The Italian Cookery Course
by Katie Caldesi
Publisher: Kyle Cathie, Country: UK
ISBN: 9781856267793, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Katie Caldesi’s Italian Cookery Course (published as Cook Italy in the USA) is in equal measure an exceedingly attractive and enjoyable exploration of Italian cooking, and a mild disappointment as a “cookery course”. Caldesi, co-owner of the UK restaurants Caffè Caldesi, Caldesi in Campagna, and an Italian cooking school, seemed to embark on a voyage of discovery in order to find the knowledge to write this book. The result is an enormous range of recipes with many personal preferences, sometimes deviating from what a reader might expect of recipes in a course in Italian cooking. In the end, the book could have been titled “Katie goes to Italy”.

Full review

Caldesi’s introduction to Italy and her experience of Italian food culture is interesting and disarming (and unusually lengthy for many cookbooks). It is followed by a frank and friendly discussion of Italian wines and matching with food, written by Mary Dowey. The rest of the book is divided into chapters in the approximate order of dining in Italy. Starting with breads, she moves on through antipasti, soups/stocks, pasta, rice/polenta, various meat chapters, vegetables/salad, swees, cheeses, and preserves. At the end there’s an odd two-page glossary of diverse terms, and a bibiliography which includes some titles in Italian which have English language editions (not mentioned).

Throughout the book are wonderful photos of food, equipment, people and places. It is a joy to flip through the book and just get in the mood for cooking, and understand the physical context of Italian cuisine. Text pages are often colourful, and while this is attractive, it can affect readability.

Following increasing trends for cookbooks with name-dropping “personality”, the Italian Cookery Course seems to spare few opportunities to mention Caldesi’s suppliers, butchers, hosts and friends. It can lend a cachet of legitimacy to the stories and recipes, but at times it’s wearyingly irrelevant (e.g. “Fabio buys us one made by the Spigaroli family, who inherited a castle between the cities of Parma, Piacenza and Cremona. The composer Verdi used to live nearby and the great grandfather of the current Spigaroli generation was a sharecropper on the Verdi farm.”).

The strength of the book lies in the clarity of writing, the breadth of recipes and the occasionally useful guides to ingredients. The details in guides about Prosciutto, Funghi (mushrooms), Pomodori (tomatoes) and more are often interesting and give insight into Italian cuisine, but more pictures would have been appropriate and helpful. There are no images to help the uninitiated identify the tomatoes, interesting local herbs, or various cheeses the author refers to, nor the various mushrooms (hard luck if you’ve never seen a porcini before and don’t realise that the image is of porcini, rather than one of the other seven mushrooms described).

Cooking from the book is a mixed affair. The recipes are often tempting, and the introductions will appeal to readers who like the idea that a real person has contributed a recipe (the author gives attribution for many recipes to colleagues, friends, etc). Instructions can be long and fairly detailed. This can be reassuring, but following all the steps in normal, long paragraphs can be tricky, especially when presented in a light sans-serif font on coloured background. Of the recipes I tried from the book, many worked flawlessly, but the Pollo in umido al limone (chicken and lemon casserole) was made unpleasantly bitter by the addition of full lemon halves, rather than just peel and juice. The section on bread starts with a recipe for Ciabatta, a bread which few authors would use to introduce inexperienced bakers to bread making (it requires a pre-ferment (biga), and it’s an unusually wet dough, requiring patience and some skill in handling). Nonetheless, the recipe works and will give joy to careful cooks. Another issue: it’s nice to see encouragement to make your own sausages, but I would have expected some mention of food hygiene in their preparation.

A cookery course about a cuisine is usually expected to contain classic versions of dishes. At times, Caldesi presents versions which, whilst quite plausibly traditional, deviate from the most well known form, sometimes due to her own preferences or those of the people she knows. There’s nothing wrong with less common regional forms of a dish, or just personal versions – all cooks do it – but I felt the lack of explanation of “typically known” versions of classic dishes was regrettable. For instance, her minestrone lacks any tomato, as does her zuppa di fagioli, the bagna càuda doesn’t cook the anchovies gently in butter, and the tiramisu is dusted with grated chocolate rather than cocoa, and uses vin santo instead of marsala. The gnocchi recipe uses an egg — a common habit, but often leading to somewhat rubbery gnocchi (especially with the extra flour that has to be added). Caldesi doesn’t suggest the option of omitting the egg, as some cooks (and regions) prefer.

There are other minor factual irritations. Somewhat pedantically, the author tells readers that ricotta isn’t a real cheese (it’s made from whey rather than curds), but one wonders what the point of such a comment is, when ricotta is clearly regarded and used as a cheese like the typical fresh curd cheeses found in many other places in Europe. In the aforementioned gnocchi recipe, Caldesi claims that using a ricer or passatutto to mash the potatoes traps air inside the dough, making the gnocchi lighter. Given the mixing and kneading involved in finishing the dough, this seems unlikely.

A strong promotional point of the book is the numerous “masterclasses” it contains. Masterclasses in Italian cookery? Not necessarily. Most of them are little more than recipes (Stuffed Courgette Flowers, Potato Gnocchi) – often no more elaborate than many other dishes in the book – , some describe a more involved technique (Ricotta, Making Ice Cream, How to Joint a Rabbit, How to Fillet a Flat Fish), but most have nothing to do with Italian cuisine specifically and some are trivial when viewed through the grand prism of “masterclass” (How to Make [chocolate] Curls, How to Clean an Artichoke).

In conclusion, the Italian Cookery Course (published as Cook Italy in the USA) is a visually attractive book containing a wealth of interesting recipes. It outdoes other Italian cuisine classics by Marcella Hazan, Antonio Carluccio or Elizabeth David in its beauty and, perhaps, its variety of recipes. Another recent work, La Cucina: The regional cooking of Italy, gives a broader range of recipes with clear regional origins, but is less visually impressive and is focused solely on recipes.

Caldesi’s book lets readers down when it comes to what will probably be the expectations of many — typicality of some recipes, pointless “masterclasses”, occasional readability issues, and missing helpful images or informative notes. I’m happy to have this book on my shelf and will probably use it many times, but I would only give it as a present to cooks who won’t be irritated or frustrated by its flaws. It is a borderline 4-star, but the weaknesses knock it down to 3-star: recommended, but with flaws.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 3. Recommended – some flaws
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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The Italian Cookery Course, Katie Caldesi | 2009 | UK, 4.0 out of 5 based on 5 ratings

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