Feasting On Italian Tradition

December 02, 1990|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Lorenza de'Medici, descendant of bankers, popes, kings and queens and patrons of the Renaissance, has been devoting herself to teaching readers of her cookbooks and cooking students at her 11th century villa in Chianti that genuine Italian food is nothing like the tomato-and-garlic cuisine that is dished out in the majority of "Italian" restaurants all over America.

And now, with the holiday mania starting to envelop us, she has come out with a new coffee-table cookbook that promises to provide a refined inspiration from the Italian aristocracy for our own holiday feasts as well as our gift lists.

"The Heritage of Italian Cooking" (Random House, $40) is a historical voyage into the Italy of the past -- from reproductions of paintings like "The wedding feast at Cana" by Andrea Boscoli to recipes updated from Renaissance menus, old diaries, the first Italian cookbooks and ancient traditions. She sets the scene for each chapter with a historical overview of the food's development and use in Italy.

For example, in her chapter on "Meat, Game and Poultry," she says that visitors to Italy have remarked that Italians seem to be mostly vegetarian, relying more on the bounty of the soil more than the barnyard.

"By contrast," she writes, "ancient books on gastronomy as well as old menus provide evidence of how carnivorous their ancestors were. These documents are, of course, records of how the wealthy ate. Bartolomeo Scappi lists more than forty meat dishes for a sixteenth-century menu, including numerous roasts, small game birds, elaborate presentations of peacocks and turkeys, whole and half suckling pigs and milk-fed calves, as well as various meat casseroles, pies and loaves.

"This spirit of abundance lives on today at special occasions such as the wedding feast, where the main course might begin with braised cuts followed by a selection of roasts and concluding with mixed boiled meats."

The major difference between the foods of then and now are the uses of assertive flavorings, Ms. de'Medici said in a telephone interview from her New York hotel room during her recent book tour. Old recipes used cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to mask the flavors of meat that might not be as fresh as desired. Today, she would adapt the dish by substituting fresh herbs for the spices.

"They used to use an enormous quantity of fat, and they definitely didn't consider vegetables," she added.

Ms. de'Medici, who has written more than 20 cookbooks, has been described as the epitome of Italian chic, the kind of woman who is tall, slender as a reed and instinctively knows how to put together her clothing in the perfect understated elegance. Likewise, her books are elegant works of art in themselves, relying on the style she calls the "Villa Table" -- home cooking that meshes the refinement of the leisure classes with the close ties the Italians have always had with the land.

The key to her recipes is simple preparation of fresh ingredients. But one warning is necessary for the novice cook. Ms. de'Medici adopts a typically European attitude toward cooking. Her recipes assume a certain amount of culinary expertise and do not often spell out specifics. For example, she does not say how many people each recipe serves, and she relies on phrases such as use "moderate heat" or "tie with a string."

Whether the meal is a historical re-creation of a feast or an everyday meal, a menu -- either written or compiled in the mind -- is essential for Italian cooks. For a holiday party, you may want to duplicate a delightful Italian custom -- transcribing elaborate menus onto colorful, decorative cards for each guest.

The requirements of this menu have changed over the years, according to Ms. de'Medici. Up until World War II, an upper-class tradition called for serving six courses. But since then the norm is a trio of courses, except for special occasions, when the Italians still prepare the main course meat in three different ways -- braised, roasted and boiled. The special occasion menu also includes a piatto de mezzo (or interlude) between the first and second courses that typically includes a vegetable mold or a savory pie.

"Yesterday I was out with some friends and they ordered an appetizer, then pasta was their main dish," she said. "I love that idea because I am not a big eater. But that's just not the Italian way of eating.

"A pasta or rice course is always a separate course and always the first course in Italy. The meat [or fish] course is always served with a vegetable, never with pasta. Then we have fresh fruit for dessert. The antipasti and desserts are reserved for Sundays."

During the Christmas holidays in Italy, the major event is Jan. 6 -- the feast of the Epiphany. Children put stockings up on the fireplace and, instead of Santa, an elderly woman they call Befana comes down the chimney and leaves prizes and sweets for the children who have been well behaved. Instead of using a "sleigh and reindeer," her mode of transport is a broomstick.

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