I have a sudden craving to go to Italy. I want to skip all of the museums, the monuments, the history and go straight for the dinner table. My ultimate heaven right now would be to slurp a bowl of handmade pasta, preferably with a thick ragu. As the boyfriend and I plan continue to plan our summer trip, I’ve mentioned the idea a couple of times.
Let me explain.
I’ve been reading Bill Buford’s “Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.” I’d heard about the book on NPR and when I found the book at CC (the boyfriend)’s aunt’s house, I decided to skim.
Italy seems to charm us all. Browse over the travel section at your local bookstore and tales of Americans in Tuscany burst off the shelves.
I questioned whether this book would be any different — particularly because Buford’s way of waxing on about Italian cooking is by working through the kitchen of Mario Batali, owner of Babbo and many a Food Network shows. This, I thought, is just another “what’s-it-like-in-a-professional-kitchen” tell-all, much like “Making of a Chef” by Michael Ruhlman.
I was wrong. Yes, Buford regales us with tales of slaving away at the Babbo kitchen, working his way through the grill station, the pasta station, the prep. But his writing is delicious and amusingly self-deprecating. After cooking pounds and pounds of pasta, he writes:
“I learned many things at the pasta station, but I don’t want to exaggerate my achievement. I never got through an evening without one profoundly humiliating experience. By now, I was in the kitchen five days a week, and each time the service commenced I had the same thought: maybe, tonight, I’ll manage not to f— up.”
But what makes Buford’s book unique is that he goes above and beyond the kitchen. He retraces Mario Batali’s training in Italy, learning the art of making tortellini (which, by the way, legend goes are shaped to look like a woman’s navel), retracing the history of Italian recipes (the tomato sauces we so now associate with Italy? Well, they didn’t appear until tomatoes were brought over from the Americas into the Old World), and mastering the art of butchering at the shop of Dario Cecchini (the Dante-quoting butcher).
It’s almost impossible not to be hungry after reading passages from Buford’s books. He writes in such a way that your tongue feels like it is tasting and sipping right along with him. Upon arriving in Italy, he writes:
“I then ate two pastas. One was tortellini, small, complicated knots of dough with a mysterious meaty stuffing. The other was giant pillowy ravioli, distinguished by their thin, floppy lightness… They were dressed in butter and honey and filled with pumpkin so that when you bit into one you experienced an unexpected taste explosion.”
I found, too, that my cravings for meat intensified this week as I paged through the book. Although my leanings have been more vegetarian lately, I indulged in pastrami for lunch yesterday and have taken to wrapping fish in pancetta and prosciutto. The culprit? Buford. How can you read about ragu, bolognese, bistecca alla fiorentina (steak), sausages and peposo(slow-cooked beef shank) without your taste-buds yearning for some juicy carne?
Take this passage, for instance, on the typical ingredients that go into bolognese:
“A Bolognese is made with a medieval kitchen’s quirky sense of ostentation and flavorings. There are at least two meats (beef and pork, although local variations can insist on veal instead of pork, and sometimes prosciutto, pancetta, sausage, and pork, not to mention capon, turkey or chicken livers) and three liquids (milk, wine, and broth), and either tomatoes… plus nutmeg, sometimes cinnamon, and whatever else your great-great-great-great-grandmother said was essential… In any variation, the result if a texture characteristic of all ragu: a crumbly stickiness, a condition of neither solid nor liquid, more dry than wet, a dressing more than a a sauce or, as Mario describes it, a “condiment….”
One of my favorite parts about Buford’s writing is that he incorporates a wealth of culinary history into the book. He retraces, for instance, when Italians first started adding eggs into their pasta dough (if you do make homemade pasta, be sure to use very good eggs — from a farmer’s market, for instance) or different polenta cooking techniques.
But enough blabbing. Go get the book yourself. And make sure you have a cookbook or a reservation to a tiny, family-owned, authentic Italian restaurant handy (as for the boy and I, we’re heading to Lupi in La Jolla tonight).