From court dishes to those suitable for all social classes

Sometimes small wins over big. The smaller, more compact, light and accessible version of the famous treatise on cooking by Giovanni Vialardi is better known than the larger, more extended, hefty and courtly one.

The author

Vialardi (1804-1872), from Biella, became at the age of 20 kitchen helper of the Royal House of Savoy in Turin, at the service of Prince Carlo Alberto, who came to the throne in 1831. In 1845 he was appointed assistant to the head chef, was promoted to head chef two years later, together with Domenico Gromont, and in 1948 became also pastry chef, assisted in his work by over a hundred people.

Vialardi – who was particularly appreciated for the artistry of his spectacular pastillage creations used to decorate the royal tables – worked in the kitchens of the Royal House of Savoy until 1853 when, after almost thirty years of honourable service, he retired under the reign of Vittorio Emanuele II.

He was then able to dedicate himself to the systematic revision of his workbooks, which resulted in Treatise on cooking, modern patisserie, sweets and related confectionery, published the following year, in 1854. The book, divided into nineteen chapters, contains over 2,000 recipes, mainly from Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta, Nice, Genoa and Sardinia, that is, the areas included in the Kingdom of Sardinia.

There were many novelties: weights and measures were given for the first time in the decimal metric system, adopted by the Savoys in 1845 and, unusually for a recipe book of that time, it included 300 drawings made by Vialardi himself to describe the tools of the trade: large whisk ice cream makers, ladles, scoopers, moulds, pudding moulds, chestnut bowls and many more pieces that made up the indispensable equipment of a cook at His Majesty’s service.

Naturally, there were also drawings of the sumptuous and spectacular dishes that Vialardi would prepare for the royal table – from fish to game, from timbales to soufflés – to amaze the diners.

The chef of the Savoy family extracted out of this “big book” on court cooking the so-called Small Vialardi: Simple and Economic Bourgeois Cooking, published for the first time in Turin in 1863, and the work that turned out to be his greatest success.

The work

The Small Vialardi, which went through a dozen editions by 2009, was born, as the author himself wrote in the introduction, from the contemporary “search today for healthy, simple, economical and bourgeois cooking, that is, suitable for every social class; therefore I thought it well to stick to this kind of cuisine and write a small treatise on it.

The text presents 800 savoury recipes and 350 dessert recipes: soups, sauces, garnishes, fried dishes, meat, fish, birds, game, vegetables, cold dishes, fruit compotes, creams, jellies, patisserie, confectionery, honeydews, syrups, sugared almonds, sorbets, beverages, ratafias, liqueurs, etc.

In addition to these recipes, defined as “home-made”, “for families”, “city-style” or “bourgeois”, which are accompanied by numerous illustrations, there is also a choice of dishes “suitable for homeopathic care and for fasting days”, a comprehensive explanation on how to organize “service in the bourgeois, French and Russian style”, and a section dedicated to the “conservation of food substances.”

Why read it?

Thrift and saving, bourgeois virtues intrinsically foreign to the aristocratic culture of ostentation, were constant themes in 19th-century cookery books.

Recipes became simpler and more budget conscious: waste was banned and monographs were written on how to use leftovers. Local and easily available products were preferred to exotic and expensive ones, once the status symbol of the aristocracy. Dishes were created with the new foods from the Americas – potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, corn – which hunger, above all, contributed to spread widely, despite initial misgivings.

In order to meet the needs of the bourgeoisie, new techniques were developed for the conservation of foods, streamlining the daily process of cooking: from stock tablets to the vegetable preserves of Nicolas Appert (1749-1841), whose method of food preservation Vialardi himself discussed in his treatise, sensing its modernity. Simplicity in food led not just to savings and affluence, but also to hygiene and health.

The Small Vialardi is an interesting work precisely because it came out at the time when the bourgeoisie was growing and wishing to establish itself and, unlike the aristocracy, wanted to eat well while spending little.

In order to respond to the need for quality and thrift, Vialardi selected the most intriguing, economical and easy-to-make recipes from his court cuisine (such as the Fried Potatoes considered suitable for children, well in advance of a well-established truth), and presented them in a recipe book which, for the first time, focused on the importance of the role of the mistress of the house, who oversaw the kitchen activities, often without cooking herself because she had servants.

Have you ever had to simplify an elaborate and challenging recipe, in order to create one more suitable to your needs?