Paperbacks: Al Dente, By David Winner

How to feast Roman style, from vineyard snails to wafers

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The Independent Culture

Sub-titled "Madness, Beauty and the Food of Rome", this quirky book will enlighten first-time visitors and old hands alike. Its eccentric nature is conveyed by recipes that include a stew of vineyard snails from 1930 and a seminal tomato sauce from 1891, plus an eight-page interview about communion wafers. "Other ingredients are absolutely not allowed, so we have to take maximum care that it's only flour and water," says Winner's informant. "We pay a lot of attention to every detail because we know what the wafer will become."

After his telephonic interrogation of the convent-enclosed Sister Maria, Winner explores transubstantiation in two subsequent chapters. One entitled "The Body" muses on the "cannibalistic aspect of God-eating", while "The Blood" quotes a cultural historian on how "the magical metamorphosis of wine into blood… excited queer, paradoxical, morbid, vaguely vampiric attitudes."

Anyone who acquires Al Dente in the hope of enlightenment about Roman cuisine is in for a surprise. The book starts with a chapter called "The Water". "Ahh," says professor of criminal law sipping from a public spigot near the Trevi Fountain. "It tastes…of the cosmos!" This is followed by "The Feast" a tour of the weird films by Marco Ferreri culminating in La Grande Bouffe, his epic of suicidal overindulgence, "The Fast", about the repellent century killjoy St Jerome, and "The Peach", where Winner decides to recreate Caravaggio's Boy with Fruit Basket with his girlfriend Valeria standing in for the "16th-century rent boy".

A chapter called "The Mushroom" refers to a curiously shaped water tower in Antonioni's "beautiful and terrifying" L'Eclisse. It comes as some relief that The Macaroni is about pasta and its role in the unification of Italy, while "The Ice Cream" concerns the gelati of Giovanni Fassi once licked by Mussolini. Winner insists, "Every aspect of [Roman] life is – and always has been – pickled in alimentation." This book demonstrates that enjoyment of food is much enriched by knowledge of the culture from which it emerges.