Picture this scene. It’s 1899, and the end of a glorious summer’s evening at a country mansion on the outskirts of Bologna. There’s a party brewing, and it just happens to be the big one:
It’s a celebration of the best of Bologna. In attendance are some low level dignitaries, local businessmen, tradesmen, connoisseurs, epicureans, bon vivants and restaurateurs. The plus-one’s make this crowd the most eclectic Italian ensemble you will see gathered outside of Milan.
Pelegrino Artusi has been booked as an after-dinner speaker and will talk the attendees through his life, his works and the challenges of self publishing a cookbook in the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. After successfully delivering his speech, the old man is tired and stumbles back to his rented room at a nearby inn.
Artusi’s absence is no damper to the mood and the party shows no signs of abating. In the grand reception wine is flowing. A buffet is laid out and a string quartet entertains a crowd that looks settled in for a night of free food, drink and networking opportunities. Ripples of laughter cascade across the room, like sprinkles of rain on a Venetian garden pond.
All of a sudden, and as if from nowhere, an elephant appears close to the far wall of the room. By African bush elephant standards, this late juvenile female is relatively small - standing at just over one and a half metres to her shoulder and weighing in at a mere 150 kilos.
Make no mistake, however. This impressive lump of grey bulk and gleaming white ivory couldn’t look any more out of place in this most Italian of environments.
With her back to the room, she experiences a brief moment of confusion as she tries to recall the event that led to her arrival in these new surroundings, but she is quickly distracted by the spread of food in front of her.
A giant silver kettle of gazpacho soup, delicate tomato crostini, a platter of tricolore salad and much, much more besides. She waddles forward for a closer look.
At first sight, it appears no one in the room has noticed this ungainly intruder. Waiters are still filling empty glasses, the crowd continues to murmur and the string quartet plays on.
However, the atmosphere has definitely changed.
The laughter is subsiding. The jovial conversations are replaced by increasingly stoic subjects, and the discourse feels a little more forced than before. Politics. The weather. Matters of regional civil administration.
Before long, frigid formality descends on the room. Guests avoid eye contact and increasingly stare down at their own perfectly presented footwear.
Meanwhile the elephant is having a gay old time. She’d gorged her way through half the spread, shoveling down anything she could get her trunk on. Now sufficiently satiated, she starts playfully blowing gazpacho fountains with her trunk as if this is just another lazy day on the savanna.
Up to this point there’s been nothing in the way of human-elephant contact, but the two realities are on a collision course. A splash of gazpacho hits one of the shiny black brogues of a smartly dressed civil servant.
He looks down, assesses the damage, then looks back at his wife with his mouth half open - poised to offer a verbal acknowledgement of the event.
Before he is able, his better half fires a piercing stare back in his direction, reinforced by a furrowed brow, as if to say:
“Don’t say a fucking word, Luigi."
Whatever words were about to be uttered are swallowed back down, and instead slowly released in a semi-audible sigh.
The elephant catches sight of that gazpacho soaked shoe and is instantly hit with a panicked sense that something is wrong.
A quick glance over her shoulder and she is now acutely aware she has lost the rest of the herd and is in a completely alien environment.
She raises her trunk to the sky and lets out an ear piercingly-shrill trumpet from her massive nostrils.
You don’t need to be an expert in African wildlife to know this is not the defiant tone of a war horn, but one of abject fear.
Splashes of gazpacho soup shower down on the guests as if the ceiling has caved in and the heavens have opened.
Yet still the room refuses to acknowledge the presence of this flustered elephant.
The young cow was amongst the most docile of her herd. She had not had cause to intimidate, let alone attack another animal. However, the savanna can be a brutal place. She’d been on the wrong end of the matriarch’s scorn, and had seen aggressive bulls charge pods of hippos when the demand for watering holes outstripped supply. She knew, at least in theory, how an elephant needed to defend herself.
With a sharp snort and a flap of her ears she composes herself and readies for an attack.
Her first target is the nearest.
By the wall, two male restaurateurs and partners in business.
You would have expected having a front row seat at this spectacle might have encouraged these gentlemen to make for the exit, but inexplicably they had stood still and remained silent throughout.
Head and trunk down she charges the man on the right and hits him with such force that he rebounds off the wall and back into his partner.
Contrary to what you might expect, the crack of heads is not followed by screams. Both men lay unconscious and the rest of the room bizarrely acts as if nothing has happened.
The scene is reminiscent of a bowling pro smashing a 7-10 split, and while the analogy would be wasted on the elephant, the same feeling of satisfaction is not.
Her tail is up. She is feeling confident against a foe who appears to offer no resistance.
If this first charge were a split, the next is most definitely a strike.
Deep breath, head down, ears out and away.
She ploughs through a larger, mixed group of casual acquaintances. This time the carnage can’t be ignored. The floor is covered in a mix of blood, entrails and cold tomato soup.
The victims lay in various states of consciousness, with the shock of the situation overriding any urge they have to keep quiet.
By now the string quartet has stopped, and the rest of the room stands in silence, staring at the elephant in anticipation of her next move.
The low groans from that second wave of casualties fills the air, like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie.
The elephant, now in her pomp, prepares for her final run. The crowd can sense it and at last react to the reality of this situation.
Screams ring out as loved ones ring arms and make a break for the congested exits.
Once more - quick snort, head down, ears out and away.
This charge, however, feels different. It’s much slower and more targeted.
Instead of inflicting maximum casualties, the young cow is executing a more vindictive strategy - singling out an influential Bolognan businessman as he runs for the door, hand in hand with his wife.
Straight to his lower back, this man takes a brutal gording from the elephant’s left tusk. He’s lifted off the ground and lands on the floor with a sickening thud.
His wife looks on in horror as the elephant stamps her enormous round foot on his up-turned chest. Then stamps once more on his chest, another stamp to his stomach, and finally a two footed stamp to his groin.
Of those who survive, his wife will probably suffer the most after this evening’s soiree.
In three days, and as the medical bills stack up, she will be declared a widow. Arsenic and boiled arrowroot are not much of a remedy against a perforated bowel and the complications it brings. The secret gambling debts of her husband will pass to her eldest son, and before too long she will slip into a downward cycle of opium dependency, prostitution and ultimately an early death.
Perhaps with a sixth sense of her fate ahead, she is the first to acknowledge this trunked terrorist, and with every ounce of her energy screams at the top of her lungs:
“For goodness sake, we need to talk about tomatoes!!"
With that, the elephant leaps out of the nearest window, never to be seen again.
Italy and Tomatoes
It will come as a surprise to the Dolmio Generation, but Italian cuisine has not always had such a strong association with tomatoes.
Tomatoes first entered Italy through Naples in 1548. They were initially viewed with scepticism.
Depending who you asked over the next 200 years they may have been described as a horticulturist’s curiosity, a guaranteed deliverer of bum troubles, or the devil’s scrotum.
Italian’s love for tomatoes took time to flourish, but like all love stories, we naturally focus on the inseparable bonds that formed. The reality of early courtship is often of one side being far less interested than the other.
The first recorded Italian recipe with tomatoes?
1692 in “Lo Scallo alla Moderna” (“The Modern Steward”) - “Salsa di Pomodoro, alla Spagnola” (“Spanish sauce”). The author, Antonio Latini, definitively labelled this a foreign dish.
The first documented recipe of pasta with tomatoes?
Written in 1807 by a Frenchman - Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière. As if to rub salt in the wounds of contemporary Italian chefs, he couldn’t have a more French sounding name. At the time of writing “L’Almanach des gourmands” (“The gourmet’s almanac”), vermicelli was typically mixed with cheese and Alvisi-style spices, but Alexandre innovates by instead suggesting the acidity of tomatoes adds a certain… “I do not know what."
And what of both Alvisi’s and Artusi’s bologneses?
The most quintessential Italian dish imaginable?
There was not so much as a tomato pip in sight.
Documenting the tomato’s Italian rise to fame is a worthy subject for a book in its own right, but before you put pen to paper, I’d advise against it. David Gentilcore has beaten you to it with his:
“Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)”.
It’s a full account of the tomato in Italy and the factors that made its popularity possible. SPOILER ALERT: mostly southern-Italian emigrants, rabid for imported tinned tomatoes and pastes, played their part.
But let’s not get above our station.
The tomato is too big a subject for our studies. We still need to reconcile Alvisi and Artusi’s tomato-less bologneses with the dish that ate the world, but we’re going to take our time and build up to this.
To represent the “tomatofication” of Italy, our next kitchen outing will deliver a gratuitously tomatoey pasta dish. Spaghetti, unapologetically dripping in a radiating red tomato reduction.
We could have chosen one of many options from the annals of Italian cuisine, but without a doubt it’s those Napolitanos who deserve their spot in the limelight.
Ippolito Cavalcanti may have been late to the tomato-pasta party by global accounts, but was the first Italian to commit such a combination to paper. It wasn’t until 1837, decades after The Gourmet’s Almanac, that Cavalcanti wrote “Cucina Teorico-Pratica” (“The Theoretical and Practical Kitchen”) which includes “Timpano di vermicelli cotti crudi con li pomodoro” (“Timpano [casserole dish] of vermicelli, cooked raw with tomatoes”).
We may be being a little harsh on Italy. The lack of documented Italian tomato based pasta dishes could be more an indication of low literacy levels of Italians at the time, or maybe they were too busy scoffing pasta with tomatoes to bother writing down their recipes. Either way, here’s Cavalcanti’s very commanding text in full:
Timpano di vermicelli, cotti crudi con li pomidoro.
Pel solito numero di 12 coperti prendi libbre quattro di vermicelli, erotoli quattro di pomidoro, ma di quelle tonde perfette, e non grandi , le dividerai per metà e ne farai due suoli nel fondo di una proporzionata casseruola, situandole il primo che l’umido tocchi il fondo della casseruola, e l’altro sopra di quello, con l’umido dalla parte di sopra, e tutte ben strette; ci porrai del sale e del pepe; di sopra ci porrai dei vermicelli, che spezzerai per la lunghezza della casseruola ; sopra dei vermicelli porrai le altre mezze pomidoro, e sempre che la pelle tocchi li vermicelli e così farai finchè hai vermicelli, l’ultimo suolo poi di pomidoro le porrai, che l’umido tocchi li vermicelli; farai liquefare e bollire once 12 di sugna, e ce la porrai dispersa, frammezzando ci sempre del sale e del pepe; se ti piacesse potrai frammezzarci ancora delle fettoline di mozzarella o provola grattugiata ; farai cuocere questo timpano come tutti gli altri: osserverai di tanto in tanto il punto di cottura, e divenuti cotti li vermicelli , ma pronti, toglierai la casseruola dalla fornella, la farai rassettare un poco sopra al pancone, cercherai staccare con la punta del coltello, e rivolterai nel piatto proprio.
Timpano [casserole dish] of vermicelli, cooked raw with tomatoes.
For the usual number of 12 place settings, take four pounds of vermicelli, four pounds of tomato, perfect round ones, and not large ones, you will divide them in half and make two layers in the bottom of a suitably sized casserole dish, placing them with the cut side touching the bottom of the dish, and the other on top, cut side up and tightly packed; season with salt and pepper; on top place some vermicelli, which you will break to fit the dish; on top of the vermicelli you will place the other half tomatoes, the skin touching the vermicelli and carry on doing the same with layers of vermicelli and tomatoes, the last layer being tomatoes, skin side up; you will liquefy and boil 12 ounces of lardo, and you will pour it over the contents, seasoning with salt and pepper; if you like it you could also mix in some slices of mozzarella or grated provolone; you will cook this timbale like all the others: observing the casserole from time to time, and once the vermicelli are cooked, you will remove the casserole from the stove, you will neaten up the top a little, then using the tip of a knife, turn out on to your plate.
At first sight this recipe looks a little uninspiring. Raw vermicelli and tomatoes layered in equal measure. Salt, pepper and lardo. Sprinkled with slices of mozzarella or grated provolone cheese and baked.
It’s probably going to be slightly stodgy and uninteresting so I’m prepared to fast forward 54 years and get the opinion of our boy Artusi on what best represents Naples and the tomato.
Maccheroni alla Napolitano
Artusi’s “Science of Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” has not one, but two recipes for Maccheroni alla Napoletana.
The first mixes meat, tomato and ceremony, as beef is first cooked in the tomatoes before being removed and served alongside. The sauce left behind is combined with maccheroni as the main.
It’s the second recipe we’re interested in though. Turning to recipe 86 of Artusi’s masterpiece, and possibly some kind of pasta providence, right next to number 87 - the bolognese we just sampled - is Maccheroni alla Naploetana.
In Naples, this dish is known as “la salsa” or “the sauce”, and describes tomato simplicity.
Here, in Artusi’s words:
86. MACCHERONI ALLA NAPOLETANA
Sono molto più semplici de’ precedenti e buoni tanto che vi consiglio a provarli.
Per grammi 300 di maccheroni lunghi, che sono sufficienti per tre persone, mettete a soffriggere in un tegame o in una cazzaruola due grosse fette di cipolla con grammi 30 di burro e due cucchiaiate d’olio. Quando la cipolla, che bollendo naturalmente si sfalda, sarà ben rosolata, strizzatela col mestolo e gettatela via. In quell’unto a bollore versate grammi 500 di pomodori e un buon pizzico di basilico tritato all’ingrosso; condite con sale e pepe, ma i pomodori preparateli avanti perché vanno sbucciati, tagliati a pezzi e nettati dai semi più che si può, non facendo difetto se ve ne restano.
Col sugo condensato, con grammi 50 di burro crudo e parmigiano, condite i maccheroni e mandateli in tavola, che saranno aggraditi specialmente da chi nel sugo di pomodoro ci nuoterebbe dentro.
Invece dei maccheroni lunghi, possono servire le penne, anzi queste prenderanno meglio il condimento.
86. NEAPOLITAN MACARONI
This recipe is much simpler than the previous one and good enough that I recommend you try it.
For 300 grams of long macaroni, which are enough for three people, put two large slices of onion with 30 grams of butter and two tablespoons of oil in a pan or pot. When the onion, which cooks naturally when boiling, will be well browned, squeeze it with a ladle and throw it away. In that boiling oil, pour 500 grams of tomatoes and a good pinch of chopped basil in bulk; season with salt and pepper, but prepare the tomatoes ahead of time, because they must be peeled, cut into pieces and with as many seeds removed as you can, with no great loss if there are a few left.
With the condensed sauce, add 50 grams of raw butter and Parmesan, mix with the macaroni and send them to the table, which will be especially enjoyed by those who like pasta swimming in the tomato sauce.
Instead of long macaroni, penne can be served, which will hold the sauce better.
Remember, these were still the days when maccheroni could mean any form of pasta, but maccheroni lunghi is equivalent to spaghetti.
Those who have been with us since our initial Dolmio outing might have a slight sense of déjà vu after reading the recipe.
Concentrated tomato, an onion that’s barely there, fresh basil, salt, pepper, spaghetti and finished off with cheese. The differences being the subtraction of garlic, the addition of butter and obviously the exclusion of meat.
You can tell this dish is going to give us the taste of Italy, which the older bologneses have failed to deliver.
After our previous historic bolognese experiences I am once again excited about cooking an Italian pasta dish. I still have to overcome my trepidation of full size UK tomatoes, but at the time of writing, it happens to be peak tomato season so I may just stand a fighting chance.
To close out this recipe, we can take some inspiration from one of the characters from Artusi’s travels. Recipe 125 for “Salsa di Pomodoro” (“Tomato Sauce”) introduces us to Don Pomodoro (Father Tomato). In all honesty, Don Pomodoro sounds like a complete cunt, but this anecdote nicely symbolises Italian tomatoes - the ingredient that makes Italian food taste Italian.