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Source: Old Market in Florence 1884   Leave a comment

The following was written 1884 in a vist by an Englishman mere months before Florence’s Old Market (that dated back to Roman times) was demolished.

But now to glance at the aspect of the place as a market. Could anything be more picturesque than the antique old gabled roofs, and the stalls beneath them with yellow awnings, which seem to absorb the sunlight, and yet shadow the piles of vegetables and baskets of fruit of every hue under the sun? Why, the very cabbages ring the changes on all the reds, yellows, and greens almost to blue-black! then the crimson and orange strings of capsicums festooned across the heaps of scarlet tomatoes, the rich purple of the pear-shaped petronciani, and the mingled hues of the pomegranate, make the greengrocer’s stall under the yellow shadow a feast of colour as well as a study of life.

Though we see all our old English friends of the vegetable kingdom, yet there are so many unknown herbs that we wonder what they are, and whether they are good for food. Here comes a poor tottering old woman, and putting down a bit of copper as big as a farthing asks for ‘two centesimi of radicchio’ the leaves of the garden chicory. She spends a like coin on a crust of bread at a baker’s, and there is her breakfast complete bread and salad for less than a penny.

There is a pert serving-maid, looking very pretty under her black lace veil; she spends several minutes bargaining for some lentils, and at length goes off with a parcel of those little brown seeds, of which she will make a puree to garnish the grand joint at her master’s dinner table. This esteemed dish is a zampone, a pig’s leg, bound and stuffed with meat, like a Bologna sausage, and smothered under a brown mash of lentils. But what is that keen-eyed man-cook buying? Certain pear-shaped shining vegetables of a rich purple colour. Such things were never eaten in old England. They are called petronciani, and are the fruit of the Solanum insanum or ‘mad apples’. They are first boiled till tender, then cut into slices, dipped in egg, and fried.

A sharp-faced old servant comes up, throws a quick glance round the stall, and muttering, ‘What, no gobbi, today? I shall have to go back to Menica after all’, and away she hurries. What are gobbi, do you suppose? They are a favourite vegetable in Italy, and are nothing but the stalks of the artichoke, tied up in bundles like celery. They may be eaten boiled, and served with melted butter, or cut into pieces, and fried in eggs and bread crumbs; and are excellent either way, the taste being something between celery and seakale.

Another favourite Italian vegetable consists of the knots of young leaves on the stalks of the fennel; but the flavour is too strong to suit an English taste. There are also some very small kinds of vegetable marrow, about as large as apples, which are very good.

Here comes another purchaser, who asks for ceci, and goes away with a pocket of round, yellow seeds, like over-grown peas, which were taken wet from a barrel of salt water, The plant which produces them is the Cicer Arietinum (English ram’s head, or chick pea). A very good soup maigre is made from them; but if your olfactory organs are delicate, it will be advisable not to assist at the cooking of them, for they emit a strong odour, like salt cod. The Italians live largely on leguminous plants; the numbers of different beans they use is quite remarkable; they vary in colour from the white haricot to dark red, and even dark brown species. If a working man can get a few beans, either hot or cold, with oil and vinegar, he is quite content to dine without meat ; and if a few of the greenish yellow funghi are added, he thinks it a meal fit for a king.

But what is this man calling as he conies slowly up the crowded market-street, shouting ‘Salati, salati’ (salted)? A little boy hearing the cry begins to sing ‘Son salati i miei lupini, Son salati dalla dama’. ‘My lupins are salted by my true love’ and he pulls a minute brown coin out of his pocket, and quickly exchanges it for the large flat, yellow lupin seeds, which the man has in a flat, wooden tub. There is scarcely a street corner in Florence at which you will not see the inevitable vendor of lupins, who is largely patronized by the working classes. The lupins are eaten after being kept in brine, but they are not cooked.

In the matter of salad, Italian tastes are as wide as in leguminous vegetables. They eat chicory and sorrel leaves, basil leaves, lettuce, endives, beetroot, dandelion, and cold cabbage. And a favourite salad is a grassylooking plant, which they call barba di cappuccini (or Capucino’s beard), known in England as ‘buck’s horn’, ‘goat’s beard’, or ‘star of the earth’. The Italians have classical authority for eating this, for Dioscorides said in his time that the plantago coronopus was eaten cooked; the only difference is, that the moderns do not trouble to cook it.

The fruit stall, which is often distinct from the vegetable seller’s, contains quite as many specimens which are strange to English eyes. Side by side with yellow apricots lies the cactus fruit, or prickly pear. Be sure that you don’t attempt to eat it, or even to touch it, without a knife, for the harmless little brown spots which dot its ruddy surface are each composed of a thousand invisible thorns which have a knack of entering the skin on the smallest provocation. The correct manner of eating a prickly pear is to cut off the two ends, then cut down the outer rind, and laying it open, take out the inner pulp.

Here are two baskets full of russet brown fruits; one familiar enough is the common medlar, but the other is shaped like a pear. It is the fruit of the pyrus sorbus (service tree). When fresh, they look like bright coloured pears; we were shown large bunches of them hung up in the shop, but they are only good to eat when mellowed by keeping till brown as a ripe medlar, and have a much richer flavour than that fruit.

A basket of red, velvety-looking berries, similar to strawberries, only rounder, next attracts us; they are arbutus berries, and when quite ripe are really very good to eat. The children are fond of another wild fruit, called giuggiole (jujube tree). They are glossy brown berries, with a soft, green pulp within. The oval red berries of the ‘cornel cherry’ are also greatly appreciated by children. The Romans also knew this cherry, but they grew it chiefly for the wood, from which their lances and arrows were made. But the most cooling and delicious fruit of all is the Japanese nespolo, a yellow medlar, with a delicious acid taste; they come in as soon as the warm weather begins, and are the favourite refresheners until the water-melon takes their place.

There are also different nuts eaten here. Besides walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts (which make a dozen different kinds of foods), we have the pinoli and the noce di Brasil. Pinoli are the little kernels of the cone of the stone pine. They are remarkably good in flavour, having a slight aromatic taste. They are obtained by placing the pine cone in an oven, when the heat causes the scales to open, and the nuts are easily shaken out and cracked with a hammer. The Brasil nut is a curious little pair of twin yellow berries in a brownish husk; the flavour is rich and aromatic.

A walk through the Italian market will certainly produce the thought that the English might vary and economize their food much more than they do. At those old cook-shops, in which the Florentines of three or four centuries ago were wont to dine, and where the ancient plates and dishes they used are preserved on shelves on the walls, one sees the most curious processes of cooking. Over the fire a large wheel revolves, on which are trussed rows of fowls, thrushes, and larks, the latter alternated with bits of bread, pork, and sage leaves. In the frying-pans are savoury messes of yellow polenta, made from the maizeflour, frying in oil, and of brown migliaccio, a cake of chestnut flour, and piles of nicely cooked fritto, the materials for which are endless, ranging the vegetable and animal kingdom.

As for economy, we might learn a great deal from a Florentine cook. For instance, when we truss a fowl, we make no use of the liver, except by displaying it under the wing. As for the cock’s comb, and other appendages to the head and neck of chanticleer, we consider them refuse. Not so the Italian; he calls them regalia, cuts them up and stews them with the liver in luscious gravy, and makes one of the most stylish entries for a dinner party, either by filling a vol-au-vent with them, or in a shape of stewed rice, called risotto con regalia. A fowl will, in the poulterer’s hands, serve several customers, for marketing is done on the infinitesimal system. The two bits off the breast are bought separately as a dish for an invalid or a fricassee for an entree. Then the carcass is sold for roasting or making soup, the legs and neck are purchased for a few centesimi by the poor, and the combs and livers go to the tables of the rich as regalia.

The fish market presents equally curious specimens of food. The sepia, or cuttle fish, is much liked, and you see its long arms, with their curious rows of circular disks, lying about in all directions. You will never find a mackerel; and if a salmon be visible, it has been imported for the benefit of some English Midas, at ten francs the Tuscan pound of twelve ounces. But there are large-headed, three-sided fish called naselli, which are as good as whiting, and a large kind of cod called palombo. Lobsters, as we know them, do not appear, but there are huge crawfish, larger than any lobster, and looking like magnified shrimps. It is a fashion to fry the very small shrimps in their shells, and eat them crisp and entire. Frogs’ legs also make a very delicate dish of fritto. Indeed, what will not an Italian make delicious in a fry? A dish of dainty morsels, fried in butter, of a pale brown, is placed before you, and its contents will prove a perfect riddle. Probably there will be melon flowers, bits of every vegetable imaginable, celery, morsels of calves’ brain and marrow, tiny lamb chops, sweetbreads, liver, artichoke, bits of fennel, &c., &c. Nothing comes amiss to the frying-pan when fritto misto is required. But our marketing is over; we have got back to the kitchen, so we will leave the cook to her mysteries.

Comment: phylloxera with some reference to Italy   Leave a comment

Phylloxera with some reference to Italy by Max Milihan

(i) The Disaster

An aphid typically called phylloxera vastatrix, the devastator, silently made a voyage from the New to the Old World and swept through Europe in the second half of the 19th century. In its trail it left shriveled, fruitless vines on desolate vineyards with confused proprietors in a region of the world that relied heavily upon wine. For the first years the phylloxera remained a misunderstood scourge and for several years afterward an unstoppable enemy. Wine production in France fell 72% in 14 years and put many small, individually owned vineyards out of business (Oxford Companion to Wine). With the combined work of entomologists, biologists, viticulture societies and governments it was overcome in Europe but remains a threat to vineyards across the world today. According again to the Oxford Companion to Wine, ‘about 85 per cent of all the world’s vineyards were estimated in 1990 to be grafted onto rootstocks presumed to be resistant to phylloxera’.

The phylloxera proved difficult to understand because of its odd life cycles and its adaptable nature. The first stage hatches from eggs laid ‘in the previous autumn at the foot of the vine, where it has passed the winter, a very small insect, which travels underground to the end of the most delicate roots, and there nourishes itself by sucking the sap from the vine’ (Jemina 5). This form injects poison into the roots in order to feed on the sap of the roots and begins a colony, producing thousands of offspring. The poison injected opens a permanent canal for the insect to continually feed on the sap of the roots and prevents them from closing and healing. ‘The Phylloxera on the extremities of the roots produces a special and very characteristic kind of swelling which continues to change, or rather to rot, and the vine no longer able to nourish itself, dies’ (Jemina 7). In addition to the form of the phylloxera that feeds on roots, several other forms of the insect have adapted to serve various purposes, such as laying eggs on the underside of the leaves themselves or flying from one plant to another and reproducing. Their procreation is prodigious; botanists and entomologists estimate that millions of the aphids could be produced in one season. In this manner the tiny insects are able to multiply and consume entire vineyards, moving to the next healthy plant after its victim is depleted (Campbell 74).

Early attempts at wine production in the New World by French emigrants had met with disaster. These entrepreneurs brought with them from France their grape vines of the European vitis vinifera variety which had proven to be very effective at producing wine in the Old World (Oxford Companion to Wine). For reasons unknown to them at the time, their experimental vineyards shriveled and died; climate was assumed to be the cause when, in fact, the tiny phylloxera was most likely the reason for the failures (Oxford Companion to Wine). Grape vines native to the New World were able to flourish but produced flavors and aromas that offended the European palette accustomed to the grapes produced by their own vitis vinifera. ‘Attempts to cultivate the European vines were fruitless … but Yankee character is to persevere and native vines were cultivated with great success’ (Campbell 38). Some areas of the continent were able to successfully cultivate the native vines, such as vitis labrusca, vitis aestivalis, vitis rupestris and vitis riparia, and produce wines acceptable to some Americans and a few Europeans while others, most notably California, cultivated vitis vinifera before the phylloxera made their way across the continent.

During the mid-19th century there existed a strong interest in botany, especially in upper-class Victorian England. During the 1850s and 1860s, an American vine called the Isabella proved to be very popular as ornamental decoration in gardens and was shipped en masse into Europe from the United States (Campbell 25). Grape vines had been transferred for years without harm to the environment but, with the invention of a glass box called the Ward Transportation Case in 1835, which kept plants growing on their journey overseas, the parasites feeding on the vines were able to survive the voyage (Campbell 28). Another theory proposes that steam ships made the ocean crossing faster which allowed the aphids to survive the voyage. ‘If [vines] had been infected with aphids, they would have died by the time the long sea voyage was completed. But steamships carried the plants far more quickly and the railway reduced the time of the inland voyage’ (Campbell 108). These vines were rarely used for wine production but they were cultivated in large gardens with nearby vineyards. In this manner, the phylloxera were innocuously introduced to Europe.

(ii) Identification

Due to the life cycle of the phylloxera and their initially slow but exponential spread, the effects of their presence were not observed for several years. The insect was identified as early as 1863 by an entomologist at Oxford named J.O. Westwood after he received samples of the insect from a London suburb (Oxford Companion to Wine), but its effects on native European vines was still unknown. That same year several vineyards in the Rhone region of France were infected but the cause was not apparent until several years later. One of the first documented devastations of vines was written by a French customs inspector, David de Pénanrun, in 1867 who described ‘something wrong with his vines. Leaves were turning brown and falling early. The affliction seemed to spread outwards in a circle’ (Campbell 45). The same year, a veterinarian, Monsieur Delorme, wrote of ‘a small proprietor at Saint-Martin-de-Crau [noticing] leaves on a number of vines turning rapidly from green to red. Within a month ‘most of the vines were already withered and beginning to dry out’’ (Campbell 46).

The phylloxera were not immediately identified as the culprit because ‘when roots had been dug up on dead and dying vines in Floirac scarcely any phylloxera were found’ (Campbell 101). Their life cycle and feeding cycles allow them to move to healthy plants as infected plants are dying. When they were noticed, some speculated that they were a result of the disease, not the cause, and blamed the vine failures on too much rain. Phylloxera reproduce in large quantities during the summer seasons and their winged form allows them to move from plant to plant which resulted in a very rapid spread through Europe. In the years following the first infestations, many surrounding vineyards rotted and the effects sprung up elsewhere in Europe as well, although the main concentration was in France.

In the years following the first reports of vineyard devastation, vineyard owners and agricultural societies reacted quickly to identify the cause and spare their own harvests. The most historically significant push was the creation of the Commission to Combat the New Vine Malady by the Vaucluse Agricultural Society. This society included landowners, horticulturalists, entomologists and and Jules Émile Planchon, the head of the Department of Botanical Sciences at Montpellier University (Campbell 48). They quickly investigated fields with both living and withered vines where Planchon inspected a slowly dying vine;

A happy pickaxe blow unearthed some roots on which I could see with the naked eye some yellowish spots. A magnifying glass revealed them to be clumps of insects… from this moment, a fact of capital importance was established. It was that an almost invisible insect, shying away underground and multiplying there by myriads of individuals, could bring about the exhaustion of even the strongest vine. (Campbell 50)

Despite this discovery, arguments continued to storm over the true cause of the devastation. ‘The greatly respected Henri Marés … declared it was ‘the severe cold that had continued unbroken last winter that is responsible for the deplorable condition of the vines’ (Campbell 51). The following year Planchon, the entomologist Louis Vialla and Jules Lichtenstein were dispatched by the Agricultural Society of France to continue investigation of the aphid; that summer they received correspondence from the State Entomologist of Missouri, Charles Riley. He wrote that the aphids found by Planchon were in fact the same ones that had been studied in the United States, but that they had not had such a disastrous effect on the vines there (Campbell 68). The scientists had found the cause of the devastation and theorized that it came from America, but no cure was yet in sight. The French Commission on the Phylloxera accepted Planchon’s theories and offered a reward of 20,000 francs to whoever could find a cure for the attacks of the aphid (Campbell 80).

(iii) The Fight Back

A French botanist named Léo Laliman who had both American and European vines in his garden reported to the Agricultural Society of France that the American vines had withstood the phylloxera invasion while the European vines had perished (Campbell 71). He proposed a process called ‘grafting’ vineyards ought to fuse the vines of the European vitis vinifera with the roots of the phylloxera-resistant, vitis varieties from America. This process did not combine the genetics of the two plants but rather formed a compound plant; European vines on American roots. Riley, the State Entomologist of Missouri, confirmed that the phylloxera were not fatal to American vines.

We thus see that no vine, whether native or foreign, is exempt from the attacks of the root-louse. On our native vines however when conditions are normal, the disease seems to remain in a mild state and it is only with foreign kinds and with a few of the natives … that it takes on the more acute form. (Campbell 86)

In her account of the phylloxera infestation Christy Campbell remarks that ‘leaf-galling is not fatal to the vine; nor, on American species, are the root predations. Over millennia of evolution wild vines developed ways to keep the attacker at bay … European vine-roots had and have no such defences’ (Campbell 77).

American resistance had been established but few took note of Laliman’s grafting proposal; grafting was not immediately used as many believed that it would reduce the quality of the grapes produced. Many potential remedies were tested to no avail; Riley remarked that ‘all insecticides are useless’ (Campbell 124). It was not until 1876 that Jean-Henri Fabre reported on his vineyards of ‘grafted Aramons on American varieties’; he said that ‘[the grafted vines] produced no alteration in the quality of taste of the wine nor had any influence on the [resistant] constitution of the roots’ (Campbell 154).That same year Planchon advocated the same thing. ‘While the power of the rootstock directly influences the development of the transplant, the rootstock does not transmit the particular taste which it would have in its own grapes’ (Campbell 160).

Despite rare successes from experimental vineyards grafted onto American rootstock, many still believed that insecticides would be the cure. As such, the French government briefly implemented a ban on the importation of American vines that would prove only to delay the eventual remedy. Lichtenstein, one of the members of the phylloxera investigation, published statements urging the expanded use of grafts. He wrote that ‘the wines of France will live again, reborn on the resistant rootstocks of America’ (Campbell 195).

Campbell describes how ‘slowly, slowly, reconstitution [grafting] took place. When the Beaujolais was officially declared phylloxerated in 1880, the import of alien vines became legal’. According to the French Ministry of Agriculture, about a third of France’s vineyards had been transplanted onto grafted or hybridized vines (Campbell 235).

After twenty years of anguish and effort the vineyards of [southern France] had been put together again. The costs had been great, debts were pressing, but by the mid-1890s the reconstituted vineyards were producing a flood of wine for which there seemed to be no end of thirst. (Campbell 247)

Even into the 1920s there were still un-grafted vineyards surviving on expensive chemical defenses. Today still there are vineyards in Australia, South America, the Middle East and scattered islands that survive on ungrafted vines because of soil conditions or strict controls preventing the movement of phylloxera. But, as noted before, it is estimated that 85% of the world’s vineyards are planted on grafted rootstocks (Oxford Companion to Wine).

(iv) The Battle in Italy

Although the effects of the phylloxera crisis were felt the most in France, it affected much of Western Europe. Professor Battista Grassi estimated that only about 10% of the country’s vines were infected by 1912; ‘the reason for its slow spread was the comparatively isolated nature of Italian vineyards and the habit of growing many vines through trees’ (Ordish 172). The first report of phylloxera in Italy was near Lake Como, but the regions struck hardest were Sicily and Calabria. In a New York Times article published November 8th, 1895 the Italian Consul estimated that lost wages in Sicily in the early 1890s totaled over thirty million dollars (‘Phylloxera Ravages Italy’). Many vineyard owners actually saw the infestation in France as an economic opportunity to export their own wines. In fact, in 1909 five million hectoliters of Italian wine exports to France made up about 10% of the wine consumed by the French (Campbell 249).

As the infestation struck Italy later on and much more slowly, its eradication was much more easily addressed in Italy than in France. Italy, along with many other European countries, enacted a temporary ban on plants that might carry the phylloxera into their vineyards. Vineyards found infected early on were burned at the expense of the state in order to slow the spread (Ordish 173). Although the burning of infected vineyards benefited the Italian wine industry as a whole, there were negative reactions from the owners and workers; in August of 1893 the New York Times reported that ‘the Minister of Agriculture … recently ordered the destruction of vineyards covering a large area in the Province of Novara. The peasants, losing employment through these steps, began to riot. Many were injured in conflicts with the police, and a large number were arrested’ (‘Italian Peasants Rioting’). Once grafting was accepted as a solution the ban on imported vines was lifted in order to supply Italian vineyards with resistant rootstocks subsidized by the government. In fact, another New York Times article published February 2, 1892 indicates that ‘the Italian Minister of Agriculture has for a number of years distributed large quantities of American grape vines among the farmers’ and that ‘from the island of Sicily alone the Minister has received demands for twenty six million rootstocks’ (‘American Vines in Italy’). The government supplied American cuttings and seeds, along with subsidies to farmers planting New World vines (Ordish 173). The Turin Phylloxera Council published their notes from an 1880 meeting, remarking that ‘we, knowing the danger, shall be able in great part to avoid it … Italy having to fight against Phylloxera finds herself in a more favourable position, being abundantly supplied with American vines, which are known to resist the disease’ (Jemina 3). As a result of the later introduction, slower spread and governmental subsidies, Italy’s vineyards were damaged far less than those of France.

‘AMERICAN VINES IN ITALY’ Editorial. New York Times 2 Feb. 1892. The New York Times. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <;.

Campbell, Christy. Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World. London: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

‘Italian Peasants Rioting’ Editorial. New York Times 4 Aug. 1893. The New York Times. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <;.

Italy. The Turin Phylloxera Council. The Turin Phylloxera Council: Ideas as to the Phylloxera and Rules for Watching the Vineyards. By Jemina. Turin, 1887. John Rylands University Library. Web. 7 Dec. 2010. <;.

Ordish, George. The Great Wine Blight. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987. Print.

‘PHYLLOXERA RAVAGES ITALY’ Editorial. New York Times 08 Nov. 1895. The New York Times. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <;.

Robinson, Jancis. The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Posted January 21, 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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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!


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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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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Source: what foreigners ate in Italy c. 1900   Leave a comment

Augustus Hare wrote the following paragraph on Italian food in the first chapter of his guide to Florence (‘the thinking man’s Baedeker’). At a date when many travellers were still eating Anglo-Saxon food or, at best, Franco-Italian concoctions it is interesting to see what Hare chose for his British readers.

A Good Luncheon at an Italian Ristorante – Spaghetti con Fegatini; Costale alia Milanese, con fagioli, or funghi all’ olio; Formaggio (cheese), or Dolce (sweet); Fragoli (wild strawberries); Vino Barolo, or Chianti, or Bianco Asciutto (dry white wine). Or, Fegato alia Veneziana, Crocchette con piselli, Insalata ; wine, Vernalese. Or Testina alia Parmegiana, con spinacche; Coscia di Vitello, con maccheroni, Capretto al Forno, Petto di Polio; wine, Volognano.

Posted January 12, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Italian-Jewish cooking   Leave a comment

Italian Jewish Cooking by Tom Albert

i) Introduction and Artusi

Pellegrino Artusi published in 1891 the best known of all Italian cookbooks: La Scienza in Cucina. In this cookbook, Artusi mentions the Jews and their cooking in Italy.

‘Forty years ago, one hardly saw eggplants or fennel in the markets of Florence; they were considered to be vile because they were foods eaten by Jews. As in other matters of greater moment, here again the Jews show how they have always had a better nose than the Christians’ (Artusi 1890, §399).

Artusi’s quote sums up the Italian perception of the Jewish presence in Italy. In it we see the anti-Semitism present in Italy – the nose joke – but also the melding of Italian and Jewish foodways. Artusi’s quote also indirectly demonstrates how little information there is about Italian Jewish cooking, since this paragraph is the only important nineteenth-century source we have on this topic.

ii) Italian Jewish Communities

Italian Jews fell into three categories: Italkim, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim (Goldstein, 1998). The Italkim arrived in Rome in 2 B.C. The Sephardim immigrated from Spain and Portugal in 1492 right after the Spanish government drove them from the country. Lastly, the Ashkenazim were from central Europe and settled in the north of Italy.

These three groups each brought with them specific foods. For example, the Sephardic Jews brought New World food to Italy, including peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn and pumpkin (Goldstein, 1998). Ashkenazim tended to use more spices, while the Italkim utilized the regional foods of Italy (Serbe-Viola).

Once the Jews arrived in Italy, most settled throughout Italy: Rome, Turin, Piedmont, and Sicily (Stille, 1991) (Goldstein, 1998). Anti-Semitism was present in Italy and thus the Jews were ghettoized. They were isolated and shamed as we see in one notable Florentine Renaissance source: ‘Every Jew, male or female above the age of twelve, whether or not named in the Florence agreement, and whether or not a resident of the city of Florence shall be required to wear a sign of O in the city of Florence’ (Bucker). There was a penalty of 25 lires for those that forgot to wear it (Bucker).

Their isolation and public dislike did not bode well for their economic status, and they were, for the most part, poor. Their diet consisted, then, of the classic Mediterranean staples: olive oil, wine, little meat, and ‘poor’ vegetables (such as onions and garlic). In addition, in the ghetto, there was a mixture and mixing of Jewish traditions. This blend of customs obviously affected cuisine. The Italkim could share with the Sephardim and Ashkenazim their New World food, while Ashkenazim introduced their Jewish counterparts to spices.

Their diet was also influenced by the region that they lived in. Since Sicily was a center for Mediterranean trade, Jewish cooking was influenced by Arabic, Norman, Arogonese and later Spanish cuisine (Goldstein, 1998). The Jews incorporated Arabic cuisine especially, with the use of sweet and sour dishes, as well as pine nuts and raisins. However, the Spanish Inquisition effectively drove many Jews out of the southern island, which was under Spanish control (Goldstein, 1998). They moved ‘to Ancona and Pesaro, most to Rome, where their Arab-inspired dishes entered Roman culture’ (Goldstein, 1998). In addition, since the Jews migrated to separate parts of Italy, and, as Italy was not unified until 1861, Italian Jewish cuisine changed with the regions. Since the Jews were forced to move constantly due to persecution, they had to adapt to the local ingredients and shape them around their Kosher laws.

Nevertheless, Italy’s unification represented a change for the Jewish people of Italy. Once they were allowed to leave the ghetto, they took on the identity of Italian first, Jewish second (Goldstein, 1998). This was the time of assimilation. The Jews in Italy held high-power jobs, such as generals, cabinet ministers, and prime ministers (Stille, 1991). ‘The distinction between Jews and non-Jews didn’t exist…there were some religious Jews, but they tended to be poorer, closer to the roots’ (Stille, 1991).

iii) Jewish Cooking

Assimilation meant the loss of many Jewish traditions and in this changing world, cooking was one precious link with the past. As Lucia Levi had it in the introduction to Poesie Nascosta (1931) the first Jewish Italian cookbook:

‘Vi sono forme delle tradizioni culinarie proprie ad ogni paese, ad ogni regione, qualche volta ad ogni famiglia. Spesso tali tradizioni sono le solo sopravvissute in mezzo al più desolante abbandono di ogni abitudine ebraica. Tenendole nel giusto onore Israele non rimpicciolisce la religione ma realizza quella che è l’essenza stessa dell’ Ebraismo, spiritualizza cioè i più umili materiali atti della vita, identificandoli con l’atto più elevato cioè la preghiera, la comunione con Dio.’

[‘There are forms of cooking tradition in every country, every region and sometimes in every family. Often these traditions are the last survivors in the midst of the complete abandonment of every Jewish custom. Holding cooking in proper honour Israel does not diminish religion but underlines what is the essence of Judaism, to spiritualise the most humble material acts in life, identifying them with the highest act – prayer and the communion with God.’]

Assimilation also meant that many Italian Jewish families no longer kept a kosher home. Yet, they still celebrated holidays, but with more emphasis on food than the historical importance of what the holiday represented (Goldstein, 1998). For example, during a Passover Seder, they had ‘buttered sandwiches of anchovy paste, smoked salmon, caviar, pate de foie gras, ham; with little volau-vents filled with minced chicken in béchamel…the ham and chicken in béchamel are clear violations of the kosher laws’ (Goldstein, 1998). Jewish identity was ‘more a matter of family tradition and honor than spiritual commitment…they were proud of being Jewish…[and] proud of being Italian’ (Stille, 1991). With this assimilation, even though it meant more equality between Jewish Italians and Italians, it also meant that Jewish laws, which are a crucial part of the religion, were being forgotten.

So, what exactly is Jewish Italian cooking? This is a hard question to answer because there are not many sources out there that discuss this specific topic. The first published Italian cookbook, Poesia Nascosta, did not appear until 1931, and by this time, assimilation was at its climax (Siporin, 1994). Jewish cooking for the Italians represented ‘unforgettable memories of ceremonies, of family reunions that have left a sense of nostalgic sweetness and delicious dishes in the hearts of everyone’ (quoted from Siporin, 1994). In Italy, nostalgia began to define Jewish cooking. ‘More recent Italian Jewish cookbooks further diminish the role of Kashrut and correspondingly expand the role of nostalgia in defining cucina ebraica’ (Siporin, 1994). In another Italian Jewish cookbook, the author mentions that he hopes that Jewish dishes ‘become a tasty pretext for discovering (or rediscovering) the pleasant aroma of our holidays, which seemed lost forever’ (quoted from Siporin, 1994). In addition, Italian Judaism in Italy has ‘been sentimentalized and recast in terms of family tradition in the kitchen’ which helps explain the nostalgia that comes from the meals (Siporin, 1994).

This nostalgia is evident today. Italy’s leading Jewish website – www. – includes two Jewish Italian cookbooks in its corpus of Jewish Italian works. It is there too in the name and tone of many more modern Italian Jewish works of cookery including La Cucina della Memoria [The cooking of memory] Ricete giudaico-monferrine raccolte dai ricettari di famiglia, a cura della comunita ebraica di Casaie Monferrato, Fondazione arte e storia della cultura ebraica a Casale Monferrato e nel Piemonte orientale, (2001).

Yet, besides nostalgia, Jewish Italian dishes also took the pattern of the Italian menu, with a primo piatto, secondo piatto, contorni, and dessert (Siporin, 1994). This regular form ‘is so common in Italy that it is almost invisible’ (Siporin, 1994). It also made a statement ‘of class association through one’s ability to adhere to the structural formula’ (Siporin, 1994). Jewish Italians felt that in order to show their participation in the culture, they had to show that they understood and contributed in culinary refinement. The Italian Jewish cookbooks ‘apply the Italian meal formula to each Jewish holiday, so that menu tradizionali have been constructed for every seasonal celebration. In other words, there are set, four to give course meals for Purim, Passover, Shavuot, and other holidays’ (Siporin, 1994). Even the cookbook themselves are organized according to the Italian menu, with sections for meats, soup, and vegetables in the ‘sequenced order of the meal’ (Siporin, 1994). This demonstrates how much the Jews assimilated the Italian culture into their own. ‘The form of the meal-even on the most Jewish of days-is Italian. And the contents and occasions of these elegant Italian constructions are anciently and locally Jewish’ (Siporin, 1994). Italian Jews are making it very clear that they contain both identities, allowing both to shine simultaneously.

Yet, even with the two identities mixing, there is still the inevitability of the diminishing presence of the Jewish religion. Modern cookbooks do evoke a sense of nostalgia and express pride in being Jewish. ‘They also serve to secure a place for ‘Jewish cuisine’ in the pantheon of ‘regional’ Italian cuisine’ (Siporin, 1994). The importance of the religion has faded, but the cuisine reflects ‘an identity that… is still valued’ (Siporin, 1994).

Artusi, Pellegrino, Murtha Baca, and Stephen Sartarelli. Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003. Print.

Brucker, Gene The Society of Renaissance Florence, 241-243.

Goldstein, Joyce Esersky. Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (San Francisco, 1998)

Serbe-Viola, Diana. ‘Jewish Cooking – Foods of the Diaspora’ In Mamas Kitchen. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <>

Siporin, Steve ‘From Kashrut to Cucina Ebraica: The Recasting of Italian Jewish Foodways’, The Journal of American Folklore, 107 (Spring, 1994), 268-281

Stille, Alexander. Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism. (New York 1993)

Source: Wine harvest c. 1900   Leave a comment

The wine harvest described here took place in ‘a picturesque old mansion’ (once belonging to the Arte della Lana) ‘slightly raised above the plain, and about two miles from the Arno’, ‘opposite Monte Morello’ c. 1900. It would be interesting to identify the building in question. The illustration comes from the same source. SY

In this pleasant and picturesque old mansion were assembled a joyous company, mixed Italian and English, for the vintage of 1874. To the advent of the forestieri was ascribed by the courteous contadini the splendid yield of grapes, better than they had seen for twenty-six years. [Note here in the text: That is to say, since the outbreak of the iodium. To give some idea of the virulence of the disease, the farms on this estate, though two less in number, used to produce at least two thousand barile of wine ; and in this, an exceptional year, the yield was only one thousand one hundred. One year, when the disease was at its height, they had five barile of stuff resembling mud! A barile holds fifty litres.]

On a fine September morning we started, Italian and English, men and women, masters and mistresses, and servants laden with innumerable baskets, big and little, each armed with a rough pair of scissors, and our padrona leading the way, with her guitar, pouring out as she went an endless flow of stornelli, rispetti, and canzoni, in which Tuscany is as rich as in any of the country products, maize or figs, pumpkins or tomatoes, oil or wine, or grain, the Italians amongst us improvising words to the well-known airs.

The vintage is always a happy time; everyone works with a will, and is contented and light-hearted. As Modesto, one of our men, said, ‘Buon vino fa buon sangue’ (Good wine makes good blood).

The old fattore (bailiff), who had retired from all active work on the estate, except the management of his especial pets, the vineyards alla francese (vines cut low in the French fashion, and not allowed to straggle from tree to tree as is the Tuscan usage), was very great on this occasion. He pointed out trees he had planted, and works he had done, fifty years ago, before the padrone was born. The dear old man was now seventy-eight, and as brisk and alert as any of us; with an eye still bright, and his keen, humorous face as full of vivacity as the youngest. He was full of old proverbs and wise sayings, like all peasants of the Casentino, his native region, about twenty miles south-west of Florence; and looked sharply after all our workmen to see that each duly did the picking of his row of vines. He was struck with great admiration at the way in which Englishmen, and women too, worked, and quite concerned for the repeated drenchings in perspiration of a strenuous old gentleman of the party, remarking gravely, ‘Questo povero Signor Antonio! ma suda troppo!’ (‘This poor Mr. Tom, he sweats too much’). He chuckled when we got hot and red under the burning sun, gracefully putting it to the ladies, ‘Il sole di Italia vi ha baciato’ (‘the sun of Italy has kissed you’).

By eleven we were thoroughly tired, and went to rest under the scanty shade of the olives and fig trees with our guitar. One of the young peasants had lost his grandfather in Russia with Napoleon I., and we called him up, and told him to sing about the great general. He sung to a favourite stornello air:

‘Guarda, Napoleon, quello che fai ;

La meglio giovcntu tutta la vuoi,

E le ragazze te le friggerai.’

‘Napoleon, fa le cose giuste,

Falla la coscrizion delle ragazze,

Piglia le belle, e lasciar star le brutte.’

‘Napoleon, te ne pentirai!

La meglio gioventu tutta la vuoi;

Della vecchiaia, che te ne farai.’

‘Napoleon, non ti stimar guerriero

A Mosca lo troveresti l’osso duro,

All’ isola dell’ Elba prigioniero.’

(‘While you go our youths collecting, All our pretty girls neglecting, Pause, Napoleon, and beware. Deal more justly with all classes, Make conscription of the lasses, Leave the plain and choose the fair. Napoleon, if with ruthless hand, Of its flower you mow the land: In old age you’ll pay it dear. Boast not, tyrant, of your glory, Moscow’s plains were grim and gory, Elba was a prison drear.’)

Twelve o’clock brought a welcome arrival – lunch from the villa. Grape-picking is a capital sharpener of the appetite. We were soon reclining – sub tegmine fagi – round a steaming dish of risotto con funghi, and a knightly sirloin of roast beef, which would have done honour to old England. A big fiasco (a large bottle bound round with reeds or straw, and holding three ordinary bottles) of last year’s red wine was soon emptied, well tempered, I should say, with water from the neighbouring well. At a little distance the labourers in the vineyard were enjoying the unwonted luxury of a big wooden bowl full of white beans crowned with polpette, little sausages of minced meat and rice.

We first gathered all the white grapes. These were transferred from our small baskets to big ones, placed at the end of each row of vines. These bigger baskets were then carried on men’s backs to the villa, where the grapes were laid out to dry in one of the towers, on stoje, great trays made of canes. Here they are exposed to sun and air for some weeks, when they are used for making the vin’ santo. After the white grapes were gathered, we fell to on the black, of the choice kinds, the San Giovese, the Aleatico, the Colorino, and the Occhio di Pernice.

These also were destined to be exposed on stoie in the same manner. They are used as governo, that is to say, when the new wine is racked for the first time these choice black grapes are put in, so as to cause another fermentation, they at once deepen the colour of the wine and make it clear.

How melancholy the vines looked stripped of their grapes! The glorious white and golden, and pink and deep red bunches had given a beauty to the landscape which one did not realise until they were gone, and the poor vines stood bare.

In our discussions about the progress of our work, the time of day often came in question. The old fattore was very anxious to know how we in England knew the hour, as he had heard that our churches did not ring the Ave Maria at midday or in the evening. He had, doubtless, a settled conviction that we were little better than heathens, but was too polite to say so. We explained that we had abundance of both big clocks and little watches; but he answered, ‘Ma che’  (with a horizontal wave of the hand), ‘I have a watch too. I set it by the Ave Maria and hardly ever use it. At midday, when the Ave Maria rings, we know we are to eat; and when we hear it at sundown, twenty-four o’clock, as we say here, we leave off work; and at one o’clock of night (an hour after sunset) it rings again so that we may remember our dead and say an Ave for them.’ All our arguments to prove that clocks and watches might be good substitutes for the Ave Maria were useless, and he remained stanch to his idea that England must be a wretched place without the Ave Maria ‘Si deve star male in Inghilterra senza Ave Maria.’

At last the beautiful great white oxen, with their large, soft, black eyes, tassels of red and yellow worsted dangling about the roots of their horns and over their cool moist noses, came to the edge of the vineyard drawing a large vat (tino) fixed on the cart. Into this all the remaining grapes were thrown. A handsome lad of sixteen, after tucking up his trousers and washing his feet in a bucket of water drawn from the well close by, jumped atop of the vat and lustily stamped down the contents, singing as he plied his purple-stained feet: ‘Bella bellina, chi vi ha fatto gli occhi? Che ve gli ha fatti tanto innamorati? Da letto levereste gli ammalati, Di sotto terra levereste i morti. Tanto valore e tanta valoranza! Vostri begli occhi son la mia speranza.’ (‘My lovely charmer, who hath made thine eyes, That fill our bosoms with such ecstasies? Their glance would draw the sick man from his bed, Or haply pierce the tomb and raise the dead. Oh! my sweet love, thy beauty and thy worth, Are all my hope and all my joy on earth.’)

Of such tender sentiment and musical sound are the songs of the Tuscan ‘roughs’. These songs are most of them the composition, both words and airs, of the peasants and artisans who sing them. The hills round Pistoia and the streets of Florence ring with an ever-renewed outpour of such sweet and simple song.

The padrone prides himself much on his fine breed of oxen, and told us the old Tuscan proverb, ‘Chi ha carro e buoi,fa bene i fatti suoi’ (‘Whoso has cart and oxen does good business’).

When the last load of grapes was carted off we returned to the villa, where we found all hands busy in the great courtyard of the fattoria on one side of the villa, emptying the grapes and must out of the vats with wooden bigoncie, high wooden pails without handles. These are carried on men’s shoulders, and their contents poured into immense vats (tino) ranged all round the courtyard under covered arcades. In our wine-shed (tinaia) there are about fifty of these, containing from five to fifty butts each, besides three large square reservoirs of stone each holding three hundred barrels. The bubbling and boiling of the fermenting wine fills the air, and the smell is almost strong enough to get drunk upon. The men often do get tipsy, if they remain too long treading the grapes, or drawing off the new wine.

But here it is an article of faith that the perfume of the must is the best medicine, and people bring weakly children to tread the grapes and remain in the tinaia to breathe the fume-laden air and eat of the fresh fruit; for at vintage-time no peasant or padrone refuses grapes to anyone who asks. They say that il buon Dio has given them plenty, and why should they in their turn not give to those who have nothing?

I suppose this universal readiness to give is one reason why there is so little stealing here. You see vines full of fruit close to the roads, and quite unprotected by any sort of fence, and yet no one of the country-side ever takes them. There are, it is true, certain malfamati villages, whose inhabitants have the reputation of thieves, and against these, and pilferers from the large towns, the vineyards are guarded by men armed with guns, with which they keep popping the night through. At times you see twenty or thirty poor people standing quietly looking on, until called up to receive their dole of grapes, with which they go away happy, with their graceful ‘Dio ve ne renda merito’. At home they will mix water with the must they squeeze out of their basket or apronful of such ungrudged gifts, and make mezzo vino, or acquavello (water and wine fermented together), for the winter.

The same thing is done on a large scale at many fattorie. This mixture of wine and water is distributed to the poor in winter, and is the common drink of the workmen about the villa. After the first good wine is drawn off from the vats, the vinaccia (skins, grape-stones, and stalks) is put into the press, and the second wine pressed out. This is good, but considerably rougher, from the larger amount of tannin, due to the skins and stalks, than that which is drawn off from the vats after fermentation without any agency of the press. After passing through the press, the clots of vinaccia are again put into the vats, and water is poured upon them. In eight or ten days a fresh fermentation takes place, and the vinaccia is once more pressed in the wine-press. This gives mezzo vino, or acquarello (half-wine), not at all bad, but of course of insufficient body to keep through the summer. For this there is no want of demand at the villa. Besides the rations of the workpeople, there are the poveri del buon Dio.

In Tuscany there are no almshouses or poorhouses, save in the chief towns. Most villas have one or two days in the week when alms are distributed to all who come and ask. Here the gathering of poor occurs every Monday and Thursday, at ten in the morning. A hunch of bread, a glass of half-wine, and five centimes are doled out to every applicant, and on Christmas Day anyone who brings a fiasco has it filled with mezzo-vino, and gets half a loaf of bread and a half a pound of uncooked meat. Such has been the custom, I am told, for many hundred years.

Our happy holiday vintaging lasted for five days, and then we went to help the vintaging of one of the contadini of the padrone, a family that had been on the estate for two hundred and eighty years. All their vines were trained Tuscan fashion on maples, and we had the help of ladders and steps to gather the grapes. Half the grapes, and indeed half of all the produce of the land – grain, pumpkins, flax, fruit, or wine – belongs to the padrone, who pays all the taxes and buys the cattle. The contadino pays no rent for his house, which the padrone keeps in repair. The peasant gives the labour, and the master finds the capital. This is, in rough outline, the system of mezzeria, or half-and-half tenure, still universal in Tuscany. Like all human things, it has two sides, and may be condemned as the most backward, or defended as the most patriarchal and wholesome of systems, binding landlord and tenant in the bond of an obviously common interest, and encouraging the closest and most familiar relations between the two. When the landlord is intelligent, active, and judicious, he may become a centre of enlightenment and improvement to his tenantry; but all his attempts must be made with the most cautious discretion, or he will infallibly frighten, and perhaps alienate, his tenantry, who are thorough Conservatives, and love stare super antiques vias. Thus the best commentary on the Georgics is still agriculture in action in Tuscany, a passing peep into one of whose most pleasing chapters has been attempted in this paper.

Posted January 8, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: A Southern Baptist on Italian eating habits   Leave a comment

A southern baptist based in Rome wrote the following comments on Italian food c. 1900 after many years in the country. SY

It is proper to add that the labor of an Italian domestic servant is less than is usually expected of a servant in America. For one thing, there is no bread to make, which especially in a Southern family is an important item, where hot bread in loaves and other varieties of hot bread are prepared for breakfast. Storerooms are to some extent used in the north of Italy, but south of Florence, I think, hardly at all, and as regards most articles of consumption the supply is renewed day by day. From the baker comes bread every morning, and from the dairy milk morning and evening, both of excellent quality The ovens are what we call Dutch ovens, such as I have often seen in the valley of Virginia. A quick, hot fire of dry twigs and brushwood is made within; then the ashes are swept out, the loaves thrust in, the door closed, and the baking done by the accumulated heat.

The marketing, which includes also the buying of groceries, is done by servants, though no market basket is used, but a large colored handkerchief kept for the purpose, just us Ruth filled her veil with the grain she had gleaned. The cook returns to the kitchen, and what a number of articles does she produce from the hidden depths of the handkerchief and lays upon the table, such as meat for the soup, which is a constituent part of dinner among the Latins; then there is a stable or two, some herbs for seasoning, sugar, rice, some of the hundred species of macaroni, butter, fruit, all done up neatly in conical parcels of brown paper; in the case of delicate articles, lined with a large green leaf. Marketing is a perquisite much prized by servants. Where they are dishonest they add a few centimes to each article in making the daily account with the mistress. I have known servants who would even frankly say, ‘I want such and such wages, but if I do not make the expenses, I must have more’ for even when there is no dishonesty, servants enjoy a little commission or get presents from the shops where they habitually buy. It is also a pleasant break in the day to go out for an hour, linger in the sunshine, chat with one’s friends, or step for a few minutes into a church for purposes of devotion.

Cooking stoves and ranges are not much used. In their stead are gratings set into square holes in a brick erection which is open also at the side. Into these holes, called fornelli, is placed charcoal, the one fuel used for cooking, the pots are set on top, the fire is kindled with reeds, and the cook uses a fan of turkey feathers as blower at the hole below. Who would suppose a dinner could be cooked thus? But facts are stubborn things.

The utensils are of tinned copper or of earthenware. In the former case if the re-tinning is not done when necessary, poisoning results. One of the extra expenses of living in a furnished apartment is paying the landlord for the re-tinning of innumerable pots and pans, including those which, not having been used, neither need nor get it.

Dinner, even when quite simple, is always served in courses. The use of wine at the table is universal, and deemed as necessary as bread, and more necessary than meat. Butter, which is never salted, is not so common a table article as among Anglo-Saxons. The French say that the English have a hundred religions and only one sauce. Tomatoes enter largely into Italian cookery as a seasoning, being preserved for the purpose. Macaroni, or pasta, made in the house with eggs and flour, both nutritive and easy of digestion, or risotto, often takes the place of soup, and is called a dry soup, but both a dry soup and broth are never served at the same meal. However plain the meal, the linen tablecloth and napkins, even if coarse, are ever clean. Eggs are sold neither by weight nor by the dozen, but so many for half a franc, the number varying according to size, all being supposed equally fresh; but for eggs laid the day of purchase you go to the creamery and pay three or four cents each, a luxury too dear for most.

In purchasing by weight the old-fashioned libbra [sic] (Latin, libra) of twelve ounces may be used, but a more exact weight may be secured by using the modern kilogram (chilogram), which is a thousand grammes, or some of its multiples. Wood is brought ready sawed, or the sawing is done at your door, generally without a horse, the saw being held stationary between the knees and the log of wood worked against it. The handsaw resembles our woodsaw, only smaller.

The chief repast of the day is usually in the evening, sometimes late at night, when work and business are over and there is leisure to linger at the board and season its viands with the feast of reason and the flow of soul ; then, however simple the food and sour the wine, family and social converse adds an unmistakable charm. America is the blessed land of abundance, with many a gastronomic capital, but in Italy dining is one of the fine arts.

Posted January 6, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Petrone — Curiosa historia della forchetta   Leave a comment

Edited by Petronio Petrone, this little volume (the title in English would be “Curious History of the Fork”) brings together a number of essays on the history of the fork, a sort of anthology with a collection of photos of forks from European museums. The level of writing is up and down–there’s a short excerpt from Wikipedia, as well as an essay on the origin of pasta that uses etymology to prove the Arab origins of pasta instead of the more obvious (and reliable) historical sources–but it’s a useful little anthology of a subject not often treated. Shame it’s only in Italian.  (Alfredo Guida Editore, 2007)  ZN

Posted January 4, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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