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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Oxford Companion to Italian Food

THE OXFORD COMPANION TO ITALIAN FOOD (Oxford University Press, 2007, 637
pages, ISBN 978-0-19-860617-8, $39.95 hard covers) is by Gillian Riley, a
food historian who makes major contributions to the Oxford Symposium on
Food, and author of "Renaissance Recipes" and the National Gallery Cookbook.
She's assisted by five contributors, including Anna del Conte and Carol
Field, but she's done the bulk of the detail work, including the writing of
all the unsigned articles. There are 900 articles here, in an A - Z setup
for all of the entries (and no recipes). Major categories of topics include:
history, society, culture, variety of cuisine, myths, dishes and prepared
foods, ingredients (e.g., seafood, sweets, vegetables, herbs, meats, pasta),
delicacies, cooking methods, culinary terms, implements, regional
specialties (e.g. Emilia-Romagna), baked goods (amaretti, bruschetta,
cornetto, panettone), cheeses. There are 75 biographies of important
Italians, mainly chefs. She has some good clarifying notes on the
differences between emmer wheat (farro) and spelt. Unfortunately, there is
not much on wine or on other beverages - probably outside her scope. The
index has large type; it is extensive with copious cross-references. And
there are internal cross-references as well, where appropriate. Headwords
stand out clearly. She provides a long and up-to-date bibliography. Basic
question: why start with Italian food? Why not French food? Just asking...

Audience and level of use: Italian food lovers, librarians, hospitality
schools, food reference book collectors.

Some interesting or unusual facts: Ciabatta is very recent. Its dough was
described in 1985 by Carol Field as "utterly unfamiliar and probably a bit

The downside to this book: not really a downside, but how far along is
Oxford going with all of its Companion series? In Food and Drink alone they
can mine the field with at least 100 titles. The one map of Italy is a puny
black and white affair. And there are the occasional errors of pagination in
the index (e.g., emmer wheat).

The upside to this book: there are small, occasional black and white photos
which are informative. She also manages to cover mediaeval cookbooks, and
food in Renaissance paintings.

Quality/Price Rating: 95 (great price, even cheaper on Amazon.Ca)

1 comment:

Elliot Essman said...

Great review. Fortunately the book has an index, making it extra valuable. The Oxford Companion to Wine has no index, a frustration indeed when you want to look up something that doesn't have a head-note.