Discover the diversity of Italian cuisine with Time Out's guide to the best cookbooks
Mario Matassa, Phaidon, £24.95
‘The Silver Spoon’ cookery book of Italian food was first compiled in 1950. It can still be found, greasy and well-thumbed, on kitchen shelves throughout Italy.
Through many reincarnations it has become a definitive encyclopedia of Italian cuisine, detailing more than 2,000 classic recipes.
Since its first translation into English in 2005, a handful of derivative books have been published by the same UK publisher. The latest is this beautifully simple collection of 50 recipes specific to the Tuscan region.
There are countless other books on Tuscan cuisine, but this one with its sumptuous photography takes a very different tack from the comprehensive, wordy 'Silver Spoon'.
Evocative and informative, this is more than just an extraction. It singles out ten Tuscan provinces, giving potted histories and highlighting five specialities originating from each area.
Tuscan natives are renowned for being fiercely proud and protective of their regional dishes. I once witnessed a heated debate, with barely veiled insults hurled between two ladies, over how to cook ribollita – a dense, wintry bean and vegetable soup layered with bread. The recipe for ribollita in this book was well balanced, though called for a longer cooking period than many now prefer, resulting in vegetables that barely held their shape.
The chapter on Florence gives a recipe for the famed (and expensive) Fiorentina steak – a massive T-bone cut that is simply seared, salted and placed on an oiled plate.
The next recipe, no less popular with locals, swings to the other end of the culinary spectrum, to cucina povera (peasant cooking), and is for tripe stewed in tomato sauce.
We tested out a recipe given from nearby Pisa for frittatine in trippa: thin egg crêpes rolled up and simmered in tomato sauce, eaten with toast. Its texture mimicked the gelatinous, intestinal chew of tripe and made for a very easy supper.
Torta Pisana, a sponge cake scattered with pine nuts, seemed overly dense as a batter but rose to a fine crumbly texture, much like those found in bakeries all over Tuscany.
Arista al finocchio – roast pork loin with fennel – was however a pale English translation of what our tastebuds so fondly remember. Over-wintered British fennel leaves just can’t conjure up the intensity of flavour that a rocky Tuscan hillside imparts.
And that may be the only downside of this book. Reliable techniques, timings and instruction aside, impeccable Tuscan ingredients are the linchpin of what makes this cuisine so effortlessly simple and appealing. But Tuscany leaves you hungry for another visit, and the list of Tuscan food festivals in the introduction is deliciously tempting.
Zoe Kamen, Time Out London Issue 2121: April 14-20 2011