Source: Olive oil and the Church   Leave a comment

The following forms a chapter in John Hurley, The Tree, the Olive, the Oil in the Old and New World (1919), available in pdf form on our site. SY

From the earliest ages to the present time the olive tree, its fruit with its uses, have been carefully considered ; now brief mention should be made of olive oil as used in ecclesiastical ceremonies, both in primitive and modern times. As is generally known, the liturgical blessing of oil is very ancient. It is met with in the fourth century in the Prayer Book of Serapion and in the Apostolic Constitution, also in a Syrais document of the fifth and sixth centuries entitled Testamentum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. The aforesaid book of Bishop Serapion (A. D. 362) contains the formula for the blessing of the oil and chrism for those who had just received baptism, which was in those days followed by confirmation in such a manner that the administration of both sacraments constituted a single ceremony. In the same book is found a separate form of blessing for the oil, of the sick, for water, and for bread. It is an invocation to Christ to give His creatures power to cure the sick, to purify the soul, to drive away impure spirits, and to wipe out sin. In the Old Testament oil was used for the consecration of priests and kings, also in all great liturgical functions, e. g. sacrifices, legal purifications, and the consecration of altars.

In the primitive church the oils to be used in the initiation of catechumens were consecrated on Holy Thursday in the Missa Chrismalis. Two different ampullae were used, one containing pure oil, the other mixed with balsam. This mixture was made by the Pope himself before the mass in the sacristy. During the mass two clerics of lesser rank stood before the altar holding the ampulla. Toward the end of the canon the faithful offered for benediction small ampullae of oil: these contained oil of the sick which the faithful were allowed to make use of themselves, but the same oil also served for extreme unction. The vessels holding it were placed on the railing surrounding the space reserved for the clergy. The deacons brought these vessels to the altar to receive the blessing of the Pope. The Pope continued the mass while the deacons returned the ampullae to the place whence they had brought them, and a certain number of bishops and priests repeated over those which had not been brought to the altar the formula pronounced by the Pope. The consecration of the large ampulla took place immediately after the communion of the Pope, before the communion of the clergy and the faithful. The deacons covered the chalice and paten while the subdeacons carried the ampullae to the archdeacon and one of his assistants. The archdeacon presented to the Pope the ampullae of perfumed oil, the Pope breathed on it three times, made the sign of the cross, and recited a prayer which bears a certain resemblance to the preface of the mass. The ampullae of pure oil was next presented to the Pope and was consecrated with less solemnity. The consecration and benediction of the Holy oil now take place on Holy Thursday at a very solemn ceremony reserved for the bishop. He blesses the oil which is to serve at the anointing of catechumens previous to baptism, next the oil with which the sick are anointed in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, finally the chrism, which is a mixture of oil and balsam, and which is used in the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

The use of oil in Christian antiquity was not, as has been maintained, a medical prescription adopted by the church. In apostolic times St. James directed the priests or ancients of the community to pray for the sick man and to anoint him with oil in the name of Jesus. And shortly afterwards, probably in the second century, a gold leaf found at Beyrout in Svria, contains an exordium ‘pronounced in the dwelling of him whom I anointed.’ This is, after the text of St. James; the earliest evidence of the use of oil accompanied by formula in the administration of a sacrament. The oil of the sick might lie blessed not only by priests but also by laymen of high repute for virtue, and even by women. In the sixth century St. Monegundus on his death-bed blessed oil and salt, which were afterwards used for the sick. A similar instance is met with in the life of St. Redegund. In the West, however, the tendency was early manifested to confine the blessing of the oil of the sick to bishops only. About 730 St. Boniface ordered all priests to have recourse to the bishop. In 744 the tendency was not so pronounced in France, but the Council of Chalons, 813, imposed on priests the obligation of anointing the sick with oil blessed by the bishop. In the East the priests retained the right to consecrate the oil. The custom even became established, and has lasted to the present time, of having the oil blessed in the house of the sick person, or in the church by a priest, or, if possible, by seven priests.

During the time of the catechumenate those who were about to become Christians received one or more anointings with holy oil. The oil used on this occasion was that which had received the blessing mentioned in the Apostolic Constitution. This anointing of the catechumens is explained by the fact that they were regarded to a certain extent as being possessed by the devil until Christ should enter into them through baptism. The oil of catechumens is also used in the ordination of priests and the coronation of kings and queens.

The oil of chrism is used in the West immediately after baptism. Both in the East and West it was used very early for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

The Ordo Romanus shows that in Rome on Holy Thursday the archdeacon went very early to St. John Lateran, where he mixed wax and oil in a large vase, this mixture being used to make the Agnus Dei. The same document shows that in the suburban churches wax was used while Pseudo-Alcium [pseudo Alcuin?] says that both wax and oil were used.

In the Liturgy of the Nestorians and the Syrian Jacobites, the elements present at the Eucharistic Consecration have been prepared with oil. Among the Nestorians a special rubric prescribes the use of flour, salt, olive oil and water.

From the second century the custom was established of administering baptism with water specially blessed for this purpose. Nevertheless, the sacrament was valid if ordinary water was used. We are not well informed as to the nature of the consecration of this baptismal water, but it must be said that the most ancient indications and descriptions say nothing of the use of oil in this consecration. The first witness, Pseudo-Dionysius, does not go beyond the first half of the sixth century; he tells us that the bishop pours oil on the water of the fonts in the form of a cross. There is no doubt that this rite was introduced at a comparatively late period.

The maintenance of more or less numerous lamps in the churches was a source of expense which the faithful in their generosity hastened to meet by establishing a fund to purchase oil. The Council of Braga (572) decided that a third of the offerings made to the church should be used for purchasing oil for the light. The quality of oil thus consumed was greater when a lamp burned before a famous tomb or shrine, in which case it was daily distributed to pilgrims, who venerated it as a relic.

Chrism is a mixture of olives and balsam, blessed by a bishop in a special manner, and used in the administration of certain sacraments and in the performance of certain ecclesiastical functions. That chrism may serve as valid matter for the Sacrament of Confirmation it must consist of pure oil of olives and it must be blessed by a Bishop, or at least by a priest delegated by the Holy See. These two conditions are certainly necessary for validity; moreover, it is probable that there should be an admixture of balsam and that the blessing of the chrism should be special, in the sense that it ought to be different from that which is given to the oil of the sick or the oil of catechumens. If either of the last two conditions is wanting the sacrament will be doubtfully valid. To deal with the subject in a sufficiently exhaustive manner, it will be enough to touch on (1) the origin and antiquity of chrism, (2) its constituent nature, (3) its blessing, and (4) its use and symbolic significance.

(1) In its primitive meaning the word chrism, like the Greek chriona, was used to designate any and every substance that served the purpose of smearing or anointing, such as the various kinds of oils, unguents and pigments. This was its ordinary signification in profane literature, and even in the early patristic writings. Gradually, however, in the writings of the fathers at all events, the term came to be restricted to that special kind of oil that was used in religious ceremonies and functions, especially in the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation. Thus origin refers to the visible chrism in which we have all been baptized. St. Ambrose venerates in the chrism the oil of grace which makes kings and priests; and St. Cyril of Jerusalem celebrates the praises of the mystic chrism. The early councils of the church have also references to chrism as something set apart for sacred purposes and making for the sanctification of men. Thus the Council of Constantinople held in 381 and the Council of Toledo, 398. Regarding the institution of chrism, or its introduction into the sacramental and ceremonial system of the church, some theologians, among them St. Thomas and Susrex, hold that it was instituted immediately by Christ, while others contend that it is altogether of ecclesiastical origin. Eugene IV in his famous ‘Instruction for the Armenians’ asserts that chrism is the matter of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and, indeed, this opinion is so certain that it may not be denied without incurring some note of theological censure. All that the Council of Trent has defined in this connection is that they who attribute a certain spiritual and salutary efficacy to holy chrism do not in any way derogate from the respect and reverence due to the Holy Ghost.

(2) Two elements enter into the constitution of legitimate chrism, viz., olive oil and balsam. The former is indeed the predominating, as well as the principal ingredient, but the latter must be added in greater or lesser quantity, if not for reasons of validity, at all events in obedience to a grave ecclesiastical precept. Frequent reference is made in the Old Testament to the use of oil in religious ceremonies. It was employed in the coronation of kings, in the consecration of the high priests, and in the ordination of the Levites, and, indeed, it figured very prominently in the Mosaic ordinances generally, as can he abundantly gathered from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Such being the prevailing usage of the Old Testament in adopting olive oil for religious ceremonies, it is no cause for wonder that it also came to receive under the New Dispensation a certain religious recognition and approval. The second element that enters into the constitution of genuine chrism is balsam. This is an aromatic, resinous substance that is extracted from the wood of certain trees or plants, especially those belonging to the terebinthine group or family. In the manufacture of this sweet-smelling unguent the early Greek-Christians were wont to employ as many as forty different perfumed species or essences. In the beginning of the Christian era balsam was obtained from Judea and from Arabia, but in modern times it is also produced, and in superior quality, in the West Indies. The first mention of balsam as an ingredient in the composition of chrism seems to be found in the Gregorian Sacramentary, a work belonging to the sixth century. Now, however, according to existing legislation, the additional balsam is requisite for lawful chrism, but whether it is necessary for the validity of the sacrament, assuming that chrism is the matter of confirmation, is a matter about which theologians do not agree. The modern view appears to be that it is not so required. But owing to the uncertainty mere olive oil alone would be doubtful matter and could not therefore be employed apart from very grave necessity.

(3) For proper and legitimate chrism the blessing by a bishop is necessary, and probably, too, such a blessing as is peculiar to it alone. That the bishop is the ordinary minister of this blessing is certain. So much is amply recognized in all the writings of the early centuries, by the early councils ; the Second Council of Carthage of 390, and the Third Council of Braga, 572 and by all modern theologians. But whether a priest may be the extraordinary minister of this blessing, and if so, in what circumstances – this is a question that is more or less freely discussed. It seems agreed that the Pope may delegate a priest for this purpose, but it is not so clear that bishops can bestow the same delegated authority ex jure ordinario. They exercised, it seems, this prerogative in former times in the East, but the power of delegating priests to bless chrism is now strictly reserved to the Holy See in the Western church The rites employed in consecrating the sacred chrism go to show that it is a ceremony of the highest importance. Formerly it could be blessed on any day of the year, according as necessity arose. Now, however, it must be blessed during the solemn mass on Holy Thursday. For the full solemn ceremonial the consecrating prelate should be assisted by twelve priests, seven deacons, and seven subdeacons. The oil and balsam, being prepared in the sacristy beforehand, are carried in solemn procession to the sanctuary after the communion, and placed on a table. Then the balsam, held on a silver salver, is blessed, and similarly the olive oil, which is reserved in a silver jar. After this the balsam is mixed with the oil. Then the chrism, being perfected with a final prayer, receives the homage of all the sacred ministers present, each making a triple genuflection toward it. and each time saying the words, ‘ave sanctum chrisma’. After the ceremony it is taken back to the sacristy and distributed among the priests, who take it away in silver vessels commonly called oil-stocks, that which remains being securely and reverently guarded under lock and key.

(4) Chrism is used in the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders, in the consecration of churches, chalices, patens, altars, and altar stones, and in the solemn blessing of bells and baptismal water. The head of the newly baptized is anointed with chrism, the forehead of the person confirmed, the head and hands of a bishop at his consecration, and the hands of a priest at his ordination. So are the walls of churches, which are solemnly consecrated, anointed with the same holy oil, and the parts of the sacred vessels used in the mass which come in contact with the Sacred Species, as the paten and chalice. If it be asked why chrism has been introduced into the functions of the church liturgy, a reason is found in its special fitness for this purpose by reason, of its symbolic significance. For olive oil being of its own nature rich, diffusive, and abiding, is fitted to represent the copious outpouring of sacramental grace, while balsam, which gives forth most agreeable and fragrant odors, typifies the innate sweetness of Christian virtue. Oil also gives strength and suppleness to the limbs, while balsam preserves from corruption. Thus, anointing with chrism aptly signifies that fullness of grace and spiritual strength by which we are enabled to resist the contagion of sin and produce the sweet flowers of virtue. ‘For we are the good odor of Christ unto God’.

In conclusion it readily can be seen that the olive tree and its fruit have played a wonderful and conspicuous part in the history of the human race. From the ancient crowning of rulers and athletes with garlands made from its leaves, the placing of the boughs about the beloved dead, the race of primitive man that by its nourishing fruit and oil was kept from starvation and death, to the opening up of avenues of trade where otherwise there would have been no commerce, until the present days, the olive is famous and always will continue to be. Few substances have had the same fame, the same varied history, the same uplifting value that olive oil has had. It contributes not only to the nourishment of health, but also to the suppleness and beauty of the body; it has served as an anointing oil with which priests were elevated to the privilege of performing the sacred rights of the temple, using at their discretion both then and now the blessed oil in the solemn rites of the church. Kings and rulers were anointed with it, that the blessing of God might rest upon them, giving them grace to rule wisely the people under them. Great indeed would be the calamity to us, these people of modern times, if the olive orchards should become barren, the trees cease to yield their fruit, and the cruse of oil become empty

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Comment: Irish Times articles on Italian food in the north   Leave a comment

The following article appeared in the Irish Times 24 Dec 2010: the original can be found here in this excellent piece by Ken Doherty. SY

It is sometimes said that a good year for wine is a bad year for truffles. Something to do with a sufficient amount of rain satisfying the grape but sadly not enough to yield a crop of truffles. As we strolled around the pretty cobbled streets of Alba in northwest Italy – the go-to town for the truffle-nut – it looked like a bumper year for the musty fungal.

The town was overcome with truffle triumphalism. Every other shop window was festooned with the real thing or jokey simulacrums to excite the tourists. Having only tasted black truffles, and this being the truffle season, it was the pungency of its white relation that we were after. It started with a plan. The family, two adults and a baby, would, on a tour of the fertile north of Italy, make their way to the food and wine rich trinity of Gavi, Asti and Alba. Setting off from our base at a wonderful agriturismo (countryside BB), we would gobble as much of the region’s culinary specialities as we could.

As the bus rumbled its way up the narrow roads towards the village of Gavi in Piemonte, we sensed a treat in store. Gavi doesn’t just rely on its spectacular setting to woo you in. Its sumptuous vistas are a close second to its main draw. People make the pilgrimage to this tiny hamlet to experience its famous sweet and acidic white wines. We came for both.

Most of its wineries are just outside the town and, since we were car-free and baby-tied, we explored its medieval centre on foot. Its compact and charmingly dilapidated streets and buildings were quiet by late afternoon. On its main drag we stumbled into Antico Caffe Del Moro, pasticceria-bar-canteen-ice cream parlour and breast feeding refuge all rolled into one. We quickly fell prey to the proprietor’s big-hearted welcome and were given an introductory lesson to the intricacies of viniculture in Gavi.

After a quick feed from her mammy, all this nattering had a soporific effect on the baby. We were afforded a few tastings of what the Gavi vintage (from the Cortese grape) and its regional wines had to offer. This braced us for one of the many decent walks around the town.

Asti was different. It bristles with a more rugged atmosphere, especially during the twice weekly outdoor market days. Traders set up stall every Wednesday and Saturday in Campo del Palio but disappear by late afternoon. When we arrived at noon it was in full flow.

Amid all the cheaply-made threads and kitchen paraphernalia there is a wonderful food market that spoke of the season we were in. Stalls heaving with knobbly mushrooms, voluptuous squash and sultry plums made our bellies rumble.

The banter between stall holders and customers was imbued with typical Italian feeling – wildly gestating hands performing in the narrowest personal space possible. And for those who like to overturn historical myths and inaccuracies, the square is spiked with significance. Every September it hosts a bareback horse race similar to the famous Palio in Siena, Tuscany. But wait. In Asti, they claim their race is at least 300 years older!

Alba has the confident air of a regional capital. Situated in the rolling hills of the Langhe, it’s hemmed in by the vineyards that produce the famous Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco wines. From the bus stop it’s only a short walk to the old town. We noticed that if your appetite wasn’t sated by wine and truffles, you could always undergo some retail therapy in its many expensive designer boutiques.

It was getting late and we were the ones who might need clinical gastronomic therapy if we didn’t see some truffle action soon. We skipped into Vincafe on Via Vittorio Emanuele and were not disappointed. The place was buzzing.

We started with some silky lardo (pure cured pork fat) that sweetly lined our stomachs for what was to come. I swear I could hear the drums roll as our truffle dishes made their way from the kitchen. Both dishes, baked eggs ( cocotte con tartufo bianco ) and pasta ( tagliarini con tartufo ) were decorated with wisps of white truffle. The price did make the eyes water but what the hell, I now understand why a lot of chefs choose it as a death row last meal.

Gavi, Asti and Alba are repositories of all that is good about Italy. Fantastic food, unforgettable scenery and a genuinely warm welcome. So make your way to this part of the peninsula, hardly undiscovered, but a region steeped in such significant culinary lore it can only be a gift that keeps on giving.

Posted January 19, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Italian Wine c. 1900   Leave a comment

A description of the wine industry in Italy c. 1900. The author has the temerity to lump Italian wine together with Hungarian! SY

Despite the fact that to the efforts and enterprise of Italy the majority of the civilized portion of the world is indebted for its primal knowledge of the grape and its use, Italy itself is at the present day very backward in viticulture and vinification. There always have been, and there are today, large quantities of wine made in backward. Italy, but when the wines are tested, in comparison with wines from France, Austria, Germany, and other countries, the best that can be said of them is that they are indifferent. Oenology has not as yet received very much attention in Italy, and as long as the present state of affairs exists, the outlook for improvement is very poor indeed. The climate and soil are almost perfection, and if the vineyards could be influenced by a little touch of progress, the story of the vine in Italy would be written in far different language. But, like Spain, Italy has little if any ambition, and the spirit of emulation is an unknown quantity.

Perhaps the ease with which the vine grows has much to do with this indifference on the part of those who are expected to cultivate it and from it derive a goodly portion of their living, for, as said above, the climate and soil are as near perfection as it is possible to conceive. A cutting placed in the ground at almost any season of the year takes root, and though neglected almost entirely will in a very short space of time bear fruit that under a proper mode of vinification would make perfect wine.

The southern portion of the peninsula produces several very fine wines, but by no means as many or as much as if proper care and attention were bestowed upon their cultivation. As in Dalmatia, the vineyards are often planted with other crops, much to the detriment of the grapes. The vine is often grown on the edge of fields where large trees are growing, upon which it climbs and twines in unrestricted luxuriance of leaf and wood, but, comparatively speaking, very little fruit. In many places pruning is only done when the vines become so large that they prove to be a nuisance, and then only that part is curtailed which has protruded itself upon an object thought to be of more value.

The possibilities and advantages of Italy have long been known and recognized, and of late years many vineyards have been planted and owned by people from other lands, especially from England ; and the wines they make are rapidly growing in favor, both in Italy and abroad. The Italians have one habit that our American. farmers would do well to follow, and which rightly they should do. Instead of selling the best wine that he produces, the Italian keeps it for his own family, and disposes of that for which he does not care. The difference between the wines that are for sale and those that are given to guests, be they friends or even travellers sojourning in the neighborhood, is very great indeed and is often a subject of comment by those who are fortunate enough to receive the hospitality of some person who makes his own wine.

The nobility of Italy has never been loth to sell wine in order to raise even a little money. Many of the old palaces are fitted with a small window or wicket, only large enough for a flask or bottle to pass through, and no matter how insignificant may be the amount wanted, it is readily given in return for ‘spot cash’, so anxious are they to derive from their estate something that will enable them to live in a manner more or less befitting their station.

Many of the wines made in Italy are so light in character that they will not bear transportation, and it is necessary for one to be in the land to form any idea as to their quality and standard. But this absence need not be greatly deplored, for the majority of the wines are so indifferent that they are not worth the testing, unless you are really desirous of knowing how poor a wine can be.

In many instances what were supposed to be the vineyards of the ancient Romans are in use today, a mute testimonial of the fertility of the soil, and a living acknowledgment of the life-giving qualities of the climate; for from the air as much as from the soil the grape derives its being. Both air and soil must be conducive to life, or the vine will wither and die, or if not dying, its fruit will be useless, if perchance it should fruit at all. A vine once planted and started in Italy, especially in the southern part, lives far beyond the allotted life of man, and ofttimes beyond his memory.

A wine that by some is thought to be the Falernian wine of the ancients is the Lacrima Christi; can be taken cum grano salis, for what little we do know of Falernian is just the opposite of Lacrima. In the first place, Falernian was a harsh, astringent wine, and requiring long cellarage to perfect it, while Lacrima is a rich, sweet, luscious wine, ripening very quickly ; no country can produce a finer or more delicate wine than this, when it is made properly and cared for attentively. Very little of the genuine is made, even in the most favorable years, and as a rule that is all taken by the powers that be for their own use. For many years a notion prevailed that it was dangerous for any one to drink of this wine, unless acclimated to the country. The proximity of the volcano Vesuvius to the vineyards in which it is made gave rise to this opinion; it was thought that the mountain’s influence on the grapes was of such a nature that, unless a person had lived in the locality for some time and had become used to it, or in other words had been inoculated, the wine would be dangerous to drink. This idea has been long exploded, and the only real danger now to be apprehended lurks in the fact that one seldom gets the genuine to drink, even when it is sold as such by respectable people and at a price that seems almost a sufficient guaranty; for many gallons of Lacrima are sold that are no more Lacrima than Madeira is sherry. Either from design or accident is very limited in Italy.

A wine that is made in the south will bear the same name as one made in the north, or vice versa, and nomenclature, what is more remarkable, the two wines will not resemble each other any more than claret resembles port wine. For many centuries vineyards thrived and grew in the lava that flowed down the sides of Vesuvius, hiding from view the city of Pompeii; it was only in the middle of the eighteenth century that it became known that beneath the roots of these vines lay the ruins of a city, where the Falernian once flowed to the song of the bard and the music of the lyre.

The season of the vintage is still observed in Italy with much pomp and ceremony, and great rejoicing. Bacchus is still revered, and The joyous vintage many offerings are made to him. The season. vintage generally occurs in the later part of September, and the festival savors of the old Dionysia, purged to a great degree of its ancient licentiousness, but retaining many of its important and salient features. Masks are worn in the procession, and song and dancing still retain their hold upon the people. In many places, and especially near Naples, the oscilla or masks of Bacchus are still hung in the vineyards upon the growing vines, so that the season may prove propitious and prosperity be the lot of the vineyardist.

Great quantities of wine are drunk on these occasions, but drunkenness or intoxication is seldom met with, for as a rule the people of Italy are sober, though miserably poor. The methods of the vintage, if such they may be called, are reprehensible to a degree that could only be tolerated in a land where the thoughts of the morrow never enter the mind, and the idea of providing for old age is a fancy vague and dim. Carelessness, wastefulness, and dirtiness are carelessness, the three primal factors of an Italian vintage; careless in the way the grapes are dirtiness, gathered and taken to the press; wasteful as regards the picking, many of the best clusters being allowed to remain on the vine to rot, while cluster after cluster is spilled upon the ground to be trampled upon by man and beast; dirty as to the condition of the presses, which are never cleaned, and also as to the vessels which are to hold the must after it is expressed from the grapes. In fact, this filthiness is carried so far that the wine is often spoiled before it has ceased fermenting. And this exists in a country that can raise such wine as to induce a man to tarry and drink of it until death ensues inconsequence.

Posted January 18, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: thoughts on Italian food safety   Leave a comment

The following is the beginning of a fascinating article by Laurel Curran on Italian food safety that can be found here.

‘When you think of Italian food, the first dishes that come to mind are probably pizza and pasta.  I am here to tell you that’s not just your imagination. Those carb-saturated items make up the majority of a typical Italian’s diet (plus gelato, of course). It took about five weeks for my body to adjust from my Pacific Northwest diet of seafood, granola and vegetables to one consisting almost entirely of these items. After four months living in Rome, I have decided that Italians love carbohydrates even more than Americans do.This is interesting when one considers the fact that there are virtually zero obese Italians. Not only do they know how to make carbs unbelievably tasty, they know how to eat them right.  Maybe it’s because they don’t serve butter with their bread, maybe it’s because their pasta portions are the size of something off an American kids’ menu and maybe it’s because they walk everywhere.  Whatever the reason, Italians have food figured out.When it comes to food safety they also fare quite well.  Italy suffers far fewer foodborne illness outbreaks per capita than the United States.  There have been only a handful in the past decade. Most have been at hotel and resort restaurants, and none have affected more than 60 people. There are no food safety law firms in Italy for a reason.  When I asked my neighborhood shopkeeper about this he suggested that the food he sells is safe because the EU became hyper-vigilant after the Mad Cow disease outbreak in 2001.  He’s right; the EU has some very stringent laws protecting European consumers [continues]

Posted January 17, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Funghi hunting c. 1900   Leave a comment

The following comes from the account of a British author, c. 1900. Mafalda and Francesca, it should be noted, are Italian children with imperfect English.

It must be said that many funghi are poisonous and that no modern funghi hunter would collect ditole (pictured) in the reckless fashion that the three intrepid funghi hunters adopt here!

SY

Mushrooms, like manna, should be gathered afresh every morning, and on that October day the weather was ideal for the search. A week of soaking rain had been followed by hot sunshine, and the warm, damp earth was a perfect forcing-bed in which every fungus was hastening upwards at the top of its speed. Certainly such a morning must be devoted to a mushroom hunt: there was no need for Salvatore to tell us so; we knew it from our own experience as veteran hunters, without any advice from him; and, with nailed boots, baskets and clasp-knives, were off in the fresh of the morning, with a joyous sense of adventure, to seek these coy creatures of the wood.

The dogs, who understand perfectly the pleasures which await them when country-boots and baskets are the order of the day, barked and bounded in an ecstasy of delight as we took the narrow track among the olives; then, having expressed their approval of the expedition, fell into a long, straggling procession down the road. Adolfo, the gardener, paused in his work of pruning roses to prophesy that we should return empty-handed; but Adolfo is a pessimist, so his prediction troubled us not a whit as we toiled up the steep slopes of the green and golden woods.

The sun shone upon the emerald turf and undergrowth; the dying oak thickets glowed like bronze; blue mists lingered among the distant tree-trunks; the ground in sheltered places was rosy with cyclamens; the pine-needles filled the air with their spicy fragrance. Far down on the plain lay Florence, with its belfries and cupolas, and the great dome which Brunelleschi set, dwarfed by distance to the size of an egg-shell, rising in the midst. Beyond rose the mountains, and it was pleasant to be assured by the aspect of Monte Morello that we were in no danger of rain. This mountain, now bare, but once covered with thick forests through which rang the bells of little lonely churches, is exceedingly weather-wise, serving the Florentines as barometer; and the habit of a good Florentine, asked to prophesy the weather, is to glance up at the mountain, and reply with the old rhyme ‘Quando Monte Morello, mette il cappello, Pigli l’ombrello.’ [When Monte Morello has a hat, get an umbrella]

It was a perfect morning. Birds sang softly among the white flowers of the myrtle thickets. Now and again a rabbit slid through the fern, rousing sudden excitement in the dogs. The scarlet and orange balls on the arbutus trees glowed in the sun like fairy fruit among their burnished leaves, and on the prickly juniper bushes the berries clustered, misty blue. A juniper is a pretty shrub, and its fruit useful for the making of gin; but I think Elijah must indeed have been hard put to it when, going a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sat down under the shadow of one to rest and pray that his life might be taken from him, though perhaps the juniper trees of Palestine are larger, more capable of shade-giving than the stunted bushes of Italian woods.

The first mushroom was found by Francesca, and was a noble specimen of the ovolo tribe, orange-red above, primrose colour beneath; a class of fungus which takes its name from the manner of its growth, coming up through the soil in a cream-skinned egg, and after splitting this outer covering, opening in the sun like an orange parasol. But our search at first was, on the whole, unsuccessful, for the peasant boys had already been out since daybreak; and as little had escaped their sharp eyes the baskets remained distressingly light.

Among the contadini, the mushrooms which they send their children to gather prove a profitable crop, as they sell them at the Villa or in the town, either for immediate eating, or to be preserved under oil as a pickle for winter use. Especially are they valued in the mountains, where the people have little to live upon save their chestnuts, and the strawberries, raspberries, and mushrooms with which the varying seasons fill the woods.

Still we rambled on, confident that sooner or later some splendid discovery would reward our search. I wonder in what lies the fascination of a mushroom hunt! Certainly it is not the desire to eat mushrooms, for those can be set before me in every variety without my moving hand or foot; yet there is undoubtedly some charm which leads me day after day to clamber about the wooded slopes with eyes bent upon the turf and dead leaves and broom bushes; and even when I return emptyhanded I am always ready to set out again with fresh enthusiasm next day. It must be a spark of that adventurous spirit which once drove men forth in search of El Dorado; that passion which led the old explorers, sailing over unknown and mighty waters, or toiling through Alpine snows or desert sands, to go forward ever one league farther, feeling that realisation of hope and fulfilment of effort might lie at the end of that next mile. The feeling that any moment may reveal the longed-for treasure, the earnestly sought knowledge, has encouraged and led to all the world’s discoveries; and the desire to see round the next corner of life’s road, the expectation of something pleasant lurking there, is as strong in small things as in great. The excitement of the search, the eternal spring of hope, which made great enterprises possible, prompts me to walk on, my eyes fixed upon the ground, because I feel that the next foot of earth may prove a South Sea of discovery, that any moment may, after a whole barren hour, reveal a majestic ovolo, a sturdy porcine or, most glorious discovery of all, a crisp family of golden ditole.

The Italians eat far more varieties of fungi than the English, and many which we despise as toadstools would on an Italian table hold an honoured place; but for an ardent searcher there is, in all the mushroom world, no greater joy than the discovery of ditole. Its crisp form resembles a clump of golden coral as it pushes up under the moss, where some yellow gleam, some protruding sprig betrays its presence; and when the excited seeker turns back the green coverlet, a group may be discovered, so large as to half fill the basket, when carefully dug up with a knife. Ditole has another charm, in that it flourishes not only in families but in colonies, other clumps being almost invariably found in the neighbourhood of the first; porcine also have this domestic habit, growing in pairs, or, as Mafalda expresses it, a gentleman and lady side by side.

As we climbed farther up the hill our patience was rewarded with more success; but, alas! while Francesca and I had both fairly well-filled baskets, Mafalda, for all her diligence in searching, had not found a single one. In vain had I offered her my best ones; her lofty spirit scorned such compromise. ‘I have not found them, I!’ was the form of her refusal; and I recognised the true spirit of the adventurer, and realised that it was not mere mushrooms which Mafalda wanted, but the proud moments when effort should be rewarded and hope be emptied in delight. ‘Never mind, dear,’ put in Francesca, offering a crude consolation. ‘Poverina, you are sure to find some soon!’ Pity in such a moment was, however, the one unbearable injury. Mafalda tossed her head. ‘It makes me nothing!’ she replied tartly: ‘these noiosi funghi, I want them not, I’ and she turned her back upon us in a lofty manner, toiling up the slope on fat bare legs whose lagging action betrayed the anguish of her soul.

Francesca and I exchanged glances: something must clearly be done. I saw a dreadful tear roll down the round, flushed cheek; evidently wounded pride and disappointment held sway together in Mafalda’s heart. Providence was kind in that moment; I saw a gleam of yellow in the shadow of a stack of brushwood. Checking the involuntary burst of jubilee, I passed by unheeding, and from a little distance up the hill directed Mafalda’s weary search.’ If I were you, I would look under that big pine-tree, Mafalda; that seems to me a very likely place. No? Well, under the arbutus! Nothing there? I am surprised! Perhaps in that patch of moss beside the path! What? Really! How wonderful! What a clever child!’ as a shout of triumph rent the air, and Mafalda fell on her knees before her treasure, a great clump of ditole, crisp and golden in its bed of moss. The joy of the discovery rendered her momentarily speechless, and seizing my hand, she pointed in dramatic silence to the fungus, which I promptly transferred, with many congratulations, to the basket, since if she did it herself, the knife might, as she wisely admitted, ‘sore’ her hand. ‘Never have I seen a thing so beautiful!’ she exclaimed rapturously, gazing at her well-filled basket, for the first clump had been the prelude to several discoveries in the near neighbourhood. ‘And I have found it, I myself; am very brave to find them, the funghi, non e vero?’

After this happy event we pursued our way in good spirits, although it was distressing to find many places where only the white roots remained of ditole clumps which had been nibbled off to the level of the ground. ‘It is those sheeps of Paradiso’, snapped Francesca vindictively, when she saw the traces. ‘I wish that they may die, every one!’ This would have been a somewhat extreme punishment, and I hinted as much to her; but Francesca is as stern on the subject of mushrooms as any English landowner over the preservation of game.

We came upon some of these guilty animals a few minutes later, and upon the shepherd himself, a weatherbeaten man, staff in hand, who, with his dog at his feet and his back set against a tree-trunk, was gazing vacantly out across the Val d’Arno, and the undulating ripple of far blue hills. As I looked at him I feared that the shepherd’s vocation was wasted upon Paradiso; I doubted if he had any full perception of its joys. Yet it must be a good life, to dwell with all this beauty, and to have the long sunny hours in which to wander in the silence of the hillside, marking the time by the steps of the sun in heaven; and, from the going forth in the morning until the flocks are folded at night, hearing the music of birds and waters, watching the march of the seasons across the land, and feeding one’s soul upon the beauty of the world. I believe that I should be quite happy under such circumstances, in love as I am with the open air and sky, the grass and trees, and all the creatures of fur and feather which dwell in fields and woods. Of course I should have a dog; that is the right of every shepherd; and it would certainly be Plato, that big, grotesque, long-haired animal whom I love best of all the dogs on the place. When I need consolation, it is of Plato that I seek it, and find real comfort in feeling his large warm paw laid in my hand, and in meeting the grave kind gaze from beneath his shaggy fringe. I can never realise that Plato is a mere child, being little more than one year old; his long hair, his great, thoughtful, pathetic eyes with their earnest gaze suggest, like his name, some elderly sage or philosopher, and I have a sense of reliance upon him as upon some old and trusty friend. In spite of his strange appearance Plato must, I am sure, come of a noble family, for at times he assumes most stately attitudes, which contrast oddly with his rather clumsy build. When we are down in the ravine, crab-catching, he extends himself upon the rock above, the living presentment of the Lion of Lucerne; and whenever, out walking, he has a spare instant, he lies down, and gravely observes the landscape with thoughts which ‘do lie too deep for words’. I should like to discuss this pastoral question with Paradiso; to hear his opinion on the subject, and know whether, in his primitive soul, untouched by the breath of modern life, still lingers that profound, if dumb, love of nature, that poetry and ancient folklore in which his country is so rich; and if he is content to dwell alone with nature and be the friend of the creatures, or, not knowing how blessed he is, cherishes visions, never to be realised, of life as a music-hall artist or master of a city trattoria.

Francesca, however, refused to linger while I satisfied myself on these points; she clearly held the shepherd responsible for the doings of his sheep, and in any case it was hopeless to look for mushrooms anywhere in the neighbourhood of the flock. The baskets were well filled at last, and the boom of the midday cannon, which reached us faintly from Florence, the bells ringing from the little hillside churches, warned us that it was time to be turning our steps towards the house. As we made our way through the heather, where the bees were humming as busily as if it were midsummer, we met an old man bent upon the same errand as ourselves, but with sadly different results. He was very old, very ragged; his clothes were patched with a score of colours, his long grey hair hung down below a battered felt hat; in his eyes was the dim, pathetic expression only seen in the eyes of the very old. He told us, in quavering tones, that he would be eighty-four next Ogni Santi; that he was past work, but that he came out to look for mushrooms, because his povera vecchia, his poor old wife, was ill, had no teeth, and needed soft food now. But he could see little, and the stooping made his back ache, and there seemed to be less mushrooms in these days than there were when he was a boy. Poor old fellow! He was a pitiful sight among the heather and the sunlight and the glad sounds and sights of the woods. He was feeble and worn-out, a burden on the sons at home, where there were many little mouths to fill. It was a pathetic age after a life of toil, and the sight of him made a shade in the sunshine as when some wayside Calvary throws its shadow across the sunny way. It was one of those sorrows for which there is no comfort, which make one’s heart ache with a universal pity for all the lonely, old, and sad.

The great basket, large, perhaps, as the hope with which he had set out to look for food for his vecchia and the little ones, was almost empty; it stood under a tree with the bit of dry, dark bread for his dinner, while he wandered slowly about, a dreary, shrunken figure, his frequent ejaculations of ‘Oi! Oi!’ witnessing to the aching of the rheumatic limbs. I looked from the three full baskets to the empty one, then at the two children, and they understood at once. I was the first to empty out my mushrooms; Francesca, always quick to give, followed my example promptly; only Mafalda hesitated. She was very little, and the treasure to her was very great; she looked wistfully at her basket, then at me. I shook my head as I met the appeal in the blue eyes. ‘He will have enough now,’ I told her. But Mafalda, after the momentary reluctance, rose to the occasion nobly. ‘I give, also I!’ she responded with dignity; and, her basket emptied, we slipped away without a word.

‘Will he think Madonna sent them?’ asked Mafalda, as, hand in hand, we went down the heather-covered slope. Perhaps. Who knows? To his simple mind this may well seem food sent direct from Heaven. ‘Adolfo said we should come back with empty baskets’, remarked Francesca, swinging her stick as she walked; and I realised that, though she did not regret the mushrooms, it stung a little that Adolfo should be right. Yet what if he were? There are better things even in a mushroom hunt than full baskets, and if ours were empty, another’s and he more needy by far was full. It is not given to us every day to be agents in a miracle; and to the old man, I am sure, this sudden multiplication of his mushrooms could seem nothing less. So we reached the house in jubilant spirits, if emptyhanded, for what do mushrooms matter to those who have been fellow-workers of a miracle, and who have been privileged to set the little coloured shrine of some kindly deed by the dusty wayside of another’s road of life?

Posted January 15, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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News: Nutella threatens marmalade   Leave a comment

In an article which barely concealed its gleeful tone, a recent article in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (13 Jan 2011, p.18) noted that marmalade, the traditional British breakfast spread, was losing ground fast to both Italian Nutella and, even worse, to American brands of peanut butter. In calendar year 2010, 2.5 million jars fewer of the sugary-but-bitter spread made with Seville oranges were sold in the United Kingdom than in 2009. The article quoted Xanthe Clayr of the Daily Telegraph, who called the drop in marmalade sales a “tragedy,” and who said that something must be done as marmalade “is one of the best culinary traditions of our country.” Over half of the consumers of marmalade are over 65 years old, and in addition to the an image problem, a rise in the price of honey has hurt marmalade sales. What’s worse, coffee (pushed by American chains and Italian brands in the supermarkets) has surpassed tea as the hot beverage of choice on British mornings, spaghetti often outsells sausage and beans, and wine is rapidly catching up to beer.

Though the Repubblica doesn’t mention this, Britain shouldn’t feel like it stands alone, even though its “traditional foods” are threatened. Culinary philologists all over the world will likely form brigades to help Britannia purge its food of foreign influences like…Seville oranges. And Indian curry. And Chinese tea.   ZN

Posted January 14, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: how old is the Marco Polo myth?   Leave a comment

We have looked previously at Marco Polo’s writing, which shows emphatically that he did not bring pasta from China to Italy. We have looked too at two twentieth century sources that suggest that he did: an advertising campaign and a film.

But how old is the Marco Polo myth? There follows an extract from one of the first Italian cook books in English by Dorothy Daly (1900) who published with Spring in the UK.

And why, so far, no word of pasta, that ever present, ubiquitous Italian dish? For the reason that Pasta, whatever it may be to-day, is said not originally to have been a native of the country, but is alleged to be one of the many wonders brought home by the 13th century explorer, Marco Polo, from his travels in China. Nevertheless, although Pasta, in its many shapes and forms, may not have started off as a true native of Italy, to-day it seems as much a part of the country as an operatic tenor, and anyone wanting to present a truly Italian meal must perforce learn a few of the ways of preparing and cooking Pasta…

The myth seems to be well established here, which begs the question: where and when did it originate? Was it an American or even a British invention? SY

Posted January 13, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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