Last week we posted an article by Gillian Riley, author of The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, which advised on how to have an Italian Christmas. This week we have a great treat for you, a discussion between Riley and OUP editor Ben Keene (also a regular OUPblog blogger.) Listen to the podcast below. The transcript is after the jump.
Ben Keene: This is Ben Keene, a reference editor at Oxford University Press, and I’m speaking with Gillian Riley author of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Italian Food. Hi Gillian.
Gillian Riley: Hello Ben.
Keene: How are you doing?
Riley: I’m doing fine. I’m struggling with your page proofs and still enjoying them.
Keene: Very good. Well I’m really excited to be talking to you today about your book and the process and just your love for Italian Food. And I though a good thing to start off with would just be to ask you when it was that you found yourself enchanted with the cuisine of Italy, and even where you were if you can pinpoint it a little bit.
Riley: Well it goes back a long, long way because I used to come to Italy with my partner James Mosely and he writes about inscriptional lettering and typefaces and letter forms and so we would sludge all over the place looking for inscriptions and it was all quite serious and arduous. But as you know in Italy you trample on these long windy dusty roads and at the end of every road there is a trattoria. And it was in these trattorias that I realized there was more to Italy than inscriptions. And it was in these trattorias that I became unfaithful to the typographic muse and realized that, and you know at that time I was a typographer and designer, and I thought no there is more to life than this and I must find out more about Italian food.
And so gradually the food took over and we kept coming back and we kept coming back and I would abandon James to go and work in archives or whatever and I would go to the markets and the food shops and come home and cook. And my idea of total heaven is to shop for food in Italy and cook it there.
Keene: So do you have a favorite trattoria somewhere that you always try to make it back to when you are in Italy?
Riley: Well yes and no. There are so many good places to eat and it depends where one is and who one is with, I think one of the advantages of eating out in Italy is the amazing choice one has.
Keene: I am curious, since you have spent so many years researching and writing about Italian food, what do you consider to be a particularly misunderstood dish, or an underrated sort of offering, I guess, that might be well known, but again is there is sort of this mis-conceptualization about it.
Riley: Well, you could have a pet hate of mine, which is tiramisu. Which I think is just so yucky. And also, it is claimed to be a modern invention but the whole idea of soaking cake or biscuit in liquor in then putting various kinds of custard or crèmes or fruit with them has been around as long as dunking bread in liquid has been which is a long long time. And even trifle, zuppe inglese, its called but its not really an English invention, so I, much as I think its all right in the right place and the right time and in a small enough dose, Its one aspect of Italian food that I’m not too crazy about.
The other thing, that is another aspect of your question is, there are so many good flavored breads apart from pizza, the mythological, the making a myth of pizza, and making a fetish of the only true real genuine Neapolitan pizza seems to me that you are missing out on a lot, a much wider range of good things done with bread.
Keene: So you don’t think that Neapolitan pizza or tiramisu for instance are quintessential foods of Italy really in any way.
Riley: Not quintessential no. And of course the tragic thing about pizza is that it is now everywhere, it is all over the United States and it’s all over Europe. And its mainly industrialized versions of what once would have been a very good peasant or cucina povera sort of dish.
Keene: Maybe Italy needs something along the lines of what they have done in Japan, which is creating this official body that is I guess, for lack of a better word, a sushi police because sushi has again spread all over and there is a concern that its really not true to the methods used in Japan, and maybe Italy needs some sort of pizza police.
Riley: Yes, well there is slow food which I’m sure is keeping an eye on things. But we have the same problem with sushi in London, where you can some very delicious variations on sushi which are really light years away from the real thing. And ought to be policed. Normally I’m against food police but I see just what you mean about sushi.
Keene: Well you mentioned a bit earlier that your idea of heaven was to shop in a market for various ingredients and bring them home and cook and Italian meal. Do you have a menu that you are particularly fond of or a couple of dishes that you really enjoy preparing?
Riley: Oh there are so many of them! It depends where one is. If I’m cooking at home in London, I’m using locally sourced ingredients and I can get very good salami from my local Italian deli, and this is interesting because its not a trendy food shop, its not in a fashionable part of London, and he’s not selling rare breed artisan salami or cheeses, he’s selling run of the mill, average commercial production, and they are just so good. And the turnover is pretty big so it’s always fresh and that’s something about Italian food abroad that we have to take on board I think, that you can chase around after designer food and miss out on the excellent commercial products. So I’d start with some of that.
Now the two of being both elderly and with a tendency to overweight, I wouldn’t pile on the pasta, but my favorite pasta dish as comfort food is olio d’olivo peperoncino, and that is spaghetti plainly cooked until just done, al dente, and then the only sauce it has is a fairly robust olive oil which will stand up to what is about to happen to it. Which is to cook some cloves of garlic in it and some hot dried red chilies, you put the chilies in just at the end so they don’t scorch and burn, and this flavors the oil, if you are cautious you remove them, I don’t I pile them in on top of the pasta with some salt and that’s all you need.
Keene: That sounds marvelous and I guess the advice there is to throw caution to the wind when preparing an Italian meal.
Riley: That’s right!
Oh, we haven’t got on the meat or chicken yet. A dish I really love doing is saltimbocca alla romana.
Keene: Oh that’s fabulous yeah.
Riley: That’s wonderful. That’s easy to do. It’s also, you can make it in the classic way with veal and parma ham with some sage leaves sandwiched in between them, and then flatten it and cook it very quickly, in butter or oil in a frying pan. Cook the veal side first and then just flip it over so the parma ham is not overdone, and then take them out sprinkle a little bit of salt into the cooking oil, a bit of flour, and some, a bit of wine, a very very little bit, just enough to turn the cooking juices into a sauce, which you then pour over your saltimbocca.
Keene: Well, I have to say its really, listening to a description of the meal is really beginning to make me hungry. And perhaps this is a pretty good stopping point as well, to wet people appetites.
Riley: Well I’ve tried to do this in the book Ben. I’ve tried not to give recipes for you to go into the kitchen to cook with but to describe recipes and describe the enthusiasm that they’ve evoked in me. Because what I really want it for this book to something like a road map for a huge variety of people all with an interest in Italian food who can follow it in different directions. And one way of signposting really good things is to describe the pleasure they give me, so some of the entries got a bit long because I just couldn’t resist explaining in detail how wonderful some of the recipes are.
Keene: Well I think that you w ere enormously successful in doing that and I think that your road map to Italian food is incredibly detailed and appropriately leads right to the stomach. Congratulations and thank you again for taking a bit of time today to talk about the food of Italy and your book the oxford companion to Italian food