Living Well Indeed!

This week we attended another of the Zagat Vintage Dinners, this time at Del Posto. As before, menu and wine pairings are pasted below for fellow enthusiasts. The pictures you’ll see dotted through the post are of the stunning dining room, a modern day stand-in for the eccentric 19th century food connoissuer Artusi (see below), some of the luscious dishes, and Tim Zagat and Mario Batali waxing lyrical about matters gastronomically historical.

The Del Posto team (this two star Michelin gem is a collaboration between Mario Batali of BABBO fame and Joe and Lidia Bastianich of FELIDIA fame) decided to dive into a wonderful well of 19th century inspiration, the famous (and infamous) cookbook by Pellegrino Artusi.

Artusi at 71 was a retired silk merchant, who finally gave up trying to find a publisher for his cookbook THE ART OF EATING WELL. He self-published it (in 1891), and it took over four years for a mere 1,000 copies to be sold. However, in time, late 19th century varietals of ‘buzz’ caught hold of the book (in short the burgeoning middle class discovered it), and sales skyrocketed. It became a classic, Artusi became a house-hold name in Italy, and the book’s popularity is undiminished to this day.

Artusi wasn’t a chef, but someone dedicated to good food, a bon vivant. And he gathered recipes far and wide. He parlayed his passion, even late in life, into an enduring monument — as studied today for the verve and wit and quite eccentric commentary in the book as for the recipes. Many of the recipes are so sparse in details, that significant interpretation had to be done by the chefs last week. Most of it — delectably successful.

Some of the dishes require some explanation to appreciate. The “Two-Coloured Soup” was a flavour-packed Capon consomme, with greens and Reggiano cheese. The Hare Pate kept being referred to by some illustrious people present as ‘the sandwich’…it was both pate and tartare to some extent, captured between thin slices of bread…the past meeting the present in a plate of insouciant whimsy. We all petitioned for its inclusion on the Del Posto menu…keep an eye out for it as apparently Lidia was similarly moved by it. The simple gamy succulence of the Quails (the ‘birds’ of the evening) with a medley of red and white radichio was delightful. You will note as you look at the wines, that two beers are included…one from Germany, one from Belgium…an interesting segue that worked very refreshingly with those particular dishes.

Artusi’s fame owes essentially to his book being in Italian at a time when virtually all recipes and instructions for Chefs were almost militantly in French. Secondarily, he presents dishes that are inviting (rather than daunting) to prepare, which laid the cornerstone for what we today recognize as Italian cooking. Having gathered recipes from all over Italy, he often suggests menus and combinations that are pleasantly suggestive. But arguably, as we found that evening, with our capable master of ceremonies from Del Posto reading vignettes from Artusi’s book, what is most diverting is his own point of view, his eccentric observations (for example about fish being unhealthy for you, or game being at it’s most nutritious just before it is about to spoil). As further examples, as you search for recipes you are likely to discover how Artusi escaped cholera, the personal character of troops occupying Northern Italy in the 1840’s, and all manner of allusions and references — discussing a pigeon dish he mentions that in Macchiavelli’s CLIZIA, the elderly Nicomacco eats a large pigeon, roasted rare so it still bleeds a little, to prepare himself for an amorous tryst. Something to keep in mind perhaps?

At any rate, so much suggests itself from this evening. For one, Tim Zagat said the idea for these Vintage Dinners came when an illustrious friend compiled a list of foods that were common in the 19th century and which we don’t eat now, simply because they’ve fallen out of fashion, despite being delicious, often nutritious, and in these recessionary times, fairly light on the pocket book. Random inspirations are everywhere. It’s our job to be attentive to them and create ideas, experiences, products, services, solutions and innovations from them. And relationships matter critically. The Zagats  enrolled 16 of the top Chefs in New York, who pounced on the opportunity to partner with them to create the ambience and cuisine of a 19th century classic menu, gleefully and with alacrity. The Zagats and I share a friend in common, Anthony Lee, GM extraordinaire of The Connaught in London. I mentioned him and asked why London shouldn’t have it’s own version of this. Their eyes twinkled…might yet another ‘line extension’ of this idea have been born?

Artusi has much to teach. He lived through some traumas in youth, prospered thereafter in life, hung on to his passions, at 71 had the chutzpah to self-publish and promote his book until a ‘tipping point’ was reached. But it wasn’t just salesmanship. He lavished the book with great recipes peppered also with his own quixotic observations and personality. It was the ultimate ‘non-commodity’ and became a culture-carrier.

The inspiration of these evenings is to remember our heritage, and not to be slaves of fashion(which Oscar Wilde described as a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to frequently revise it). Let’s live well — by doing our work well, by making room in our work and lives for our passions, and by having the openness to receive other people’s enthusiasms like Artusi’s and Tim and Nina Zagat’s, and equally by also having the courage and energy to share our own with those we care about, and perhaps even the world at large.

Bon Appetito! Or as our Italian friends also so often say, ‘Allegria (Joy!)

Menu

Minestra di Due Colori

Two-Coloured Soup with Sercial Madeira, Rare Wine Company NV

Crostini Diversi

Various Crostini with Brut Champagne Imperial, Moet et Chandon NV

Bollito Misto

Chicken Accompanied with Meat Sauce with Brau Weiss, Ayinger Brewery Bavaria, Germany

Pane di Lepre

Hare Pate with Dubbel Bach, Maredsous Abbey, Belgium

Arselle in Salsa d’Uovo

Fresh Cockles in Egg Sauce with Brut Rose Champagne Imperial, Moet et Chandon NV

Bracioline Ripiene

Stuffed Veal Cutlets (with veal marrow) with Chianti Classico Riserva, Felsina 2005

Uccelli Arrosto

Birds with Salad with Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata, Rocche Costamagna 2004

Savarin con Crema alla Francese

Savarin French Custard with Marsala La Miccia, de Bartoli NV

Formaggi e Frutta

Pears, Apples & Sundry Fruits with Brut Demi-Sec, Billecart-Salmon NV