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Oxford Companion to Italian Food
Gillian Riley, Oxford University Press, £19.99
This is the first in a series of regional reference guides from OUP, and this Italian guide is written by food historian Gillian Riley. As you’d expect from the stable mate of the food-lovers’ bible ‘The Oxford Companion to Food’ by Alan Davidson, the research is meticulous, the scholarship exacting, and the writing pure pleasure.
Riley’s wry, unstuffy sense of humour glints brightly through lengthy entries for ingredients, regions, produce, dishes, practices and concepts and contexts that define ‘Italian’ food.
Ever wondered what the difference is between ‘cucina delle nonne’ (‘granny food’) and ‘cucina povera’ (‘poor food’)? You’ll find out in glorious detail here, along with the advice that the concept of granny food ‘needs to be taken with a generous pinch of peperoncino’ – because Riley’s quite a one for debunking myths.
Alphabetical entries make for intriguing juxtapositions: ‘meatballs’ are followed by ‘Medici, Caterina de’ – who the author describes as having ‘pop-eyed, jowly, Medici looks’ – no hero-worship there, then.
There’s a wealth of information here and it’s easy to spend hours browsing the entries. The tiny, black and white pictures, though, add nothing and are eccentrically chosen. Surely, readers would be able to recognise an aubergine without pictorial reference? That said, this book is for those who like their facts peppered with wit, and their knowledge seasoned with good humour.
Susan Low, Time Out London Issue 1964: April 9-15, 2008