Friday, December 01, 2006

Driving, Balmetti, and Antonia: Being the 126th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola, your things Italian newsletter.

To begin at the beginning, the sites: The latest on the Italian Wine Review is an overview of Bergamo's Valcalepio Appellation, whose reds are made with the classic Taglio Bordolese -- Cabernet and Merlot -- and whose whites also feature French varietals. Not necessarily what one would expect from Italy, but nice and in some cases worth seeking out. The latest on About is (for the last time) the Fish Gallery: It's done!

Driving in Italy is Just Not The Same...
The first car I drove in Italy was a 1972 Fiat 500: It looked vaguely like a shrunken VW bug, had an unsynchronized transmission that required double clutching, and could hit 100 (kilometers, about 60 mph) going down hill with a tail wind. The visibility wasn't the best, but it was very maneuverable and fun to drive. In short, the ideal city car, and I still miss it when I'm driving in Florence. I didn't miss in on the highways, however, and was quite happy when we bought a car that would easily reach 160 kph (about 100 mph) -- sure, the speed limit was 130, but if I was in a hurry and the road was clear, I could step on it. Nor was I alone; though I passed people I also got passed regularly, and every now and again a slinky Ferrari or Lamborghini would wooosh past.

Not any more; Italy's Powers that Be have finally decided to put some teeth into the speed limit regulations, and are flooding the highways (and regular roads, for that matter) with rilevatori di velocità: They're squat file-cabinet-sized cement boxes with two 2-inch square (5 x 5 cm) windows on the side facing the road, and a larger window facing in the direction of travel. If the instrumentation looking out the front decides you're going too fast the machine takes a picture of you, and after a while you get a fine, and points off your license -- exactly how much and how many depends upon how much over the speed limit you were going. Most of the machines are marked with red and white striping and a sign, but some are unmarked, or hidden at the exits of tunnels, and as I said there are lots of them: My brother-in-law counted 16 in the 85 kilometers separating Florence from Bologna.

It's important to note that since the machines use optics rather than radar, radar detectors of the kind that were once in vogue in the US won't work. A couple of satellite navigators have begun to advertise that they also warn of these gadgets, but I wouldn't get too excited because the police mount portable rilevatori on their cars, and I've encountered them several times.
The bottom line is that there's now a powerful incentive to obey the speed limit, and it's just as valid if you're driving a rented car: A friend of mine received a ticket in the mail after his trip, and called up the Italian consulate to ask what would happen if he didn't pay. "Nothing if you don't come back," was the answer, the implication being that if he wanted to come back he could have problems at the border. Since the EEU is integrating all aspects of law enforcement, with time failure to pay a fine in one country could lead to problems when attempting to enter Europe from another.

I do miss being able to zip along, but fatalities are down, and that's good.

I Balmetti Di Borgofranco D'Ivrea
Moving in a very different direction, if you drive north from Torino towards the Valle D'Aosta, you'll find yourself following the valley now occupied by the Dora Baltea. It wasn't carved by the river, however -- it's glacial in origin, and shortly after Ivrea you'll come to something unique, so far as I know: Borgofranco D'Ivrea's Balmetti.

Balmetti are houses with cellars built into the glacial moraine along the line where the mountains jut up from the flat valley floor, and what makes them unique are ore (singular ora), fissures in the moraines that emit steady streams of cold air. And I do mean cold; they're 8 degrees C (45 F) in summer, and a little more in winter. In short, the people of the town have naturally refrigerated cellers, and they're fascinating, as is the story behind them.
Borgofranco has existed at least since the 1200s, and the town proper is located a ways out on the valley floor.

People must have known about the cold air issuing from the fissures along the valley wall, but don't appear to have thought about putting it to use until the 1600s, when the first balmetti were built, and used primarily to store wine.

It wasn't until the early 1800s, however, that the townspeople decided to exploit the resource in earnest, building an uninterrupted street of balmetti along the valley wall (if you walk down the street, you see a row of low houses built back into the mountain), and it would appear that the decision stemmed at least in part from changing customs:

Historically, an organization called the Badia had handled popular festivals and fairs (especially Carnevale) in Borgofranco. However, it declined in popularity in the mid-1800s, during which time two things were happening: First, the breath of cultural fresh air associated with the brief establishment of the Napoleonic government had led to new ideas about how to celebrate Carnival and otherwise make merry; Second, the Church, reacting to the innovations, had clamped down. Put simply, those who wanted to have a good time decided to do so out of town, where churchly-inspired moralists would neither see nor comment, and built the Balmetti as a sort of party row, as it were. Even the street names reflect the area's destination: Via del Buonamore, Via di Bacco, and Via della Coppa, respectively the Street of Good Love, Bacchus's Way, and The Cup's Way.

Of course once the balmetti were built, they were also put to other uses, including storage -- primarily grapes and wine -- and industry, though one that fits perfectly with the purpose of the street: In about 1900 the Degiacomini family, brewmasters from Sondrio, built a brewery, using the cool air from the ore to regulate fermentation temperatures. It has since gone out of business (there is talk of readapting the structure), but you can visit the balmetti -- there are about 200 of them, kept cool by close to 300 vents, and the local tourist office has set up a small museum in one of the nicest ones, while its offices are in the second story of the building.

In addition to the concentration of balmetti on these streets there are several individual balmetti built into the valley wall just a little further up the valley. When should you think about visiting? The balmetti are central to three celebrations: Carnevale, in February (when you could stop during a ski trip), in June, when there's the Andoma ai Balmit (Let's go the the Balmetti) festival, a very convivial open house, and in September, at the harvest. Italy has many unusual treats, and this is one of them. For a few photos, see the Cosa Bolle site.

Getting there: Borgofranco is just north of Ivrea. Exit the A 5 highway at Quincinetto, and turn right towards Settimo Vittone. The balmetti are in a hamlet called Quinto. For further information, contact the Pro Loco, through the town's site.

Antonia Isola's Simple Italian Cookery
The holiday season is nearing, and it's time to think about gifts. One volume sure to interest anyone who enjoys cooking, and especially those with a historical bent, is Antonia Isola's Simple Italian Cookery, published (now) by Applewood Books for The Culinary Trust. I say now, because the book was originally published in 1912 by Harper and Brothers, who engaged the services of Antonia Isola, "An American who has Lived Much in Rome." It was the first Italian cookbook published in the United States, and it is an interesting volume for a number of reasons.

First, it turns out Antonia Isola wasn't really Antonia Isola, but rather Miss Mabel Earl McGinnis, an American. She really did live in Rome, however, not far from the Spanish Steps, and one would guess that Harper and Brothers changed her name because they thought an Italian name would sound more convincing given the subject matter -- considering that I have had people wonder why someone with a name like mine is writing about Italian food, things haven't changed as much as one might have expected in the past century.

Second, the timing of the book. As Robert Brower, who wrote the introduction to the new edition, points out, American cookbooks of the period had begun to include Italian recipes, and the US government was also interested in promoting at least the use of pasta, both to support the American durum wheat growers and America's macaroni manufacturers. But nobody had yet done something specifically Italian.

So Antonia's book filled a void, and rather well; Mr. Brower quotes a Review from the New York Times that said, "Though frugal, the Italians are excellent cooks and the American housekeeper will find many interesting suggestions for preparing all sorts of soups, meats, vegetables and sweets. The book shows that Italian cookery is far from being all 'garlic and macaroni.'"

The book consists of 130 recipes divided into 10 sections, and though the number is low by modern standards she does cover the bases in a bare-bones sort of way: there's none of the introductory material or additional information and background that we now expect to find in ethnic cookbooks. Just the recipes, some of which she drew from a book published in London in 1899 entitled "Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen," and some she also drew directly from Italian sources, including Pellegrino Artusi's "La Scienza in Cucina."

The recipes are what one would expect from the period; she assumes the cook is working with a wood-fired stove and therefore isn't as specific about heat levels as we now are, and perhaps to avoid dealing with ovens, omits baked desserts entirely. She is also less precise than a modern cookbook editor might like about quantities -- ingredient lists are optional -- though she does say how much water to add to rice to make a risotto, which is a start. Speaking of which,

Risotto "alla Nostrale" :

Take a small piece of onion, slice it into small bits, and put into a saucepan with two tablespoons of butter. Cook until the onion is browned.

Wash well one-half cup of rice. Put it into the saucepan with the onion, add salt and pepper, and fry until the rice is dry. Then take one and one-half tablespoons of tomato paste, thinned with hot water (or two tablespoons of other tomato sauce), and add to the rice. Little by little add hot water until the rice is cooked through (about one cup of hot water).

Then add grated cheese, Parmesan or Gruyère, one and one-half tablespoons of butter, and mix well over the fire, then serve.

This rice can be served alone or with fried sausages, or with cold chicken, or any left-over meat prepared in the following manner:

Take one and one-half tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Cut the cold meat into slices, and add them to the butter. Fry well, then take one and one-half tablespoons of tomato paste, thinned in water (or three tablespoons tomato sauce). Add to the meat a little at a time. Simmer for one-half hour, then put in the middle of a hot platter, surrounded by rice, and pour this sauce over all. Add a handful of grated Parmesan cheese to the rice.

This preparation of meat can be served with macaroni or corn-meal instead of the rice.
This is one of the more thorough recipes, with the meat suggestion deriving from something along the lines of Artusi's Lesso Rifatto alla Campagnuola (Recooked Boiled Meat Country Style), though he calls for chopped tomatoes rather than tomato sauce. It also reveals the use of a wood-fired stove top clearly, because given the amount of liquid she calls for to cook the meat, if one were to use something more intense than the corner of a cast iron cooktop, it would quickly dry out.

In other words, the recipe does require some experience on the part of the cook, though it's not that difficult. My one real objection is the yield: A half a coup of rice won't be enough to feed more than a couple of people, especially if they're hungry. But the recipe is a good departure point.

Bottom line, if you have a food lover on your gift list, this will be a nice choice.

Practical stuff:

Simple Italian Cookery, by Antonia Isola
Harper & Brothers 1912
Reprinted by Applewood Books for the Culinary Trust in 2005
ISBN 1-55709-573-6
The Culinary Trust and their book preservation page.

Well, that's it for now. This time's proverb is Tuscan: A chi non piace vino, Dio gli tolga l'acqua: To those who do not like wine, let God deprive them of water.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle (at@)

PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find them on the IWR site, through Access to the online archives is via subscription -- in other words there's a yearly charge that helps us to offset our costs -- and includes extras of various kinds, including illustrations and links to other resources. IWR subscribers automatically have access to the Cosa Bolle archives.