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May 12, 2006

Buford on Italian Cooking

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Among real Italian cooks, says Bill Buford, "fusion" is an "awful word." Nice passage:

In Italy you learn a sense of composition: certain things go with certain things. At the fancy restaurants, itís like writing a sonnet. Youíre working within a very formal structure for what goes with what, but thereís quite a lot of room for creativity. Often, the creativity is dictated by the season, whatís fresh. When you get back from Italy and go to a typical Italian restaurant in America, you look at the menu and see all the shit theyíre putting in the pasta to make it interesting, and you think, Yuck. Itís too complicated. The Italian view is, itís not just two or three ingredients; itís the right two or three ingredients that all talk to each other. You want to make sure your two or three ingredients are perfect, in and of themselves.

I often think that cooking is a good model for all the arts ...



UPDATE: Jonathan's comment on this posting reminds me of a great quote from the great Leon Krier. He was writing about architecture: "As is the case with all good things in life -- love, good manners, language, cooking -- personal creativity is required only rarely." Here's a superb interview with Krier by Nikos Salingaros. Here's a sensible review of Krier's beyond-fabulous "Architecture: Choice or Fate?"

posted by Michael at May 12, 2006


You got it. Too many creative products, from restaurant food to buildings, are the esthetic equivalents of drum solos -- full of variation in theme and technique for its own sake when adherence to proven forms would have been more pleasing to the customers.

Posted by: Jonathan on May 12, 2006 5:51 PM

Terrific point here, Michael. When my wife and I first started experimenting with Italian cooking, we found that our most successful dishes were the ones that kept the number of ingredients to a minimum. In a typical pasta dish, I don't like more than three vegetables, garlic and olive oil. Once you start getting too elaborate, you can't taste the individual ingredients. Here's a good recipe for tortellini: carrots, cauliflower, English peas, prosciutto ham, garlic, olive oil. Make sure you use fresh vegetables, cut the carrots and cauliflower into small bitesize pieces, (don't overcook them), lightly saute the prosciutto before adding to the dish. I prefer cheese filled tortellini. I generally sprinkle a little Pecorino cheese on top. A good Zinfandel goes down well with it.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 13, 2006 8:45 AM

Maybe it's about the hierarchy of structure. It's most difficult to cook simple food well. Without the complicating frills, the dish would expose naked the lacks of culinary skill of a chef. The controls of timing, sequence, temperature, etc.with a little secret touch of something often add twist to the dish. On the other hand, if the dish is "complicated", you would have to ensure the hierarchy is clear, so the taste bud could identify what is complementing what. The star of the show must stay always clearly at the top of the hierarchy. To do this well, correct combination of ingredients is critical. (It’s a bit like architecture on hierarchy of space.)

Posted by: look on May 19, 2006 9:05 PM

For me "fusion" is a fashion that has nothing in common with delicious food.

Posted by: Italian girl on June 6, 2006 10:02 AM

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