In entries from "bitterness" ("Fernet Branca is... a weird and wonderful way of mitigating a robust meal") to "offal" ("the ritual sequences of feast and fast connected with pig killing is... a glorious argument against the tyranny of the 'balanced diet'"), Gillian Riley shows that a hefty, authoritative work on the world's greatest domestic cuisine can also be personal, entertaining and readable.
In the long consideration of parmesan, she suggests that "the attentive grating over pasta or soup [is] as magical as shavings of truffles." Addressing pizza, she says it is "so easy and cheap to make at home that sending out for a cheap imitation of the real thing is something to think twice about".
The blandness of supermarket ricotta is explained: "It needs to be eaten fresh, ideally where it is made." Riley is an art historian and her entries on artists including Mantegna, Michelangelo and Caravaggio (the incident when he threw a plate of artichokes at a waiter "strikes a chord with all of us who have endured the behaviour of a less than civil wait person") caused bemusement among some food writers.
But, to adapt CLR James on cricket, "What do they know of food who only food know?" From a Yorkshirewoman not afraid to speak her mind – she is spot-on in her view that Italian tripe is "a revelation after the horrible chewy boiled tripe eaten... in the north of England" – Riley's book is a bravura performance.