A cheddar panini, per favore

Tinned spaghetti hoops – unrecognizable to most Italians

by Colin McIntosh

Anna Cortopassi’s new book Ricette e Ricordi, published in English by A for Aardvark as Recipes and Recollections, describes an unusual juxtaposition of Italian and English cooking. Anna grew up in Italy, learning Italian techniques from her mother, but left for London in the early 1960s, where her new Irish-English mother-in-law introduced her to a very different set of skills and some new ingredients. Her customary Christmas menu nowadays attests to those two influences: tortellini and turkey, Christmas pud and panettone.

Nowadays Italian food is far from uncommon in British supermarkets and restaurants, but it wasn’t always so. In the 1960s olive oil was only available from pharmacies as a medicine. And the journey from Italy to Britain hasn’t always been smooth, from the linguistic as well as the culinary point of view.

Italians often attribute the introduction of pasta to Italy to Marco Polo, who is said to have brought it back from China. This is probably a piece of folkloric embroidery; in any case there is documentary evidence for pasta-making in Sicily a century before the Venetian’s famous oriental journeys. But who introduced pasta to Britain?

Macaroni is first mentioned in 1390 in an English cookbook that collects recipes from Richard II’s kitchen, in the form makerouns. Both of these forms are adaptations of the Italian maccheroni. In Tuscany, maccheroni are flat squares of homemade egg pasta, usually served with a meat sauce (as described in Anna’s book), but in other parts of Italy the word refers to dried pasta tubes, although not necessarily the small, elbow-shaped ones that English speakers know from mac ‘n’ cheese. In Italy these would be called pipette, ‘little pipes’. Foodstuffs, and the words associated with them, rarely travel without being transformed in some way.

Spaghetti was among the first of the modern arrivals, although British tinned spaghetti would be completely unrecognizable to most Italians. Meaning ‘little strings’, in Italian it’s a plural word (you say ‘the spaghetti are cooked’ in Italian). In English it became uncountable, like rice or porridge (‘the spaghetti is cooked’). Most of the other pasta words are similarly plural in Italian but uncountable in English: tagliatelle, bucatini, ravioli, etc., etc. And when it comes to the bizarre modern English restaurant fashion for serving just one of those stuffed pasta objects as an accompaniment, menus usually describe it as ‘a single ravioli’, which makes no sense, as ravioli is plural. Raviolo is the form an Italian would use (but probably wouldn’t, since a raviolo as an accompaniment would never be seen on an Italian table). Similarly, panini is plural in Italian (meaning simply ‘bread rolls’), but is used in English as a singular to refer to a kind of toasted sandwich, as in ‘a tuna and cheddar panini’.

Most of the British attempts at pronouncing the names of Italian foodstuffs have to be forgiven, but bruschetta is one that I have a particular antipathy for and cannot pass without comment. A German pronunciation has taken root here, where the sch is pronounced as English sh. No! Why? It’s not German! It’s bru-sket-ta. Italian bruschetta is a very simple affair, just sourdough bread, a faint smearing of garlic, and a drizzle of freshly pressed olive oil, unlike the British version, which tends to be piled high with garlic butter, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and, per carità, cheddar.

Anna Cortopassi describes some of these unfortunate cultural collisions with humour in her book. If you would like to try out some of her favourite Italian, English, and international recipes (including bruschetta and Christmas pudding), you can find them in Recipes and Recollections. Buon Natale e buon appetito!

Recipes and Recollections is published by A for Aardvark and is available now from the A for Aardvark bookstore.