Now, with Angelina's assistance, she proposed to set before the company their first dinner all'Italiana, and the last they would taste without having participated in the preparation. The real work was to begin the following morning.
The dinner was both a revelation and a surprise to the majority of the company. All were well travelled, and all had eaten of the mongrel French dishes given at the "Grand" hotels of the principal Italian cities, and some of them, in search of adventures, had dined at London restaurants with Italian names over the doors, where--with certain honourable exceptions--the cookery was French, and not of the best, certain Italian plates being included in the carte for a regular clientele, dishes which would always be passed over by the English investigator, because he now read, or tried to read, their names for the first time. Few of the Marchesa's pupils had ever wandered away from the arid table d'hote in Milan, or Florence, or Rome, in search of the ristorante at which the better class of townsfolk were wont to take their colazione. Indeed, whenever an Englishman does break fresh ground in this direction, he rarely finds sufficient presence of mind to controvert the suggestions of the smiling minister who, having spotted his Inglese, at once marks down an omelette aux fines herbes and a biftek aux pommes as the only food such a creature can consume. Thus the culinary experiences of Englishmen in Italy have led to the perpetuation of the legend that the traveller can indeed find decent food in the large towns, "because the cooking there is all French, you know," but that, if he should deviate from the beaten track, unutterable horrors, swimming in oil and reeking with garlic, would be his portion. Oil and garlic are in popular English belief the inseparable accidents of Italian cookery, which is supposed to gather its solitary claim to individuality from the never-failing presence of these admirable, but easily abused, gifts of Nature.
"You have given us a delicious dinner, Marchesa," said Mrs. Wilding as the coffee appeared. "You mustn't think me captious in my remarks--indeed it would be most ungracious to look a gift-dinner in the--What are you laughing at, Sir John? I suppose I've done something awful with my metaphors--mixed them up somehow."
"Everything Mrs. Wilding mixes will be mixed admirably, as admirably, say, as that sauce which was served with the Manzo alla Certosina," Sir John replied.
"That is said in your best style, Sir John," replied Mrs. Wilding; "but what I was going to remark was, that I, as a poor parson's wife, shall ask for some instruction in inexpensive cooking before we separate. The dinner we have just eaten is surely only within the reach of rich people."
"I wish some of the rich people I dine with could manage now and then to reach a dinner as good," said the Colonel.
"I believe it is a generally received maxim, that if you want a truth to be accepted you must repeat the same in season and out, whenever you have the opportunity," said the Marchesa. "The particular truth I have now in mind is the fact that Italian cookery is the cookery of a poor nation, of people who have scant means wherewith to purchase the very inferior materials they must needs work with; and that they produce palatable food at all is, I maintain, a proof that they bring high intelligence to the task. Italian culinary methods have been developed in the struggle when the cook, working with an allowance upon which an English cook would resign at once, has succeeded by careful manipulation and the study of flavouring in turning out excellent dishes made of fish and meat confessedly inferior. Now, if we loosen the purse-strings a little, and use the best English materials, I affirm that we shall achieve a result excellent enough to prove that Italian cookery is worthy to take its stand beside its great French rival. I am glad Mrs. Wilding has given me an opportunity to impress upon you all that its main characteristics are simplicity and cheapness, and I can assure her that, even if she should reproduce the most costly dishes of our course, she will not find any serious increase in her weekly bills.