Stefania Toscano packed many of her beloved aunt’s books when she moved from Italy to Oregon. She was in a rush and didn’t catalog them before boxing them up, so when she found a coverless, worn book in a Ziploc bag at the bottom of one of the boxes, at first she didn’t think much of it. Her aunt was a hugely accomplished cook and had a large collection of cookbooks.
Upon closer inspection she realized it was an 1809 edition of Il Cuoco Maceratese (The Cook from Macerata — a city in the central Italian region of Le Marche) by Antonio Nebbia. It’s one of the earliest cookbooks written on Italian soil, decades before it was a country.
Toscano went to the Reed College library to find out more about the book, and a search of the school’s massive database of libraries around the world confirmed that it was a rare volume indeed. Out of 42,000 libraries searched, there were only three copies of this edition.
The University of Oregon’s Nicola Camerlenghi, an Italian-born assistant professor of art history, told us that the mere fact that recipes were even written down and published reflected the region’s growing economic prosperity and the emergence of an upper-middle class, who were employing cooks who needed information.
According to Camerlenghi, who has an academic interest in medieval architecture and gastronomy, the new bourgeois class in Macerata looked to France and its nouvelle cuisine for inspiration — even before Napoleon stormed Italy in 1798.
“Papal rulership is conservative,” Camerlenghi says. “And here is this exciting stuff that is going on in France: the 19th century Enlightenment. Voltaire, all these big thinkers.” And France, he says, embodies a cosmopolitan sophistication that appeals to upper-middle-class Italians.
Nebbia introduces French-style sauces to give flavor to food, eschewing heavy use of spices, roasted meats and other medieval carryovers.
Along with the more traditional lard and pig fat, he recommends using butter, even in pasta. Dishes call for making puff pastry and sweet custard creams to accompany meats and breads.
As important as what is in the book is what’s not. You see no mention of tomatoes or potatoes. It took years after the tomato’s arrival in Europe from the New World for it to be considered edible (the first pasta recipe with tomatoes was recorded in 1790). Potatoes were introduced in 1773, Camerlenghi says, but only became widely used after the government played up their health properties.
You see Enlightenment principles at work in his description of rational rules for the organized kitchen, the ordered, measured instructions for each dish, and his focus on sanitation. He recommends, for instance, that people who are sick be forcibly evicted from the kitchen, that cow hairs should be filtered out of milk and that feathers should be removed from birds before they’re cooked and then actually kept off. (There was a gross habit in medieval cookery of serving birds with their feathers draped back on them so they looked like a live display.)
In the video below Stefania Toscano says the book is written in an archaic Italian, a mixture of the modern language and Latin, but from what I can see in the picture it looks just a little old fashioned; for instance, they use the medial s, the elongated form that looks like an f.
It’s readable enough, though, because she’s been making some of the recipes and even the odd ones like Piatto di Sellari di Vigilia con salsa di Tarantello, a pan sauté of tuna, boiled celery, a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a slurry of flour and water, have turned out surprisingly well. Then there’s the one she’s been making for Christmas, a marvel called Lasagna Princisgrass, so called because it’s rich enough for a prince, made from sheets of pasta layered with white sauce, shaved truffles and prosciutto.