Elizabeth Romer’s Chronicle of Tuscan Agriculture

Tuscan Year RomerContemplating the impact of Food Network’s publishing juggernaut on the current food scene in America, I find myself turning backwards, to some of the “earlier” writers on food in Italy. Many of these people, like Elizabeth Romer in The Tuscan Year: Life and Food in an Italian Valley (1985), wrote of day-to-day practices, of times not generally recorded by local people.

Romer, wife of archaeologist John Romer and a prolific co-writer with him on Egyptian and other ancient cultures, wrote The Tuscan Year because

I realized that that this old fashioned life could change; perhaps the next generation of country women would forget how to make cheese, maybe the prosciutto would be bought from the store and the old skills would gradually be forgotten.

Because the Romers, both British, worked so intensely and so often in Egypt, they sought a spot halfway between Egypt and England. Hence the house they bought near Cortona before Frances Mayes and the onslaught of souls seeking the solace of a mythical Tuscany.

On reading Romer’s account, while keeping in mind the debate going on in food-studies circles about tradition being invented, it appears that tradition indeed existed and what we think of as regional Italian cooking indeed is based on a severe reality.

I find it interesting that Romer begins the narrative with January, taking a chronological, time-dominant approach, rather than following the natural cycle of the earth. But nevertheless, she includes all the activities of her neighbor and friend, Silvana Cerroti, on her farmstead. The result is a priceless account of what life was (and is) like for farmers in much of Italy. And by extrapolation, elsewhere in the world where mechanization trails behind or simply does not exist.

Photo credit: Donna Winton
Photo credit: Donna Winton

Beginning with January, Romer also lays out the framework for the book, meaning she treats the reader to several pages of description of the physical environment of the Cerroti holdings, including the pantry:

Off the kitchen lies the dispensa, the pantry, where sacks of flour ground at a local mill are kept. Tuscan bread, large appetizing loaves made from unbleached flour, only partially refined flour, is now bought from the village store and Silvana keeps it in an old wooden bread chest, a long shallow lidded box on tall legs that is called a madia. The chief characteristic of Tuscan bread is that it is unsalted. Although this can be disconcerting at the first taste, when remembers that it is often eaten with the very salty prosciutto or as the basis of well flavored soup, salt in fact is not a necessary addition. Besides, this sort of country bread was designed to be baked only once a week. The addition of salt would attract water to the loaves and make them mouldy, whereas without salt they remain dry but can always be Tuscan Breadsoftened with a little soup. * A glass-fronted cabinet contains row upon row of home-made tomato conserve made by Silvana at the end of the summer from the abundant crops in the kitchen garden, to last for sauces all the year through. From the beams in the ceiling hang bundles of dried herbs, both for cooking and for medicinal purposes, and also bunches of grapes which will remain fresh for months after the vendemmia, the picking, if hung in an airy place. The large wooden table is used for making pasta and pastries, and the pecorino cheese, Silvana’s specialty, is left in its deep drawers to drain in earthenware moulds overnight. Large bowls of Cortona ware contain eggs fresh from the farmyard …

Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century)
Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century)

January also chroniclers the age-old pig slaughter (as portrayed in the Tacuina sanitatis) and a few recipes ensuing from the various bits and pieces of the pig. Other wintery dishes include Stracotto, a beef stew, as well as Cotechino con Lenticche, sausage with lentils.

A quick peek at August renders up Acquacotta, of which Romer says,

literally means ‘cooked water,’ and signifies a poor man’s dish made out of absolutely nothing. It is a very ancient recipe, that comes partly from the charcoal burners who lived deep in the Tuscan forests and are traditionally among the poorest of people.

*[NOTE: This is an interesting example of the understanding of the impact of different variations of fermentation on food. It’s fascinating to contemplate that in some foods salt is added to produce the very dryness  Romer mentions as being desirable in bread WITHOUT salt.]

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth Romer’s Chronicle of Tuscan Agriculture

  1. Hello,

    I am hoping that this may be a way of contacting John Romer with whom I was a student at the Royal College of Art in the late 60s. Keen to renew contact after many, many years.

    Kindest regards, Peter Stevens

  2. Could be, yes, of course, but it just struck me how chronologically we think when I reflected on the structure of the book. It’s a marvelous book no matter what!

  3. cynthia, i beleive we’ve just become friends! i admire your blog. what a rich mecca. i love! elizabeth romer’s the tuscan year (to my mind it has the same feeling as thomas matthews’a “a year in the vineyards” do you know this one?) her deep sense of the land and the women really inspired me. and what a pleasure to find your thoughts about such a treasured book.

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