Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cooking by Hand -- Paul Bertolli's Excellent Book

I first heard of Paul Bertolli's marvelous Cooking by Hand from an article in Edward Behr's The Art of Eating, in which Behr lists it as one of the nine cookbooks that he would keep on his shelf if he had to give up all his hundreds of others. Bertolli's book has many recipes, true, but really it is more a series of essays on Italian food than it is a cookbook. This is evident from the chapter headings -- "Ripeness," "Twelve Ways at Looking at a Tomato" and "Aceto Balsamico," for example, rather than meat, fish, pasta, etc. It is a splendid read, although you might want to skim through the very long chapter on charcuterie if, like me, there is no chance that you will put it to practical use. But even this chapter is full of interesting lore and information that will make you a more thoughtful cook and shopper.
Cooking by Hand can at times be quite moving. I actually cried when I read this passage from a letter Bertolli wrote to his newborn son Antonio, which serves as the introduction to the chapter on Aceto Balsamico:

It is two months now that you have been alive and I have decided not to wait to tell you about a special gift we have received in honor of your birth. Your gift came in six separate boxes from our friends in Italy, Francesco, an artisan barrel maker, and his wife, Maura, whom you will soon meet and visit. Francesco has built for you six beautiful casks, Antonio's batteria he calls it, for making aceto balsamico, no ordinary vinegar, as you will see. When Francesco's sons were born he built barrels for them as well and if you were to climb to the very top floor of his house, there under the roof you would see them lined up in rows, one slightly bigger than the next, his sons' names . . . burned into the head of each. Next to these are casks that Francesco's father filled for him nearly 50 years ago! You would also smell something extraordinary as you approach the low door that leads into this room, called the acetaia, the place where vinegar ages -- an aroma that is dense and pungent and like no other that has passed under your nose. . . . Francesco has given to you, but also to our family, a rare gift and the wish of continuity.

By the time you are old enough to read this, the vinegar that I will soon start for you will have aged enough to draw. In it you will taste the years it has marked since you were born. It will grow sappy as you move into your teens, then deepen and thicken as you become a man. In your twenties its dark obscurity will mirror the complexities of life that dawn on you; in middle age balsamico may help you remember who you are and with whom you have belonged. When you grow old, it will be the nectar that you have waited all your life to sip, by then a kind of magic elixir. Like you, it will have become everything it has ever been for better or worse, an embrace of the "sweet and sour" that is life, a family keepsake to pass along to loved ones of your own. . . .
Wow! I still get misty-eyed just typing this, and I am not really a huge fan of balsamic vinegar.

Bobby Jay

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