It is only a more laborious procedure. High quality olive oil was always admired. I remember that in the 1950’s, when I lived on a hill above Florence, a liter of fine olive oil cost more than a kilo of the best meat. Grinding stones were used by many producers to make high end, extra virgin olive oil well into the 90’s and have not totally disappeared from use even today. Victor.

Northern Italians cooked with butter. Southern Italians cooked with olive oil.

Domus, Silver Spoon’s publisher, is located about 20 minutes outside the center of Milan. Now take a good look at the map below. Or better yet, read the article. The highest quality olive oil is found in the warm sub-area.

60% of Italy’s olive oil today is produced in Calabria, Sicily and Puglia, all these regions are found at the very bottom of Italy. On the other hand,  Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta, both found near Milan have no olive oil production at all.

Map Italy - Olive Oil

Now, take a look at the countries bordering Northern Italy: France, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, and Austria.

Northern Italy - Bordering Countries

All countries are north of the butter/olive oil divide.

Not only that, but the topography of Northern and Southern Italy are very different. Northern Italy is fertile enough to support herds of cattle; Southern Italy struggles to raise anything more than sheep.

Precentages - Cows and Sheep Italy

The distribution of cows and sheep in Italy in 1964 source: http://bit.ly/1Pvhsqk

It’s not surprising then that in the 1950s. Butter and Lard may have been used more often that olive oil which had to be moved from the South to the North and at that time wasn’t even of that good quality.

The Silver Spoon was catering to the wealthy middle class who were often trying to copy the French

Food has always been a symbol of status. Whether it be venison in England or rabbits in Malta, what you can and can’t afford or are and aren’t allowed to eat sets your class apart. The modern cookbook is often used as a guide for aspiring middle class homes to cook as the royals did before them. Cookbooks have existed for a long time, but the cookbooks of the last 100 years were much more widely consumed and were often used as references/guides for dinner parties.

After World War II, Italy struggled to rebuild itself. However by the 1950s, Italy was once again beginning to prosper. This was especially the case in Northern Italy. With greater wealth comes the desire to show off that wealth especially at the dinner table. Italians are proud of their cuisine, but France is and always will be the leader in European haute cuisine. For a crowd aspiring to social mobility, they would have wanted to emulate the French. Remember that Domus first and foremost published design and architecture magazines so they were already catering to the upper middle class.

This is obvious from the very first page. Compared to the Talisman of Happiness it feels like a modern cookbook. There are many color pictures (which at that time was EXPENSIVE) and it seems to promise you that THIS BOOK will be the answer to all of your dinner party problems.

The Silver Spoon - Vintage

Do you feel fancy yet?

 

 

 

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