Cooking Up Love, Laughter and Piadina at Casa Artusi
Does your family love traditional Italian food? Would you like to learn how to cook it? One of the most qualified cooking schools in Italy is helping tourists cook up love, laughter and piadina in fun sessions run by local volunteers. Casa Artusi Cultural Centre in Emilia Romagna in northern Italy is the birthplace of the ‘father of Italian gastronomy’ – Pellegrino Artusi. So when we were invited to take a class in breadmaking we couldn’t resist. And we learnt more than I anticipated, as I explain in this advertising feature for Emilia Romagna Tourist Board. Turns out cooking teaches some quite important life lessons…
The art of eating well
As we arrive at Casa Artusi in the little town of Forlimpopoli in northern Italy we are greeted by its Director Susy Patrito Silva who announces we either cook our own lunch or we don’t get any. That’s often how it works in my house too. I’m warming to her already. Then she picks up a book; Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library) by Pellegrino Artusi.
“This is not the art of cooking well. It is the art of eating well. We are Italian, we always go straight to the gold.” she says. Now I like her even more.
A steep learning curve
But I realise they do things differently here as she reels off stories of grandmas jealously guarding recipes and mothers passing knowledge down through generations. I don’t even remember my grandma making a cup of tea and the only woman of a certain age to give me recipes was Delia Smith. And I haven’t particularly made an effort to pass the information I have gathered in my lifetime onto my children. So on a day that’s all about cooking as a family I feel we have a lot to learn and I may bear the weight of responsibility if we mess up. Thankfully the recipes are provided, as are the grandmas. Hallelujah! If I can’t learn from mine, I can evidently learn from someone else’s.
The first ever cookbook of Italy
The grandmas in question are a network of volunteers, called the Mariettes of Casa Artusi, who come to cook with tourists and preach the bible. No not that bible; but the book that started it all – Artusi’s revered recipe collection that’s said to be the first ever Italian cookbook.
“You may ask was there no older cook book before this? Of course there was, but we didn’t have Italy before.” Susy explains. “This was the first national cookbook after unification. All the other cookbooks were local and written in dialect or Latin, but not in Italian.”
We learn all about the work of Artusi and his definitive book as we make piadina; the traditional local bread. First we have a demo and then we get on with it ourselves before eating it for lunch. Here’s a video of our experience..
Five Things a Cookery Lesson at Casa Artusi Taught Us
While we knead and shape, and sprinkle and bake, I figure out that we are learning more than recipes. What Artusi did and the instructions he left can be applied to many aspects of life and family life. Here are my thoughts on what the father of Italian home cooking can teach us all…
1 The best teacher is experience
Pellegrino Artusi was a firm believer in learning from experience. In his case it was the experience of ordinary families. While travelling as a businessman he always managed to install himself in the kitchen of whoever he stayed with to watch what was going on. He wrote down their stories and when he retired he gathered them in a collection. Selecting the best recipes from each region must have been a tough job according to Susy.
“Sharing the house of people when doing business, he had a chance to share the typical different dishes. And in Italy we mean deeply different dishes. I don’t know how long you have been travelling in Emilia Romagna, but they don’t even agree about the first course. They call it tortellini, capiletti and more, and when you don’t understand, they get nervous and start explaining,” she laughs. “They more or less agree on tagliatelle. More or less but don’t be sure!”
But what Artusi really meant by experience was having a go, trying out a recipe, giving it your own twist, seeing what works. He didn’t always specify exact weights and measurements, something unheard of in cookery books today.
2 Cooking is a way of sharing life and love with your family
In our cooking session we are helped by experienced cooks Adele and Caterina. During a short demonstration beforehand given by Caterina, Susy gives us rough pointers for making our own bread.
“Try to work with the dough very close to you. Use both hands. If you work with it close to you won’t waste energy and your back won’t hurt. You give it a kind of massage, this is a delicate movement when she connects, but stronger when she pushes. You need to dedicate time to this.”
There isn’t much time so we need to get on with it. Our guides speak no English so instruction is given by a nod, and a smile and an encouraging pat on the back. And they rush in to help when it threatens to veer off course. They reserve their best smiles for Papi. “Bravo Papi”which I assume to mean well done Daddy. In fact ‘Papi’ is happy to learn from my experience, nicking my dough to make his own bread. Which isn’t as nicely shaped or uniformly rolled as mine. In fact I’d go so far as to say his resembles a Toblerone.
Adele says it looks like England.
“Then I’ve made Australia, says Matthew, showing us his flattened dough.
This session gives me grandma envy. The volunteers at the centre give their time for free and all bring their own talents and skills. They are collectively named ‘Mariettes’ after Artusi’s loyal assistant and I’d swear she is there in spirit as they chat in Italian and push and pull and laugh and encourage us. The atmosphere in the room is so good natured that even our kids are being kind to each other and congratulating each other on their far from perfect bread. Later, when we share the bread with tagliatelle (recipe number seven in the cookbook) in the light filled dining room there is a sense of shared pride that we definitely do not get at home when I wave a rolling pin around and shout at people for not doing the dishes.
3 Keep on trying and adapting
“No one believed a businessman could talk about gastronomy” says Susy about Artusi’s first efforts to get published. “He couldn’t find a publisher. Unable to find a place to print the book he paid for a thousand copies himself and he succeeded to sell them all. After it was published people sent letters. Many complements and also complaining ‘How could it happen that you missed this recipe in our family or town since medieval times?’ He used to go in kitchen with Mariette and test and taste the new recipes they sent.” When the first edition sold out he was ready with the second. “He added 100 recipes so now there were 575. Do you think it satisfied him? Never.”
She holds up three more books. This is the 4 edition, this is the 8th edition and this is the 12th edition.” He died after the 15th edition was completed. “He was 91 years old, which at that time was like being 120 today.”
The skill of adapting was necessary in those times, particularly for the people Artusi visited. “They were used to feeding the family on what they had. Changing the recipe was not to try something different. It was a need because most of the time they did not have the raw material. It was incredible that these people with very simple local seasonal ingredients were able to create dishes, great dishes that can still compete with the best chef. it’s a kind of comfort for all of us.” Susy explains.
4 Food is timeless and a good recipe book is too
“This is not a museum. It is a cookery school, wine cellar, restaurant, a cultural centre dedicated to one man,” says Susy, adding, “Let me introduce you to the boss.” She points us towards a picture of a man with an impressive amount of facial hair. And indeed the legacy of Pellegrino Artusi is more alive today than ever. You can buy a translated copy of the book on Amazon in several languages. There’s an Artusi video game on the Apple store. The town of Forlimpopoli has an annual food festival and thousands come. Why all this fuss over a basic cookbook? Because the recipes still have currency today. Good home cooked food has not gone out of fashion.
5 It’s not about being perfect, just authentic
In one sense Artusi was all about getting cooking spot on. He preached ‘passion, care and precision of method.’ And Susy agrees that if you are aiming to reproduce favourite local dishes, you do need to take care to source the right ingredients and cook them with care and attention. “If you are going to call it capaletti, you have to use the local cheese.”
But equally Artusi believed anyone could cook.”If you do not aspire to become a premier cook, you need not have been born with a pan on your head to become a good one.” he said in his book. We were not born with pans on our heads or wooden spoons in our hands but we manage to bake a batch of piadina. Not perfect, but good enough to eat. Which we do, with relish.
“When we travel and taste a dish we find the most authentic expression of the culture of a place.” says Susy as she clears five empty plates. And more than anything, authenticity is what we find at Casa Artusi. Authentic food. An authentic grandma. An authentic way of getting to know our kids better. And best of all, a delicious, authentic lunch. Stuart’s bread could do with being a little thinner, but it’s not bad for a first effort – Bravo Papi!
Private cookery lessons for families and small groups are available by request. They are provided in English or Italian and if Susy is around you can also have one in in French. Up to twenty people can do the hands on sessions at a time. You are likely to make either pasta or piadina and your session will include a demo and time to have a go. All materials will be provided, you just need to make sure you are suitably dressed for a kitchen including closed shoes. No chef skills are necessary!
Restaurant Casa Artusi serves both lunch and dinner all week round (except for all day Tuesday and Wednesday daytime.)
Check out the Casa Artusi website for further details. If you are a true foodie you should also check out my post on Naples; the best pizza chef in Italy but not suitable for marrying your daughter.
Disclosure Note: We travelled to northern Italy with the Emilia Romagna tourist board to help promote the region’s attractions to families. Casa Artusi provided the cooking experience to enable us to bring you this story. Joy, laughter and cooking skills were provided by the Mariettes of Forlimpopoli, while the bread making, words, photography and videography are entirely our own.