Book Review: Pasta for Nightingales
Pasta for Nightingales is the translation of a 17th-century Italian ornithological study. Beautifully produced, sensitively translated and full of fascinating nuggets, this is a truly exquisite book.
Originally written in 1622 by the Italian ornithologist, Giovanni Olina, this handsome hardback features some 40 or so birds and includes details on their physical attributes, tips on catching, raising and maintaining them alongside full-page reproductions of the original illustrations.
The text was commissioned by Olina’s patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo, in order to get membership of the Accademia del Lincei (Academy of the Lynx-Eyed) - a group of scholars dedicated to the keen observation of nature. Pozzo also commissioned the illustrations that appear here, vibrant watercolours showing birds including goldfinches, warblers, linnets and nightingales.
The language used to describe the birds is evocative and has an almost poetic quality - something that has been retained through the book's sensitive translation. Just take this snippet from Olina's description of the francolin: 'the head, neck and rump are lion-tawny shading towards pale reddish, with some little IRIDESCENT shimmering purple-violet and black' (p10).
A flick through the book will transport you back to a world where partridges were hunted by men disguised as bulls; nightingales were fed pasta, ground pine nuts and saffron to encourage them to sing and hoopoes were given maidenhair fern to sober them up after getting tipsy from eating too many grapes.
Illustration from Pasta for Nightingales showing a hunter
disguised as a bull approaching partridges
Indeed, as you might expect from an Italian book, food plays a major part. Owners are urged to feed their chaffinches, bread with chewed sheep’s-milk cheese; their babbling warblers, minced heart and their nightingales, pasta. The book includes Olina's own recipe for this pasta made from chickpea flour, almonds, egg yolks, honey, butter and in winter, saffron.
Birds were also considered an important culinary delicacy and were often consumed for their medicinal properties. Ortolan buntings are 'sent preserved in their skins, and rolled in FLOUR, to be served up in Rome and elsewhere to noblemen' (p51). Francolin meat is deemed helpful for people suffering from kidney stones and sparrow eggs were considered a type of 17th-century viagra for 'husbands who are cold and have little vigour' (p106).
Should you ever feel the need for a pithy birdy put-down to puncture someone's pretensions, try this one for size: 'You BURP a Francolin and boast that you have eaten GOOSE. (p11)'.
Pasta for Nightingales makes a delightful present for bird and nature lovers - but if you are ordering a copy for a friend or loved one, do consider buying a second copy for yourself. Once you have seen the book for yourself, I doubt you will be able to let it go.
Thank you to the Royal Collection Trust for providing a review copy.