Don’t go thinking that this book on Italian food will deliver the quintessential ‘Tuscany’ experience of neatly terraced pastel-coloured landscapes, of ancient silvery-leaved olive trees and soft rolling hills festooned with vines, of terracotta rooves and medieval towns. Adriatico: Recipes and stories from Italy’s Adriatic Coast features gutsier, less refined, often curious or strongly flavoured food, at least to tame palates. And that’s what makes it interesting.
The Adriatic coast runs the length of the east coast of Italy right down to the heel of the boot, a wide body of sea that separates Italy from the Balkan Peninsula and countries Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Albania before joining the Ionian Sea and lapping the shores of the Greek islands. The food you will find so far south is understandably a far cry from what you will find in the north around the Venetian lagoons, but there is one thing that links it all: seafood. Paola Bacchia takes the reader on a journey along the coast – the whole 1,200 kilometre length – with stories, photographs and recipes. This is not quite a cosy-up bedtime book, (it’s a little shorter than A4 in size), but it’s definitely just the thing for armchair travelling. Light the fire, prop up your feet – glass of wine and olives within reach – and start your journey. The photography will make you want to go there.
I’m not sure how many recipes the average punter is likely to cook from this book – though the adventurous gourmet will definitely embrace it – but I’d buy it for the read, the reference, the fact it opens up a large area of Italy not often visited by tourists who so often make the mad dash around Rome, Florence, and maybe Venice, or see Italy in a week.
I’m old-school when it comes to reviewing books, and count up recipes and photographs rather than believing press releases which accompany review books. I check the quality of the paper the book is printed on, the design elements, and check claims and references and see how they sit with my knowledge and with current research where applicable (I reviewed cookbooks for 10 years for Radio New Zealand with a monthly show called Cooking the Books, and you learn to quickly spot defects or pick up on mis-information). Goodness, if I had gone with the press release, I would be calling this book Adriatico: Stories and recipes from Italy’s Adriatic Coast Never mind.
You’ll find over 80 recipes in Adriatico. It has a hard cover (that adds dollars to a book’s price) but no wrap-around jacket or ribbon for marking your place, (which would added even more to the retail price). It’s printed on great paper stock and bursting with brilliant photographs (about 260!), and although it’s not cheap, it’s a quality book with terrific design and offers very good value. Now here’s an extra: The author Paola Bacchus is also identified as the photographer (apart from a few images she credits to a friend). That’s some talent, yet, it doesn’t get much of a mention. Maybe I missed it. But to me, it is the photography which lifts these stories, giving them a visual identity that the text alone could not do.
Although she was born in Australia, her father grew up on the shores of the Adriatic. Here she writes in the opening chapter:
“My father’s fate was to lose his home and his birthright, and so he became one more member of the Italian diaspora who had to board a ship with a single suitcase in hand and watch their homeland dissolve into the horizon as the ship sailed port.
“Years later, in the quiet of our home in suburban Melbourne, Australia, he told me that before the war his mother (my nonna Stefania) would wrap freshly fried sardines or mackerel in paper and carry them down to the beach. Together with his father and sister, they would sit on the rocks and eat the fish, still warm from the kitchen and so fresh it still tasted of the sea.
“The shores were swathed with rocks and shallow rock pools, and the sea from where the fish had been caught the night before was limpid and blue. He held onto these memories for the rest of his life: the clear waters, being with his family, the long summer with its slanted evening light picking its way across the sea before it vanished beyond the Italian peninsula, and the fish from the sea’s northernmost waters: sardines, cuttlefish and bream.”
From Adriatico: Recipes and stories from Italy’s Adriatic Coast by Paola Bacchia
(Smith Street Books, September 2018 – AU$ 55, NZ$ 65)