It was back in 2011 that I received a phone call from my friend Leonardo Romanelli. It went more or less like this:
- Have you ever heard of Pellegrino Artusi?
- Course I have. I’m also pretty familiar with both Luciano and Riccardo Artusi. I’ve often been to the Festa Artusiana in Forlimpopoli. Why do you ask?
- This year marks a hundred years since his death, and I wanted to do a walking trail from his birthplace to his tomb. 5 stages, from the Tuscan-Romagna border, through the Muraglione Pass, finishing at the Porte Sante cemetery. A pilgrimage, as it were, in the name of the father of Italian cuisine.
- I’m in. When were you thinking? How many of us will there be?
- Just you and me, at the moment, but hopefully others will join us! We’re leaving in early March. Get training!
- I’m fit enough, don’t worry. You get organizing.
The pilgrimage was with a wonderful group of people, all strangers, who together walked 125 km. Every night, we tucked into great Artusian banquets, always heaving with people, and always with a radio tuned to the Forlimpopoli festival. We arrived in Florence with all due pomp and ceremony, marking the end to one of the most fantastic, one of the craziest journeys of my life.
But who was Pellegrino Artusi? Who was this person who could unite a bunch of journalists, chefs, writers, and humble fans? Why today, almost 110 years after his death, do we still remember and celebrate him to the extent that we undertake culinary pilgrimages in his name?
The answer is simple: Pellegrino Artusi was the first Italian to write about cuisine in the modern tongue. An old-fashioned, maybe archaic tongue, but easily understandable. His writing encapsulates an authentic experience. Before the age of the train-hopping tourist, virtually all Italians ate in trattorias and taverns: these, for Artusi, really capture the true essence of the Italian people. He also compared cooks and cooking techniques down the ages, and formed epistolary relationships with the great cooks of the time, from whom he expanded his already prodigious knowledge.
He retired from his day job and put together a sort of culinary brigade, based around his faithful cook Ruffilli and his governess Marietta. It was she who convinced him to collect his gastronomic thoughts and experiences in a book. That book became The Science of the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Its success was extraordinary, reaching 14 editions, each with more recipes than before. The last edition boasted more than 700.
We are dealing with a character who was decades ahead of the figure of the food critic/food journalist. But Artusi was also a food evangelist, with a natural gift for spreading the word. His book reads more like a story than a collection of recipes; and today he is still cited in countless cooking shows on TV. He still commands legions of disciples, not only among professional cooks but among keen amateurs as well. More than a century after its first publication, his book remains a milestone of Italian cuisine.
You can read the story of Pellegrino Artusi anywhere: you can read about the impulses that brought him from Forlimpopoli to Florence, about his comfortable life in finance, and about his determination that he would see his book published, no matter what the publishers said.
For my part, I know Pellegrino as he comes to me through the words of Luciano and Riccardo Artusi, and through the words of a book which is more than a century old but still current. He strikes me as a genial, cultured soul in a city of great ferment – for five years of his life, Florence was the capital of Italy – and as someone who dedicated himself completely to the art of cooking. Not only did he make a compendium of regional culinary traditions, he took what he knew and put his own Artusian twist on it.
Of course, cooking has changed a lot since then. Certain ingredients have fallen out of favor, and others have made a startling comeback. But Artusi’s book remains timeless: his recipes are like those antique pieces of furniture, of no great value on the market, but absolutely priceless to the owner. Following a few of them to the letter, without attempting to “update” them in any way, will give you a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Try it.
Long live Artusi.
In the image: the cover of the anastatic copy of the first edition, published by Giunti.