Archive for September 2010

Source: Marcella Hazan and Italian Regionalism   Leave a comment

Marcella Hazan is perhaps the most important Italian cookery writer of the twentieth-century in terms not only of her recipes but also in terms of her thinking. Here is her attempt, from The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973), to explain the non-existence of Italian food to an American audience.

The first useful thing to know about Italian food is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist. ‘Italian cooking’ is an expression of convenience rarely used by Italians. The cooking of Italy is really the cooking of its regions, regions that until 1861 were separate, independent, and usually hostile states. They submitted to different rulers, they were protected by sovereign armies and navies, and they developed their own cultural traditions and, of course, their own special and distinct approaches to food.

The unique features of each region and of the individual towns and cities within it can still be easily observed when one travels through Italy. These are living differences that appear in the physical cast of the people, in their temperament, in their spoken language, and, most clearly, in their cooking.

The cooking of Venice, for example, is so distant from that of Naples, although they are both Italian cities specializing in seafood, that not a single authentic dish from the one is to be found on the other’s table. There are unbridgeable differences between Bologna and Florence, each the capital of its own region, yet only sixty miles apart. There are also subtle but substantial distinctions to be made between the cooking of Bologna and of other cities in its region, such as Cesena, fifty-two miles away, Parma, fifty-six miles, or Modena, just twenty-three miles to the north.

It isn’t only from the inconstant contours of political geography that cooking in Italy has taken its many forms. Even more significant has been the forceful shaping it has received from the two dominant elements of the Italian landscape – the mountains and the sea.

Italy is a peninsula shaped like a full-length boot that has stepped into the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas up to its thigh. There it is fastened to the rest of Europe by an uninterrupted chain of the tallest mountains on the continent, the Alps. At the base of the Alps spreads Italy’s only extensive plain, which reaches from Venice on the Adriatic Coast westward through Lombardy and into Piedmont. This is the dairy zone of Italy, and the best-irrigated land. The cooking fat is butter, almost exclusively, and rice or corn mush (polenta) are the staples. Up to a few years ago, when thousands of workers from the south came north to find jobs in Turin and Milan, macaroni was virtually known here.

The northern plain gives out just before touching the Mediterranean shore, where it reaches the foothills of the other great mountain chain of Italy, the Apennines. The chain extends from north to south for the whole length of the country like the massive, protruding spine of some immense beast. It is composed of gentle, softly rounded hills sloping toward the seas on the eastern and the western flanks and, in the central crest, of tall, forbidding stone peaks. Huddled within the links of this chain are countless valleys, isolated from each other until modern times like so many Shagrilas, giving birth to men, cultures and cooking styles profoundly different in character.

To a certain extent, the Apennine range helps determine that variety of climates which has also favoured diversity in cooking. Turin, the capital of Piedmont, standing in the open plain at the foot of the Alps, has winters more severe than Copenhagen. The Ligurian coast, just a few miles to the west, nestles against the Apennines, which intercept the cold Alpine winds and allow the soft Mediterranean breezes to create that mild, pleasant climate which has made the Riviera famous. Here flowers abound, the olives begin to flourish, and the fragrance of fresh herbs invades nearly every dish.

On the eastern side of the same Apennines that hug the Riviera coast lies the richest gastronomic region in Italy, Emilia-Romagna. Its capital, Bologna, is probably the only city in all Italy whose name is instantly associated in the Italian mind not with monuments, not with artists, not with heroes but with food.

Emilia-Romagna is almost evenly divided between mountainous land and flat, with the Apennines at its back and at its feet the last remaining corner of the northern plain rolling out to the Adriatic. This Emilian plain is extraordinarily fertile land enriched by the alluvial deposits of the countless Apennine torrents that have run through it toward the sea. It leads all Italy in the production of wheat, which perhaps explains why here it is almost heresy to sit down to a meal that doesn’t include a dish of homemade pasta. The vegetables of Emilia-Romagna may well be the tastiest in the world, surpassing even the quality of French produce. The fruit from its perfumed orchards is so remarkable in flavour that local consumers must compete with foreign markets for it. Italy’s best hams and sausages are made here and also some of its richest dairy products, among which is the greatest Italian cheese, Parmesan.

In Emiglia-Romagna the sea has been as bountiful as the land. The Adriatic, perhaps because it contains less salt than the Mediterranean, perhaps because it is constantly purified by fresh waters from Alpine streams, produces fish famous in all Italy for its fine delicate flesh. When a restaurant in any part of Italy offers fish from the Adriatic it makes sure its patrons know it. Since the quality of the fish is so fine it requires little enhancement in the kitchen, and Adriatic fish cookery has become the essence of masterful simplicity. Nowhere else except perhaps in Japan is fish fried or broiled so simply and well.

In crossing Emilia-Romagna’s southern border into Tuscany every aspect of cooking seems to have turned over and, like an, embossed coin, landed on its reverse side. Tuscany’s whole approach to the preparation of food is in such sharp contrast to that of Bologna that their differences seem to sum up the two main and contrary manifestations of the Italian character.

Out of the abundance of the Bolognese kitchen comes cooking that is exuberant, prodigal with precious ingredients, and wholly baroque in its restless exploration of every agreeable combination of texture and flavour. The Florentine, careful and calculating, is a man who knows the measure of all things, and his cooking is an austerely composed play upon essential and unadorned themes.

Bologna will sauté veal in butter, stuff it with the finest mountain ham, coat it with aged Parmesan, simmer it in sauce, and smother it with the costliest truffles. Florence takes a T-bone steak of noble size and grills it quickly over a blazing fire, adding nothing but the aroma of freshly ground pepper and olive oil. Both are triumphs.

From Tuscany down, the Apennines and their foothills in their southward march spread nearly from coast to coast so that the rest of Italy is almost entirely mountainous. As a result, two major changes take place in cooking. First, as it is cheaper and simpler on a hillside to cultivate a grove of olive trees than to raise a herd of dairy cows, olive oil supplants butter as the dominant cooking fat. Second, as we get farther away from the rich wheat fields of Emilia-Romagna, soft, homemade egg and flour pasta gives way to more economical, mass-produced, eggless hard macaroni, the staple of the south.

From Naples south the climate becomes considerably warmer. A harsher sun bakes the land, inflames the temper of the inhabitants, and ignites their sauces. At the toe-tip of the peninsula and in the heart of Sicily there is little rainfall, and most of that only in the winter months. The lands are parched by harsh, burning winds and the temperatures are sometimes higher than in the south of Texas. The food is extreme as the climate. The colours of the vegetables are intense and violent, the pastas are so pungent that they often need no topping of cheese, and the sweets are of the most overpowering richness.

There is no need here and certainly there is no room to examine in greater detail all the richly varied forms that history and geography have pressed upon the cooking of Italy. What is important is to be aware that these differences exist and that behind the screen of the too familiar term ‘Italian cooking’ lies concealed, waiting to be discovered, a multitude of riches.

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Posted September 29, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Nestle – ‘Mediterranean Diets’   Leave a comment

Nestle, Marion ‘Mediterranean diets: historical and research overview’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61 (1995), 1313-1320. Efficient general overview of the Mediterranean Diet – as Nestle takes it the Cretan peasant diet c. 1960 – from the earliest times through EURATOM. Final pages consider consequences of the MD for public health both in the Mediterranean heartlands and in the United States. SY

Posted September 23, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Pelucchi et alii – ‘Selected Aspects of Mediterranean Diet’   Leave a comment

Pelucchi, Claudio, Cristina Bosetti, Marta Rossi, Eva Negri and Carlo La Vecchia, ‘Selected Aspects of Mediterranean Diet and Cancer Risk’, Nutrition and Cancer 61 (2009), 756-766. The Mediterranean diet soldiers on. This 2009 study  from    out of Milan with 10,000 subjects gives strong support to the idea that we might be all better off eating more olive oil, vegetables, fruit etc etc. SY

Crotty – ‘The Mediterranean Diet’   2 comments

Patricia Crotty ‘The Mediterranean Diet as a Food Guide: The Problem of Culture and History’, Nutrition Today 33 (1998), 227-232. Crotty, an Australian nutritionist, describes the Mediterranean Diet as ‘an ersatz consumption pattern’ – the horror! She makes the obvious but important point that there are many Mediterranean diets, not least within Italy itself. She also makes the case that national diets are rooted in social realities and that they cannot easily be uprooted and planted elsewhere. A readable, sceptical overview with many references to the author’s native land. SY

Posted September 15, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: A communist farmer speaks about agriculture   Leave a comment

In 1966 Belden Paulson published The Searchers: Conflict and Communism in an Italian Town. In writing the book Paulson interviewed representative citizens from the small Lazio town of Castelfuoco of all social classes and all political groups. The following is from an interview with the young Communist Mario Libertini and is one of several passages in the book that give insights into agricultural relations in the dopo guerra.

It is not true that Italy has made giant steps since the war, as the Christian Democrats, would have us believe. Other countries, much more damaged – Germany, for example – have done a lot more than Italy. I do not know whether this depends on the people or the government; anyway, millions and billions have been spent, but double or triple could have been done. Take the crisis that has hit the farmers; our group should have been helped the most. After all, at the end of the war this was most of the population. Instead, it has been treated the worst. The young farmers are abandoning the land, and the must marry late because they have no money. The government has given us no help to form a cooperative, even though the farmer getsonly 35 or 40 lire for a liter of wine, while the prince in Rome is 160 to 200 lire. The pensione of the small farmer is 10,000 lire a month – real poverty. Can you imagine anyone living on that, even Cristoforo Sereni in his straw hut? So eighty year-old farmers must continue to work the fields. The farmer, after paying expenses, is lucky to earn 250 lire a day. And the government still wants us to do all the work with the hoe. They pass a law to get us machinery, but Bonomi, as ex fascist, controls the Federconsorzi which sells the tractors and machines. It is a big monopoly that charges high prices, gets the little farmer in debt, and finally ruins us. But most schifose [disgusting] of all are the enfiteusi, which are obligations set up in medieval times when the Colonna feudo was formed and today are still with us. Maybe once they made sense; Colonna at least gave his farmers protection in return for their feudal dues. But now it is plain injustice, benefiting only the signori. My father, for example, bought his several hectares when he returned from America; he paid the full price to the agrari at the time of the sale fifty years ago, yet the contract stipulated that he must continue to pay corrisposte, a part of his product to the original owner. Over half the land in Castelfuoco still suffers from the ridiculous arrangement. It all began when the feudal owners first ‘conceded’ land to the small farmers who were forced to kneel at the agrarians’ feet and accept humiliating conditions. The only way to get out of paying the corriposte now is to pay the old owner hundreds of thousands of lire. This is impossible for a farmer, given his tiny return from the land. I remember when I was little: each year at harvest time Tramonta would send out his guardiano who rode his horse through the land ordering everyone to give a percentage of the harvest. If we did not pay he would call the carabinieri, who worked for the agrarians anyway. Now these signori are a bit more moderate. Prince Colonna has forfeited some of his dues, for they are not worth the trouble to collect. Most of the farmers have agreed to pay so much each year, without the humiliation of the guardiano coming on your land. But it is always a heavy burden, because if I have a bad year and make only four quintali of grapes, I must give the same percentage. There are rumours that these absurd obligations are about to end; I think the problem has been taken to parliament. So far it is only a hope. If anything is changing today it is because we have a strong Communist party opposing these injustices. Otherwise the medieval system would always be with us. Everything I owe to the party. Through it I oriented myself – in the party, in the Federterra, in the Unione Contadini, in protest demonstrations. Who come into my field to talk with me – apart from election day – except my party? When bad weather wrecked my crop and I was desperate, the government did nothing – no one cared. But some of us in the party went as a delegation to the ministry in Rome. We were given only 150 lire apiece – just enough to pay our bus fare – but we have fought anyway.

Posted September 10, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Gvion ‘What’s Cooking in America’   Leave a comment

Gvion, Liora ‘What’s Cooking in America? Cookbooks Narrate Ethnicity’, Food, Culture and Society, 12 (2009), 53-76 : ‘This paper rests on an analysis of 1,309 cookbooks, published in the United States from 1850 though 1990.’ Exploration of American identity with – naturally given the importance of Italian immigration to the ‘Short America’ – high Italian content. SY

Posted September 9, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Sicilian Wine c. 1900   Leave a comment

The following comes from an American writer describing Sicilian wine c. 1900.

It was Cicero who said that in Sicily the sun was visible every day in the year, however bad the infertile weather. To the ancients Sicily was known as ‘the granary of Rome’. With soil so fertile that two crops could be raised in a year without impairing its substance, it is no wonder that Rome looked to this triangular island for wine and grain. Ceres, the Goddess of Plenty, according to the poets, had her residence here, and from here dispensed her favors so freely to mankind. Tradition ascribes to Sicily the honor of being the first place in Europe where wine was made. Homer, among his many lines of praise of this wonderful island, says, ‘Spontaneous wines from weighty clusters pour’. In the Bibliotheca of Diodorus Siculus the remarkable fertility of the Sicilian vineyards is often commented upon, and even in those early times the variety of the wines made upon the island was a subject of wonder and admiration.

The mountainous configuration of the island imparts to it a diversity of climate that makes variety of the vine an easy possibility, and its people have ever been ready to take advantage of the opportunities so bountifully bestowed upon them by the hand of nature. Near the seashore, amid the groves of date palms, oranges, and lemons, close to the cactus and the papyrus, the grape vine spreads its friendly branches, borne down with mighty clusters that soon will transmit to man the life they gathered from the bright rays of the tropic sun. The wines made from grapes grown near the shore are generally very strong and heavy, but farther inland and up the mountainsides they are varieties much lighter. Altitude in this climate of wine, has no restraining influence, and vines are readily grown as high up the mountains as four thousand feet above the sea level. The wine, of course, is light, being only about one half the strength of that grown on the plain, but its keeping qualities are good, improving perceptibly with age.

The ancient Sicilians were noted for their prodigality, and their extravagance and dissipations were so flagrant and notorious that they soon ceased to provoke comment and were taken as a matter of course. Their hospitality and the liberal and generous way in which they dispensed their grand old vigorous wines often caused remarks that were scarcely complimentary. Plato, in speaking of these people, says ‘they built as if they were always to live, and supped as if they were never to sup again’. How true were his words can readily be realized, for in Sicily to-day, almost twenty-five hundred years later, are to be seen the buildings of Plato’s time, grand specimens of the taste and industry of these olden people…

Marsala is the best known of the modern wines of Sicily, and by some is considered to be the equal of Marsala Madeira, which it greatly resembles. It wine. was first made on an estate which belonged to Lord Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar. It was originally called Bronte, after the estate, but subsequently received the name Marsala-Bronte, then Marsala. It has always sold remarkably well in England, but very little of it ever reaches America.

Until quite recently the vintage was very carelessly conducted, and the Sicilian rivalled his brother the Italian in his wanton wastefulness, but of late years, through the intercession of the nobility and others high in rank, viticulture has received more attention and in consequence better wines are being made.

The Sicilians have never, as a whole, earnestly sought for foreign markets for their wines, being satisfied to make only enough for home foreign consumption. Some few merchants have, however, sold their products abroad, but at rare intervals. Now they are seeking for foreign marts, and with every promise of success.

Some twenty-five years ago the Duke of Salaparuta began the making of Corvo wine with a view for foreign trade, and also to improve and advance the condition of the people in his district. His success has been signally satisfying, and Corvo wine is fast making a place for itself in almost every large city in the world. It is a light table wine, resembling in many respects the Sauternes of France, though perhaps a shade dryer. It is amber in color and while warming to the system it is not heady. Its one great recommendation is that it is a pure wine in every respect, and is therefore worthy of all the praise that can be bestowed upon it.

The Duke did not receive very much encouragement at the beginning of his venture, as it was thought to be an impossibility to make a pure article that the people would appreciate, and the enormous outlay of capital that was necessary for an enterprise such as he had planned was condemned on every hand. But this opposition had very little weight with him, and he proceeded to put his ideas to practical use with but little ceremony. He showed his wisdom by improving, instead of discarding, the local methods which were best adapted to the region. Science was brought to the aid of nature, and the result has been all that man could wish.

Don Enrico has made a thorough study oenology, and his knowledge of the science is comprehensive. Minutiae of detail are carefully observed both in practice and theory, and every possible advantage is taken of the smallest item that in any way promises a betterment of existing conditions. Every modern appliance that is used in vinification is to be found at Casteldaccia and the Villa Valguarnera. The vineyards produce nearly a quarter of a million gallons yearly of wine of the first order, every drop of which is aged by time alone, taking several years before it reaches that degree of perfection for which the wine is celebrated. European royalty has taken a decided fancy for the wine, and the greater part of it goes to them. Even the present Emperor of Germany, with the fine wine of the Rheingau at his disposal, is very fond of Corvo, and has praised it on many occasions. Freiherr von Babo, the director of the celebrated wine school of Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, who is considered to be the best authority of Europe, and in fact of the world, on wines, has endorsed Corvo wine unqualifiedly. Unfortunately for us, the demand for it in Europe is so great that very little of it reaches America at present.

In Sicily and in other wine countries drunkenness and intoxication are seldom met with, and although immense quantities of wine are consumed by every individual, over-indulgence is thought to be very degrading and by some almost a crime. Inebriety Should a man show an ungovernable uncommon, fondness for wine every art and device that can be thought of is used to correct this tendency, so that he may appear among his neighbors in his proper light and not be an object of scorn and abhorrence.

Among the people there is a story of a woman who had resorted to every expedient known in the community in order to reform an intemperate husband, but her efforts had been without result; the man was confirmed in his habits, and redemption seemed an impossibility. One evening when he was brought home in his usual state of inebriety she had him carried to the graveyard and placed him on one of the graves to sleep off the effects of the overindulgence. While he was sleeping she prepared him his supper and then donning a white, flowing robe and covering her face with a mask, she sat beside him awaiting his return to consciousness. When at last he opened his eyes she arose and in sepulchral tones said, ‘Arise and eat, it is my orders to feed the dead’. ‘Ah,’ said he, ‘if you had known me better you would have brought me something to drink instead’.

Wine has always played a part in the events of the island ; sometimes it has been a minor, but on several occasions it has been a very How the French lost factor. Charles of Anjou owes to wine his loss of Sicily, and also the lives of more than eight thousand of his soldiers. The Sicilian Vespers is the name given to this massacre, but very few know how it came about or why this time, Easter Monday, of all times, should be chosen for the uprising. The truth is that although the blow had been planned it was for a later period, and had it not been for wine it would have been deferred, and aged Giovanne da Procida, who was at the head of the conspiracy to drive the French from the island, would have had to look for another cause to begin the revolt.

It was the day after Easter, 1282; the people of Palermo were at a picnic on the meadows enjoying themselves as only the Sicilian knows how, and all thought of the morrow had been cast to the winds. Singing and dancing were everywhere heard and seen, when suddenly a company of soldiers that garrisoned the city came upon the scene. For a while all went pleasantly and the people, although somewhat constrained in the presence of the soldiers, kept up their merrymaking. But the soldiers soon tired of the decency and began to be insolent and abusive. To quote from Crawford, ‘they drank from cups of wine that no man had offered them, grossly jesting with the women and girls, who turned from them in angry silence’. The men were angered almost to fighting pitch, but with remarkable control restrained their passions and tried to overlook the almost unbearable rudeness. Intoxicated with wine, and every minute growing bolder, the captain of the company gave orders to search the men and also the women for concealed weapons ; he himself began the search, but it was the last act of his life, for as he was about to lay hands upon one of the women her husband cried out, ‘Now, let these rascals die at last’, and he had no sooner spoken than the captain lay dead at his feet. Every one of his soldiers were killed, not one escaped to tell the story; and that evening, when the vespers were rung on the bells of the church of the Holy Ghost, they also pealed the death knell to the reign of Charles of Anjou in Sicily. The insurrection spread and in a surprisingly short space of time more than eight thousand soldiers were massacred, and the island was free from the hated French.

Posted September 7, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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