I got this book from my mum, as an Easter gift. Like everyone else we had Zoom Easter, given that she is in Poland and I’m in the UK. Normally I’d travel back once a month, but the current situation has put a stop to it, so my mum is channeling her feelings into sending parcels. Which I love. It feels like small Christmas every time I get one. This book arrived in the very first parcel. The literal translation of the title would be something like The Taste of Orange Blossoms.
Tessa Capponi-Borawska was born in Florence and for some mysterious reason decided to move to communist Warsaw. It must have been a shock. Capponi is a historian and writer. Right after the transformation, she was writing for the Polish edition of Elle, focusing on cooking. She was one of those writers who brought the way people cook in Poland from the sadness of communism into Europe and the world.
Agnieszka Drotkiewicz is a writer. When I got the book I knew her name sounded familiar. And I was right, I read her interview with Dorota Masłowska, Dusza Światowa. Let’s just say I am not in love with her style of asking questions and writing. It feels very pretentious to me. It cannot be denied though that she manages to convince very interesting people to talk to her. So for most of this book, I was avoiding reading the questions and focusing on the answers.
Capponi talks beautifully about food and the history of cooking. They touch on a wide range of topics. Starting with the fundamental Italian cookbook Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi, commonly known as L’Artusi, no one bothers with the title, the name of the authors stands for the whole. I don’t’ know if there’s a cookbook like this in the UK, but in Poland, we have one, called from the author’s last name Ćwierczakiewiczowa.
They talk about the tastes and smells of their childhood, but also of different countries. Discuss the gender aspect of cooking. How historically, and still now, it is men who are the famous chefs, while women are mere daily cooks. Capponi’s daughter, Flavia shares her personal experiences and the fight she had to go through not to get stuck in the desserts section of the restaurant kitchen. She also talks about the culture in restaurant kitchens, very army like and often quite aggressive. Very macho.
While I was avoiding Drotkiewicz’s annoying questions I really enjoyed reading Capponi’s answers, as it is obvious that her knowledge reaches far and wide. She is able to give us a quite detailed picture of a Rennaissance banquet and the organization took. Consider it’s social, representative, and political aspects. Only to move to a more philosophical analysis of the specter of hunger that seems to always stalk humanity. She then considers also how the kitchen as space evolved. From completely separate kitchens in the top floors, all the way to kitchen annex in the living room, often spotless and rarely used, more representative than functional.
Capponi’s thoughts resonated with me. Especially as I don’t really enjoy everyday cooking, but I do find therapeutic pleasure in the complete control one has when cooking if I am stressed. I once cooked for 16 hours straight to distress. My freezer was full to bursting and some friends have been relieved of cooking for a while too. But like Capponi, I do enjoy going to a restaurant. My mum has been taking me from quite an early age and I always liked it and it felt special to eat out. When reminiscing about the 1980s in Poland she mentions how she misses the zapiekanki, this really made me laugh.
Zapiekanka is the epitome of communist fast food. I am always surprised why it’s unknown beyond Poland, especially now, as it is vegetarian by design. It’s the perfect veggie street-food, no processed food, no seitan, no tofu. All honest: baguette, mushrooms sauteed with onions and cheese. Usually garnished with ketchup. When I made it for our house warming party last year in the UK, it was a hit (I cut it into bite-sized pieces). I miss them too, the ones you could get on the street.
Another thing that felt familiar was Capponi’s hunt for nice plates. When I moved to the UK, with one suitcase, I did what everyone does: went to IKEA and bought everything I needed for my apartment in one go, picking often the cheapest stuff. This way I got saddled with a green FÄRGRIK set. Which is ok for a first-ever set, but what I did not expect was that it’ll prove virtually indestructible. Ten years later and I managed to only break two plates form the whole lot. Trust me, I’d really like to buy new nice plates, now I can afford to do it, but I feel too guilty to do it while FÄRGRIK survives. What I would need would be a good old row with throwing plates, sadly my Bigger Half refuses to cooperate in that respect, even in lockdown.
She also drinks ginger, honey, lemon with hot water, adding cayenne, which I’m afraid of. It’s been a firm favorite for me and my mum for almost a year now. Technically it is good for you when you have a cold. But it’s really nice without it too. What I love about it is that if you let it go col, you basically end up with a really nice lemonade, so there’s no pressure to drink it fast. And the smell!
Back to the book for a final word. It’s a pretty short book, so all the topics they discussed sometimes feel treated in a bit superficial way, I’d like some of them to be more developed. Drotkiewicz aside though it was a pleasure to read. A book that is almost as therapeutic as cooking itself.
What’s your favorite book about cooking?