Gastronomic Garibaldi succumbs to fashion for dietary correctness

Andrew Gumbel chews over a new edition that makes an indigestible meal of updating Italy's best-loved food book
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Rome - In 1891, a cranky old gentleman from Florence called Pellegrino Artusi published what was to become the bible of Italian cuisine, a collection of nearly 800 recipes entitled The Science of Cooking and The Art of Eating Well. It became an overnight success, winning Artusi the admiration of countless housewives who wrote to him in adoring tones, and turning him into a national figurehead, the Italian equivalent of Brillat-Savarin, Escoffier and Mrs Beeton all rolled into one.

These days, Artusi is looked upon as a kind of gastronomic Garibaldi, a man who brought together the disparate culinary traditions of the Italian regions in the name of national unity. He is still read voraciously, not so much for his recipes as for his style, which displays a canny knack for story-telling in the tradition of the Arabian Nights. A tale about a homesick medical student from Romagna unfolds into a sumptuous recipe for cappelletti in brodo; his rendering of minestrone recalls a cholera epidemic in Livorno that claimed the life of the owner of a favourite restaurant.

Artusi is outrageous, demanding hours of hard manual labour to prepare dishes loaded down with lard, ox marrow and pig's trotters. A 70-year- old bachelor, Artusi was wonderfully reactionary, dismissing the sensitive constitutions of his lady correspondents as symptoms of nervous hypochondria.

Of course, no modern Italian household seriously tries to emulate his diet; instead, his book is treated as a much-loved piece of history (it is the volume most frequently stolen from public libraries).

So it was with a certain amount of scepticism a few days ago that I tore off the plastic wrapping from a new volume presented to me, somewhat incongruously, as a free gift thrown in with an oil change at a service station on the Bologna-Ancona motorway.

The new book is called Artusi 2000, and is written by two dieticians, Giuseppe Sangiorgi and Annamaria Todi, who with a relentless lack of humour have been through the master's recipes one by one, criticising them for their excessive richness, fat imbalances and high cholesterol content.

Each dish is broken down into food groups and calorie counts, or, in the authors' own phrase, into "dietetic- nutritional data". Charts show how quickly you can expect to keel over from cardiac arrest after munching your way through the more extravagant menus. The authors have taken it upon themselves to censor certain ingredients ("We don't advise you to add the pork crackling, and in fact we haven't included it in our breakdowns"). Readers are urged to skim the fat off the top of stocks and stews, and reminded that thrushes and other small birds Artusi delights in are protected species.

Have the authors missed the point? Yes. But is this a sign of the times? Regrettably, it must be. For years, Italy escaped the diet obsessions of other Western countries, largely because its traditional peasant cuisine, based on olive oil, plentiful fresh fruit and vegetables and only moderate quantities of meat, was fundamentally healthy. There are few obese men around and, despite the stereotypical image of the fat mamma, even fewer obese women.

The gamin look, so beloved of Paris catwalks and women's magazines in Britain and the United States, has never been popular in Italy; the ideal Italian woman has always been well-endowed up top and a little plump around the edges. Sophia Loren, even at 60, is still a potent sex symbol.

Artusi 2000 is one sign that all that may be about to change. Television advertisements are beginning to tout diet foods and weight-loss programmes. The latest issue of Italian Marie-Claire writes approvingly of a course which invites consenting adult women to throw away pounds 400 so they can starve themselves on a diet of stale bread and water for a week. The Corriere della Sera's weekly colour supplement has declared that super-thin is in.

Most Italian women I know have been on diets recently (mozzarella, they warn in grave tones, stays in your mouth for 30 seconds but on your hips for ever).

Even Artusi 2000 lets its hair down every now and again. A recipe for tortelli oozing with butter, eggs and cheese is denounced as a calorific bomb. But then the po-faced authors add: "The deliciousness of these tortelli justifies, at least in part, a little lapse in the usual dietary rules. Just don't eat them too often."