Tuesday, July 03, 2007

School's Out, Food Legends, and More: Being the 137th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! To begin with, I've been doing mostly maintenance on About, though I have added collections of favorite lemony recipe sand favorite summertime vegetables. The latest on the IWR is instead more substantial: the tasting notes for the 2004 Barbaresco, which include some very fine wines.

School's Out!

(Or, the benefits of oral exams)

In the meantime, son Riccardo completed 8th grade this year, and like millions of other kids spent last week preparing to take the Esame di Terza Media, or Middle School Graduation Exam, a comprehensive set of finals that includes several mornings of written exams, followed by an oral exam of the sort that are standard in Italian institutes of higher learning, and are what really set the grade: Italian professors assume students taking a written exam will find some way to cheat even with proctors in the room, and therefore the student has to do well on the written exam to be admitted to the oral, but it's the performance at the oral that counts.

I went through oral exams at the university level, and they are nerve-wracking: You sit down in front of a panel of three or more professors, while everyone else who will be taking that exam mills about behind you, one of the professors asks a question, and... You start talking. And continue fielding questions, while people murmur and comment on how you're doing behind you, until the professors decide -- usually after about an hour, though it can go longer -- they've heard enough.

At that point (at the university level) they tell you what your grade for the course will be, and you can either accept or refuse; if you refuse you go home to study some more, and take the exam again the next time it's scheduled. The other thing that can happen is the professors can shake their heads and tell you your preparation isn't up to scratch: You get up, take your examination booklet, and head back to your books, while someone else takes your place.

Riccardo of course didn't have the option of refusing the grade, but the friends who watched his performance said he was very smooth, and he did raise his grades (with respect to what was on his report card) considerably. As a system, I think oral exams are an excellent idea because they teach you how to think on your feet; the professors can and do ask anything on the syllabus, and if they hit something you're weaker on, you have to figure out how to lead them into more familiar territory without being too obvious about it, lest they backtrack. You also learn how to work under pressure, ignore distractions, and handle moments of stark terror. In short, taking orals is excellent training for the real world.

With Riccardo, what happens next? High school, which is very different in Italy. The system is divided into Licei, high schools for those who intend to enroll in a university (there are several core curricula, the most important being classical (much Latin and Greek), scientific (math and sciences), and languages), and Istituti Tecnici, what one might call vocational schools. Anyone who passes the Esame di Terza media can enroll in any school, including the toughest. One might think this is a very democratic principle that extends opportunity to all, but it's actually quite cynical: Rather than admit on the basis of transcripts and entrance exams, which would be seen as classist by the left-leaning fraction of the population, the more prestigious, demanding, and sought after high schools simply flunk a significant fraction of their first year students, who subsequently enroll in easier schools after having lost a year.

And Riccardo's choice? A Liceo Scientifico.

Food Legends: The Origins of Tiramisu

Someone on an American food-related listserve I subscribe to recently asked if anyone knew the origins of Tiramisu, a seriously decadent creamy dessert that combines chocolate, coffee, savoiardi cookies, and mascarpone cheese.

I said I had heard it was from Treviso (in the Veneto), and relatively recent, and a couple others said the same, adding that the recipe was developed in the 60s by Treviso's Ristorante El Toula'.

Someone else instead said she had found a story about how Tiramisu was invented by Sienese pastry chefs in the late 1600s to honor Grand Duke Cosimo III De'Medici, who was known for his sweet tooth.

I looked around a bit, and found a number of web pages with the Sienese origin; the texts are pretty much identical (said text also appears in Volume 12 of La Repubblica's Enciclopedia della Cucina Italiana, on page 285). Briefly, they say the Sienese developed the dessert for the Duke on the occasion of a State visit, and initially called it zuppa del Duca, or Duke's Pudding. The zuppa was a terrific success, especially among courtesans, who found it both stimulating and aphrodisiac, and thus enjoyed it before trysts; with time they took to calling it tiramisu, or pick me up. Subsequently, the story goes, tiramisu spread to Venice and the Veneto, where it remained a local treat until it suddenly gained national popularity in the late 70s.

It's a nice story, but I have my doubts, for a number of reasons.

First, historical: Artusi, who gives a number of Tuscan and Venetian dessert recipes in La Scienza in Cucina, doesn't mention it; given his penchant for going off on tangents and telling stories, it would have been a perfect recipe for him to include, had he known about it.

Nor does it appear in Il Talisamno della Felicità, and while it is true that Ada Boni was less given to tangents than Artusi, it's also true that she was aiming Il Talismano squarely at the emerging middle class, and would certainly have included a dessert this rich, tasty, and easy to make had she been aware of it.

Finally, it doesn't appear in La Mia Cucina, a comprehensive 10-volume set De Agostini published in 1978. Had they been aware of it, they would certainly have included it.

The final bit of historic evidence comes from American food writer Nancy Jenkins, who, despite living in Italy from 1975 to 1980, first encountered tiramisu in 1983, on the island of Torcello in the Laguna Veneta.

Cookbooks don't bear out the legend, but there are a couple of other factors too.

Though Mascarpone, one of the major ingredients in tiramisu, is now readily available throughout Italy, it was once a specialty of Lombardia, and more specifically Lodi and Abbiategrasso, towns not far from Milano. It's difficult to see how a cheese as delicate as Mascarpone could have made it from Lombardia to Siena in the days before refrigeration or rapid transportation without spoiling.

And finally, there is the safety factor: Tiramisu made following the classic recipe contains both raw eggs and mascarpone. While raw eggs in their shells keep quite well, raw egg in an uncooked cream becomes dangerous if it is not kept cold. So does Mascarpone: a number of cases of botulism have been traced to mascarpone that was allowed to warm up at some point between leaving the dairy and reaching the table. Given the state of refrigeration in the late 1600s, enjoying a bowl of tiramisu would have been a risky proposition indeed.

So I think the recipe is recent, and am inclined to believe the folks at El Toula'; when I called they told me they don't remember the name of the chef who first made it, sometime in the 30s, but that the clients of a nearby House of Ill Repute used to enjoy it as a ricostituente, or pick-me-up after their labors. Hence the name.

And what about Zuppa Del Duce?
Giovanni Righi Parente says it's essentially zuppa inglese (English trifle), and gives the following recipe in La Cucina Toscana:

Line the bottom of a tureen with thin slices of pan di Spagna (genoise, or pound cake will work as substitutes) and sprinkle them with alkermes (a spicy deep red liqueur), crème de cacao, white rum, or any other liqueur of choice, so long as it's sweet.

Pour over it a pastry cream made with 1 pint (500 ml) whole milk, 200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour and 2 whole eggs, which he says should be separated; beat the yolks and whip the whites, and combine both with the cold milk before setting it on the stove. Cook, stirring gently over a low flame until the mixture thickens, without letting it boil, lest it curdle. Some cooks, he adds, whip the whites with sugar and cook them over the hot milk, to make what he calls falsi sospiri, or fake sighs. I confess I have a hard time visualizing this.

If you instead want to make a quick cream, he says, heat the milk, sugar and flour until the mixture thickens, remove it from the fire, and when it has cooled beat the yolks and add them to the mixture. In terms of flavoring, a vanilla bean heated with the milk (a teaspoon of vanilla extract will also work).

Chill the tureen with the pan di Spagna and the cream in the refrigerator, and after about an hour cover it with a layer of whipped cream, sprinkling all with grated chocolate and finely chopped canditi (candied fruit peels).

No Mascarpone, but it will be good.

Tiramisu: A No-Egg No-Cheese Variation
While we're on the subject of tiramisu, I have gotten a number of notes from people worried about its raw eggs, and the health risk they pose. One option that also neatly sidesteps the risks posed by Mascarpone is to use yogurt:

  • 1 pint (500 ml) plain whole yogurt (you could also use flavors that work with coffee)
  • 1 pound (500 g) Savoiardi or ladyfingers
  • 1/2 cup fairly weak espresso coffee, or more if need be
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup bitter cocoa

Combine the sugar and coffee in a bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar. Dip the cookies in it quickly, on both sides, so they are moist but not soaked, and put them in a baking dish; when you have covered the bottom of the dish spread an even layer of yogurt over them. Continue layering until all is used up, ending with a layer of yogurt. Use a sieve to sprinkle the cocoa evenly over the top of the tiramisu, and chill it for 4 hours before serving it.

Want a traditional recipe? There are a great many out there. I very much like wife Elisabetta's version, which you will find here: http://italianfood.about.com/od/spoondesserts/r/blr0290.htm

Villa: Fine Wines But Also a Beautiful Place to Stay
Winding down, last week I was lucky enough to attend a vertical of the Azienda Villa's Franciacorta Selezione Brut, working back from the present through some very interesting wines to the 1986, which was superb. To be honest, this wasn't a surprise; Alessandro Bianchi was one of the first industrialists (his family owns a company that makes hydraulic equipment) to invest in Franciacorta in the 60s: He bought what was a crumbling farm complex, with an eye towards restoring it, and then became interested in sparkling wines, and was one of the first, together with Guido Berlucchi, to visit Champagne, see how they worked, and do the same in Franciacorta.

"They always made wine here," he told me when we first met a few years ago, adding that there are still wild vines in the surrounding woods. He also found traces of both the Gauls and the Romans, in particular in the layout of the buildings, though much was destroyed during the centuries of skirmishing that followed the collapse of the Empire. The Venetians finally prevailed in the 1400s, bringing with them a degree of stability, and gave the complex to a mercenary Captain as payment for services rendered. The Captain quarried some of the buildings of the town for the stones he used to build his home, which has a beautiful main hall with an unusual arcade, and a grate hidden off to the side that the man (or his heirs) used to listen into the mutterings of the farmers down in the cellars. The cellars are also quite nice -- Mr. Bianchi has expanded them considerably -- and there's a section towards the back that's open to the bedrock, thick layers of hard sediments, and gives a good idea of what the vines have to struggle with to get their nourishment.

Villa is more than just a winery, however. The Captain provided housing for his farmers when he built his home, and Mr. Bianchi has restored all but one of the farmer's homes beautifully; there are 15 nicely furnished apartments, space to eat outside in the shade, and a pool. In short, Villa will be an excellent base from which to explore the region, which has quite a bit to offer, including Lake Iseo, the Val Camonica, San Piero in Lamosa, and great bird watching at the Torbiere del Sebino, while the house that Mr. Bianchi hasn't restored, with its stone sink and slightly cramped feel, provides a sobering reminder of how much things have improved in the country in Italy.

For more information about Villa, see http://www.villa-franciacorta.it/eng/ilborgo.asp, and for the agriturismo, see http://www.villa-franciacorta.it/eng/agriturismo.asp
More about San Piero in Lamosa.

Villa's Vertical? I'll post it to the IWR next week.

This time's proverb is Lombard: Ai cà màgher ghe a dré le mósche, flies follow thin dogs.
In other words, the poor have a tougher time of it.