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Who wrote Australia’s first Italian cookbook?

8 May

Ok, so, yes, Lamingtons & Lasagna has been less than productive on the blog front, it cannot be denied, but she hasn’t been doing exactly nothing…

I gave a presentation on Australia’s first Italian cookbook at the Museo Italiano in Carlton last week, where I baked the Siennese Little Horses again, and am happy to report they came out much better this time (note to self: convert measurements using Google, not own brain). I spruiked the talk and massacred the Italian language again on SBS Radio. And I just posted a guest blog for the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies on who (could’ve) written Australia’s first Italian cookbook.

I just wanted to thank Dr Paolo Barrachi at the Museo Italiano for all his help with the talk, everyone who came along and gave valuable feedback, and my sister Lisa for creating super awesome invitation postcard:

Food and Fascism Talk at Museo Italiano

Looking forward to getting on with some new research now, and maybe even posting about it right here… although I wouldn’t want to overdo it right?

Retro recipe: Siennese “Little Horses”, 1937

5 Oct

You may be wondering what’s become of Lamingtons & Lasagna lately, and why she hasn’t managed to blog in nearly five months. Or, more likely, you hadn’t noticed. In any case, I’ve been a busy PhD bee – I went to Italy to present a paper at an Italian food conference in Perugia (yes, really, I know, I can’t believe it either) and then came home to present another paper at the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide. Both papers were accepted for publication so I’ve been spending a lot of time in my pyjamas, in my study, writing like a crazy woman…

And yesterday, I finished!

Hooray! To celebrate I thought I’d get out of my pyjamas and cook a retro recipe, like I used to in the blog days of old.

Today’s retro recipe is very special indeed. It was also a disaster, but we’ll get to that shortly.

It comes from the First Australian Continental Cookery Book (FACCB), the subject of my second paper, which is, in my scholarly opinion, Australia’s first Italian cookbook. Btw if you followed the appeal to find the Italian version of the book, I found it thanks to the fabulous Blake Singley at ANU who pointed out that the Italian version was hiding behind the English version at the NLA all along…

First Australian Continental Cookery Book

But I digress. The recipe is from 1937 and is called Siennese “Little Horses”, or, in the Italian version of the same book Cavallucci di Siena. It’s a classic kind of Italian recipe – meaning there’s a version of it in Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well – but this version was meant for Australians of the 1930s to cook. Which is perhaps why it suggests the biscuits be cut into the shape of horses with jockeys atop, despite Artusi pointing out that they should be oval-shaped, not horse-shaped. There’s a sense of whimsy and fun in the FACCB, something not present in most other cookbooks of its day, who would never say, for example, of a lamb dish, “to start with, it must be real lamb, not mutton rejuvenated like ambitious ladies on the wrong side of forty”.

But I digress (again!) What does one need for this recipe? Sugar, walnuts, candied orange peel, fennel seeds, mixed spice, nutmeg, flour and a “mould” of a horse with a jockey on top. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have the latter so I hot-footed it over to the local kitchenware shop and asked the lady for a biscuit cutter in the shape of a horse with a jockey. Unfortunately, this came out as “do you have any “horsey” biscuit cutters with jockeys”. To which she should’ve replied, how old are you? Three? But instead said, yes, we do, but there’s no jockey. Quickly deciding I had the necessary skills to fashion a jockey from dough, though, in hindsight, no hard evidence to support this decision, I parted with $2.50 and took my horsey cookie cutter home.

Now in the kitchen, I was all set to start. First, I read the recipe through because in 36 years of life I have figured out that this is always a good idea. A red flag appeared. The recipe only wanted enough flour to cover a board. Hmmm, I would think you’d need more flour for a biscuit dough? I thought about it for all of a minute and then decided that the walnuts which were to be “finely minced” would replace the flour, like almond meal. So all good. Then I was flummoxed by this sentence “Dissolve in a casserole about one pound of sugar in about a third of its weight in water.” A pound is almost half a kilo, right? So a third of almost half a kilo? My head hurts when a little thing like maths rears its very ugly stupid head, so I decided to change all the measurements  – I’ll use a cup of sugar, and therefore will need a third of a cup of water, and I’ll scale all the measurements accordingly. Maths will not defeat me, I am smart, I am a PhD student, I can do this. This red flag was so big it was like the ones matadors use for bulls. But I ignored it like the beautiful idiot that I am.

Next challenge was the “mincing” of the walnuts. Now, I don’t know how they minced walnuts in 1937, but here’s how I did it:

Mincing the walnuts

And then I was off. In goes the sugar and the water, to which “as soon as it begins to liquefy” I added the minced walnuts, the candied peel, the mixed spice and the fennel seeds:

Sugar and water in saucepan

And out came a watery brown mess. It resembled something which belongs in the bathroom, not the kitchen. But the recipe told me to: “mix well and spread on a board well covered with flour.”

Sugar with ingredients mixed

I mixed and mixed and mixed. Nothing changed. I couldn’t see how I could possibly pour this latte-like hot sugar syrup on a board, no matter how well it was floured.  Something had gone drastically wrong. Either I had screwed up the measurements or the recipe was a bit wrong, or both. In any case, I needed a fix. So I grabbed the flour and stirred some in. And then I added more, and more…

Mixing in flour

Mixing in the flour

When the dough resembled playdough, I knew I had gone too far:

Dough

But by then it was too late. I cut out my horses:

Cutting horses from dough

I attempted some jockeys:

Cutting out jockeys

Horses with jockeys

It didn’t work, and I wondered why I ever thought they would. So I scrapped them from the vision. Feeling defeated, I put them in the oven and about 10 minutes later these came out:

Cooked horse biscuits

The hardest, toughest, crunchiest biscuits this side of Siena. Some would say they could break your teeth…

On the other hand, if you dip them in coffee or a sweet liquor, much like the more famous and better known Cantucci di Siena, they are almost ok. I did say almost…

Bibliography

  • Artusi, Pellegrino. Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
  • First Australian Continental Cookery Book. Melbourne: Cosmopolitan Publishing Co. Limited, 1937.
  • La Cucina Continentale. Melbourne: Cosmopolitan Publishing Co. Limited, 1937.

Update: Australia’s first Italian cookbook

4 Apr

The lovely folk at SBS Radio’s Italian program have joined the appeal to help find Australia’s first Italian cookbook – La Cucina Continentale.  Carlo Oreglia interviewed me, and you can hear the interview – and me mangle the beautiful Italian language – around the 38 minute mark of this morning’s program.

Thanks both to Carlo for the interview, and the awesome James Panichi for helping me get the word out.

The quest continues…

Related links
Australia’s first Italian cookbook – MIA

Australia’s first Italian cookbook – MIA

2 Apr

Every so often you make a discovery. Something you think no one else knows. This makes you happy, so very, very happy.

Being a PhD student is a bit of a drudge most of the time. There are books to find, notes to take, references to record, forms to complete and reading, so much reading, some of it interesting, much of it leading to a lifelong hatred of anyone whose name comes prefaced by the words “French philosopher”.

But when that moment happens, the point of a new discovery, you forget about the references and the forms, you even forget that your annual salary is below the poverty line, and you think it’s all worth it. For you are now making a real contribution to your field. It’s you they are going to reference and your name they are going to struggle to spell correctly in EndNote or Mendeley (For the record: C-A-M-M-A-R-A-N-O).

This happened to me quite recently. It was good for a bit. And then it all went to shit. Here’s how it unfolded:

Working at the State Library of Victoria, I was examining a 1930s cookbook called the First Australian Continental Cookery Book. While the book says its about European cooking, there seem to be more Italian recipes than anything else, and after I read:

It is time for Australians to realise, in fact, that what one may call Mediterranean cookery has much to offer them. Italian cookery, for instance, embodies ideas, aims and methods that have not only been ripening for literally thousands of years, but have been doing so under climatic conditions far more closely resembling those of Australia than do the British.

I somehow deduced this book had to be written by an Italian. In fact, I half thought it might be my Uncle Tony. But with no author listed, I looked into the publisher – the Cosmopolitan Publishing Company – and found that the same company published a bunch of other Italian-related books. Dig just that bit deeper and guess what, the company is run by a group of Italian migrants who also published the principal fascist newspaper in Australia, Il Giornale Italiano.

This is seriously good stuff. I’m feeling pretty great about what I’ve found, and then the cake gets iced. By the same publisher, I find in the NLA’s catalogue, published in the 1930s as well, La Cucina Continentale. I think I may well have just stumbled upon Australia’s first Italian cookbook. All I have to do is go to Canberra and check it out.

La Cucina Continentale

Happy days! La Cucina Continentale in the NLA’s catalogue.

So off to the nation’s fine capital I go. When I get to the NLA, I become a member, request the book and spend 45 minutes looking at the exhibition next door while some hairy librarian type – they are always hairy – fetches it for me. I log back into the computer to check the status of the book, but see just one word – Missing. I think I stop breathing for a second. Missing. I go and tell the nice, bearded man (see, I told you they are always hairy) behind the desk. It’s the only known copy in the world, I say in not my usual calm way, and it just can’t be missing. He tells me that I am wrong – it can be missing. But, I say, no, it really can’t. Nice man gets the feeling this could go on all day so he tells me to go home and request an official investigation. This happens, and two weeks later the official investigation sends me a lovely email in which, it concludes, the book is not just missing now – it’s officially missing.

Excellent.

So now, dear reader, in a bid to save this discovery from the dustbin, I am launching an appeal to find La Cucina Continentale. If you know of it, or anything about it, I would love to hear from you. You know where to find me. Please, because I really want to be in EndNote…

La Cucina Continentale missing

Not so happy. La Cucina Continentale is now officially missing.

Bibliography:

  • Cappello, Anthony. “Italian Australians, the Church, War and Fascism in Melbourne 1919-1945.” Masters’ diss.,Victoria University of Technology, 1999.
  • Cresciani, Gianfranco. Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Italians in Australia, 1922-1945. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1980.
  • First Australian Continental Cookery Book. Melbourne: Cosmopolitan Publishing Co. Limited, 1937.