A slow A to Z of Italian flavours

The Oxford Companion to Italian Food - Gillian Riley

By Louise Johnson
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The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley

The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley [©Oxford University Press]

Step into the complex world of Italian food – other Italian cookbooks on my shelves barely scrape the surface of a cuisine that has many centuries of traditions and continues to evolve. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food opens up a whole new world, and has transformed my kitchen for now ... perhaps forever.

In Italy a celebration without food is unthinkable, and there is much to celebrate. With an extensive section on Festivity and Food, this companion could also serve as a travel guide of when to plan your gastronomic adventures – it seems, any time is a good time really.

There is Gillian Riley grinning at me from the rear dust cover of this encyclopaedia. She grasps a gelato, candy pink, and has the kind smile of someone’s grandmother. I imagine her kitchen, the warm smells of slow cooked brews and a busy mess of pans and produce, from which I form fresh plans to recreate after every taste of text. It’s my own fantasy, I’m sure, as Gillian Riley is a food historian and academic. However, I am inspired by the thought of her.

In this inspiring and wide-ranging A-Z of this much loved cuisine Riley explores individual dishes, ingredients, cooking methods and implements, regional specialties and much more.

There is some amazing information here – Liber de coquina, a cookbook from the 14th century, survives to this day and describes a distinctive style of gastronomy from the Italian peninsular. A recipe with Arabic influence, for Limonia, is described. Chickens are parboiled, jointed and fried in lard, then finished in a sauce made from ground almonds, chicken broth, saffron, spices and lemon juice tempered with sugar, then served dusted in cinnamon. Riley has me heading for the kitchen.

Not a cookbook as such, the mini-essays which make up each entry include plenty of “recipes” and references to cookbooks to find the best instructions for creating more intricate dishes. Of special delight for a confident chef are the explanations around regional specialities and the style of cuisine. In Abruzzo dishes are distinguished by robust seasonings and heavy in game and fish, the products of the meadows, terraces and upload pastures in the area. Chilli features heavily here and, while all cooks have their own recipes, the cooking medium of many dishes is a sauce made with olive oil, chopped garlic, sometimes onion, celery, herbs and often dried sweet peppers, tomatoes, chillies and occasionally saffron. Back to the kitchen I go.

A delightful read is the section on Parmesan, which covers its remarkable nutritional value, the region where it is produced, the breed of cow used to produce it, the role of the cheese maker, the origin of its name, Moiliere’s deathbed demand for it, its frequent and lustrous depiction in paintings of the 16th and 17th century and the proper method of serving. Also Balsamic Vinegar and the process for making Aceta Balsamico di Modena explains why you can expect to pay anything from $100 to $500 for a small bottle.

The Oxford Companion to Italian Food will live on my kitchen counter for some time I think – it is easy to dip into and offers a whole world to discover while my Abruzzo-inspired venison dish quietly simmers in the background.


The Oxford Companion to Italian Food is published by Oxford University Press, RRP $59.95

VisitVineyards.com and Winepros.com.au subscribers can buy The Oxford Companion to Italian Food from our book partners Seekbooks at 12.5% discount (plus postage).

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