Bugialli died recently. He was instrumental in bringing Italian regional food to the US – beginning with his first book in 1977, Food of Italy. Surprisingly, he didn’t become as well known in other parts of the world, but that might have been by design.
When French cuisine was being celebrated in the 1970s, Bugialli argued that Italian cooking also deserved to be taken seriously, beginning with the understanding that it varies by region. This fundamental fact, true of any great cuisine, is so often bypassed as we delve into foreign foods – and today the great internet machine condenses ancient and complex cuisines into a few popular dishes. Bugialli, with his love of his own heritage, scoured Italy for regional dishes and published authoritative books on many sub-cuisines of Italy. When we think about the handful of people who have been instrumental in exciting other countries about the cuisine of their own country, excited enough to alter the supply-and-demand chain of ingredients, it is difficult to more than a couple. Roden, Child, David, Thompson – can I include Oliver in this list? – all English speaking passionate foodies who fell in love with the food and food philosophy of a different country. Bugialli and Jaffrey are two of the few who have successfully translated their own cuisine in a way that not only is acceptable to others but has also driven culinary change.
You might expect there to be more people who have achieved notoriety in this way. The difficulty is, of course, that one needs to be able to view the food – ingredients, processes, techniques, history, associated stories – through the eyes of the intended audience. This is easiest if you are yourself a member of your target audience, and incredibly difficult if you are not. The advantage that Jaffrey and Bugialli had was that they both lived and worked in the UK and/or the US for some time before adopting their culinary careers of writing and teaching.
When I returned home from my shortish working sojourn in the North East of France with its amazing foods, wines and cheeses, I scoured the local bookshops for French cookbooks. In the process I also discovered a number seminal cookbooks from other European cuisines. Not that I knew they were seminal at the time but I did have a nose for great cookbooks. That is why I happen to have a much loved Bugialli, but it was a long time before I came to realise how influential he had been and how classic his books are. This wonderful eggplant dish is one of his.
So today I am making another simple but wonderful dish from his book – a simple salad of capsicums with capers. I learnt a great technique from this recipe. When roasting capsicums in the oven, include a tray of water in the bottom of the oven. The steam from the water begins to lift the skins from the capsicums without over-charring them, so that the flesh is protected. They are more steamed than grilled, leading to a very delicate flavour.
This colourful salad of silky,sweet capsicums, tangy capers and fresh herbs can be a salad or side dish, appetiser, part of a mezze spread, or an addition to a sandwich or wrap. It can also be layered onto other tossed or composed salads. The combination of tomato, garlic, mint and capers is an amazing pairing with the sweet capsicums. Yum!