Eating Up Italy: Voyages on a Vespa by Matthew Fort
A travelogue cum cookbook, Eating Up Italy chronicles British food writer and critic Matthew Fort's culinary exploration of Italy from Melito Di Porto Salvo in Calabria to Turin.
Each of the book's twelve chapters begins with a blurb pulled from the chapter text to set the scene and ends with recipes for dishes featured in that chapter. The recipes highlight everything from the relatively tame dishes like pasta al forno (baked pasta, 28) and puré di patate (mashed potato, 240) to the adventurous anguilla in umido alla comacchiese (stewed eel Comacchio style, 216) and trippa Napoletana (Neapolitan tripe, 104).
Fort is a sympathetic character, a kind of everyman with a well-trained palette. He describes himself a balding middle-aged man with a slight paunch. He's almost a comic character, experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis, which has left him with the desire to take to the road. The Italians think Fort is crazy for riding a vespa on the highway, but they warm to him and his obvious love of food and he in turn gets them to open up to him about their own love of all things culinary.
Eating Up Italy is a book that will appeal to all foodies. Descriptions of Italian landscape and gastronomic delights are peppered with reflections on Italian culture, agritourism, artisanal food production, and the Slow Food movement. Fort delights in the simplicity of a perfectly ripe peach, bemoans the fact that the British have lost their taste for offal, and is not afraid to admit that before the trip he thought bergamot was a flower.
The end, however, left me a bit dissatisfied. After all this talk of Fort stuffing himself at every meal, I wanted to know how much weight he gained during his trip. Beyond that, I have few complaints. There is a certain disjointedness in the narrative, but that I suppose is to be expected given the book's origins as a travel diary. One thing that Fort and his editors did not take into consideration when producing the American edition is exactly how parochial we Americans are. Not only does Fort pepper his narrative with foreign words, he rarely gives the English version of an Italian word after its first appearance in the book. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but with the proliferation of Italian food items it becomes impossible to keep them all straight (especially when a word was first mentioned only in passing fifty pages earlier). Despite the fact that the book has an index, this may put off some readers.
The success of Eating Up Italy is tied up in Fort's evident love and appreciation of Italian food and culture, which is perfectly illustrated by this passage: "This was what I had come for. Each mouthful was a reminder of the essential plainness, and grace, of Italian food. There were no extraneous sauces, no distracting garnishes, no mint sprigs or dashes of fancy oils. The flavours were clean and clear. The beauty of each dish lay in the quality of the ingredients, and in the understanding with which they were cooked" (10).
As an aside - I like the cover (gotta love Botticelli's Birth of Venus) except for those horrid little fish.
Read my review at Front Street Reviews...