Farmer, restaurateur, critic, food activist, traveler (he has worked in Zimbabwe as well as South Africa), cookbook author, longtime TV presenter of New Scandinavian cuisinefood columnist for a few Norwegian newspapers as well as formerly for the Washington Post, Andreas Viestad’s belt has many notches. He lives between Oslo and Cape Town and has been visiting Rome regularly for 25 years. His favorite restaurant there is La Carbonara, near Campo de’ Fiori, and he had the surprising good idea of writing a gastronomic history of the world by examining a single meal eaten there.
At the beginning of the story, we receive a few lessons in geography, economic history and even contemporary customs. For example, at La Carbonara Viestad remarks that some of a group of young friends at a nearby table stuck to simple pasta dishes while others ordered the pricey grilled sea bass. ‘The tradition in the restaurant is to pay Roman style, pagar alla romanawhich consists in dividing the bill equally without calculating precisely who ate what.
Viestad’s dinner begins with bread. It’s light, chewy, and has a crispy crust and dough that gives the right amount of resistance when chewing; it is made in the old bakery next door, with its complicated system where you order here, pay there and collect the bread elsewhere, showing the receipt. Rome’s geography meant that it had limited agricultural land but a rapidly growing population, and it soon became dependent on imported grain, the river allowing it to build “an advanced trading system”. Grain that can be stored without spoilage can also be taxed, distributed freely as rations when the populace feels pressed or discontented, and used to feed an empire. A ship can carry hundreds of tons, while oxen could “cover at best 12 miles (19 km) a day, and 22 pounds (5 kg) of your cargo would have to be used as fodder”.
Bread is food, power and also, as Holy Communion shows, symbolic. The leaven controversies remind us that the Roman tradition is based on matzo, the unleavened bread that Jews eat at Passover (not at Easter, the only error I found in this scholarly volume). Unlike Noma in Copenhagen, our own Fat Duck and other restaurants associated with the molecular gastronomy trend, the appeal of a Roman restaurant like La Carbonara is that it “sells the idea of something that never changes “. Familiarity is everything – even the “generic, smoky images of rural scenes” that always remind us that art in restaurants doesn’t have to compete with food. Better art could eclipse the food, Howard Hodgkin often liked to say the dinner table.
Rome is outside the butter belt, and you’ll probably be served a small saucer of olive oil with your bread, even at breakfast. Viestad’s companion during a first stay with an Italian agrotourism gave him the clue and told him to look around: “Do you see green valleys and grazing cows, or do you see parched hillsides and parched olive trees? This is the main rule when eating in Italy: you eat what you see.
Salt was another important product for the Roman Empire, as it too could be taxed. Viestad has collected many varieties: “a foodie phenomenon with a touch of stupidity, and prices that are difficult to defend”. He was present at a famous salt tasting in 2003 in Erice in Sicily for scientists and chefs. It turned out that when they were dissolved in water, they were practically indistinguishable from each other. Only their textures differ, but this determines their gastronomic properties. (Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten was the only participant who could detect differences during a blind tasting of the solutions.)
Viestad’s pasta dish was, naturally, carbonara, and he prefers Alan Davidson’s origin story that the recipe was developed immediately after World War II, when the rations given to American GIs in Rome included canned bacon, eggs and cream. Despite the efforts of poet and futurist propagandist Marinetti to eradicate pasta from the Roman diet, almost everyone still eats it at least once a day, and the wheat from which it is made is a mainstay of the civilization. There is still a debate among archaeologists, historians and anthropologists about whether grain farming was mankind’s “biggest mistake”, as Jared Diamond puts it. But everyone agrees that, as Viestad puts it:
“The grain was the reason we settled in one place and organized ourselves into larger colonies; why we developed an organized religion and a written language; and what brought us ruling classes, laws and taxes, priests, warriors and professions that did not even contribute to the production of food.
Chapters on the discovery of pepper and the evolution of wine lead to the main course, secondthe protein part of the meal, and Viestad orders three small grilled spring lamb chops, abbacchio a scottadito, of animals which, as Juvénal says, “did not lose their virginity by eating grass”. This leads to some thoughts about domestication and how, following the transition from hunting-gathering to farming, “average human height has decreased and malnutrition has increased”. Richard Wrangham is rightly credited with discovering that cooking made us human since, with more calories accessible through less effort, we were able to evolve bigger brains. In the last chapter, on the lemon that goes into its sorbet, Viestad claims that historically the Mafia “controlled most of the lemon business”.
Viestad does something a little radical in this captivating volume: “I have not used footnotes, which academic readers might find boring, but have referred to the source in the text when I quote or refer to reasoning from specific books.” Any inconvenience this might have caused is mitigated by a generous guide to these and his half dozen other favorite restaurants in Rome.