Elena Kostioukovitch’s Why Italians Love to Talk about Food will make an excellent Christmas present for many of my Italian friends, even those not especially interested in food. An English version (Why Italians Love to Talk about Food - literal translation of the title), would appeal to the countless lovers of Italian culture in the English-speaking world, because they will know that the way into a country’s heart is through its palate.

This book will amaze those who know Italy’s cuisine only as pasta and pizza, for though it heartily includes these (a chapter on each), it reaches way beyond the gastronomic cliché, into territories of such specialization and rarity that many will wonder if they knew anything of Italy at all. In these pages the history freak too will find great satisfaction, as will the agriculturalist, the international gourmet, and the collector of funny and interesting trivia.

Above all, the book will please conservationists - of both environment and tradition: those people who mourn the loss of refinement and attention to detail in our world of global fast food and impersonal production. In short, it is a book of wide appeal, far more than the title and apparent subject would suggest. It is a book for both ordinary men and women who like to be informed, and intellectuals with good taste.

Umberto Eco in his preface speaks to readers as an ordinary person, who has travelled, and is interested in foreign lands. He quickly convinces us that the key to a place is in the realm of four of the five senses: when we visit a new country we mainly look (landscape, architecture, colours), listen (language, sounds of nature), smell (vegetation, food), and taste. Elena Kostioukovitch guides us in the last one of these – she shows us the immense variety in tastes throughout the nation Italy, which is the sum of no fewer than 19 regions, as different from one another as foreign countries. The book is thus organized into 19 chapters. Between each one, thematic inserts elaborate and amplify Italians’ attitude to food, for, as Kostioukovitch says: “food has a common language which crosses social and economic barriers”. This language is based on signs making up a food code, in which lies hidden a pile of information about “history, geography, agriculture, zoology, ethnography, design, the semiotics of daily life, and applied economics”. Some of the thematic inserts are: feast, primary produce, olive oil, ‘slow food’, Mediterranean diet, the calendar, the restaurant, and, as mentioned, pasta and pizza.

Moving from north to south and to the two major islands, the book is a gastronomic travel guide. Kostioukovitch is not handing out recipes. She is showing how each region’s traditional plates and cooking styles connect with its history and geography, its weather and topography, its politics and economy, its social and religious customs.

Lombardy is the region most exposed to other influences; from Spain came saffron, and from Austria the Wiener Schnitzel, renamed cotoletta alla milanese. Lombards are known for working hard, morning till evening, with little time for a lunch break. While Tuscans may eat the bistecca fiorentina, which is supposed to weigh 450 g. and thus needs a long cooking-time, Lombards choose a slender cut of meat that can be prepared in minutes.

Conversely, Sardinia has been least exposed to outside influence, indeed isolated even from the rest of Italy for more than a millennium, till the Roman conquest in the 3rd century B.C. It had to be constantly defended from invaders. Contrary to expectation, its typical food was not seafood, excepting botargo (salted mullet roll). Only more recently is the seafood is prized: octopus, elephant lobster (for overseas markets, ecologically farmed) and tuna bound for Tokyo.

In Emila-Romagna, tortellini were the main specialty in the feasts of “red Emilia-Romagna”, where they were an icon of the partisan movement. As in Lombardy, the fertile nature of the Po river flats makes it one of the richest regions. Here egg pasta is more common, while in the south, where eggs were a rare treat, they use dried pasta, as they do too in the port cities, Genoa and those of Puglia and Sicily, because pastasciutta needs special drying methods easily afforded by the wind on the coast.

The simplicity of the Tuscan peasant’s cuisine belies the extraordinary meticulousness of his cultivation. Here the landscape is like a carefully sewn tapestry, every inch of the rather stony terrain cultivated to perfection. And this precision is reflected in a cuisine, which, for instance, would traditionally use different woods for the cooking of different foods, because the penetrating scent of a particular wood suits certain tastes better than others: hazelnut wood for flat bread (schiacciata), beech wood for smoking meat, olive for roasting, oak for baking bread.

The little-known port of Livorno is the only town where, between the 16th and 19th centuries, Jews enjoyed a ghetto-free equality with other Italian citizens. Tunisian Jews brought couscous there. Livorno was also home to movements for social protest and rebellion at the turn of the 20th century, and a stronghold of the Italian anarchical movement. If you drink the «cappuccino alla livornese» you will find the froth not on top but under the coffee, at the bottom of the cup! Such titbits of trivia will delight the reader. Another one about the pizza: Invented in 1889 by Don Raffaele Esposito of Naples, in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoia, the tri-colour ‘edible flag’ (tomato, mozzarella, basil) was a sign of patriotism. It delighted the queen and ever since has been called Pizza Margherita.

Kostioukovitch’s book expounds the significance for Italians of pasta and pizza – eating at home vs. eating out and socializing. (Pasta is a daily dish in the Italian home, but pizza, which should be cooked for a minute in a 450°C oven, is obviously not conveniently made at home.) Indeed, nothing unites people like food. For Italians, this unifying force is all the more fascinating because of its emblematic variety throughout the country. Far less than an issue of nutrition or health, it is one of culture and background. Which is why Italians like talking about food. And yet Italy is one of the inadvertent originators of the Mediterranean diet, propounded by modern nutritionists.

It was mainly the modern concern for healthy oil that led dieticians to the Mediterranean diet. Yet such sophistication is a new phenomenon. You will find out, for example, that olive oil has a near religious significance for many Italians, as the olive tree was linked in ancient times with the cult of agriculture: it is one of the three pillars of agriculture, along with wheat and wine. As oil was part of religious sacraments, olive oil came to be considered a holy oil. You will also learn that “first pressing” is a misleading label, since with 450° atmospheres pressure, the first is the only pressing – a second simply does not exist. The sludge left over, by the way, is used in air conditioners!
I could go on and on…, because I have found the book simply fascinating.

At the end we find an 11-page section of glossaries and tables, which classify: 1. ways of cooking meat, fish, eggs and vegetables; 2. pasta sauces; 3. pasta shape-sauce combinations. Finally, a 20-page bibliography shows the range of research – culinary, historical, literary, etc. – on which the book is so firmly based.

The author’s style is enthusiastic. You sense that she marvels at the wealth of information she has collected. While quoting famous writers and historians (including Dante, Goethe, Stendhal, Dickens, Prezzolini) sometimes archaic or hard to follow, she herself remains conversational. And her enthusiasm is contagious. Every chapter makes you want to read on, find out more, remember titbits to tell friends at dinner parties, not to mention taste some of the specialties, in my own case the vegetarian ones, for I know how Italians prize their vegetable and herb gardens, what masterpieces they are, and how in danger of extinction is the art of growing a genuine vegetable, not a mass-produced one, destined for the polystyrene package on the supermarket shelf.

This subject of extinction is in fact what links the Slow Food movement to conservationism. The movement, now with branches in 107 countries, was started by Carlo Petrini in Piedmont. Its aim is biodiversity, and its mode is refinement. It is tightly linked to environmental and social consciousness, and pervaded by a sense of humour (“We are fighting for the protection of the blonde hen of Piedmont”). In the early nineties only a handful of the prized “black pig of Romagna” was left (from 22,000 in 1949). Slow Food did its best to revive the breed, but needed the help of the Italian WWF and Turin University to succeed.

If Slow Food is into saving foods that are prized, Elena Kostioukovitch’s book pays it homage, and her love of Italy (rather than of food) is her theme. It is a love of culture and history, of landscape and customs, all of which are best learned and assimilated through Italy’s attitudes to food, its production and preparation. I hope this book is translated (possibly with another title) into English, for it is the English-speaking world that has the greatest stake in Italy’s tourism, and the greatest influence in promoting her image. It goes without saying that the only image worth propagating is an authentic one – and that is just what Kostioukovitch’s book gives us.