Sunday, April 03, 2011

Il Pellegrinaggio Artusiano, Day 5

It has taken me a few days to get to this, and I apologize. Day 5 was different than the others, because for the first time we had a schedule: Elisabetta Cianfanelli, Florence's Assessore al Turismo, was to meet us by Artusi's grave at the Cimitero delle Porte Sante next to the church of San Miniato at noon, and this, for me, posed a problem:

The walk from Stefano's locanda in Pontassieve to the cemetery was comparatively short, 20 km, but to be certain of making it in time given the pace I had been setting, I would have had to set out at about 5 AM. So with considerable regret I decided to go with Stefano's sister, who was driving our bags up to the cemetery. Roy Berardi, who had missed the previous day's walk, joined us at about 8 and we set out shortly thereafter following route on the left bank of the river, which isn't as narrow. An odd day, with very low lead-gray skies and no shadows at all.

After a few km we caught up with the walkers, in a town with a bar, and joined them for a coffee.

Roy walked on with them, while I chose to continue by car. Stefano's sister left me and our bags at the cemetery, and I found Artusi's grave, with a bronze bust put up by the town of Forlimpopoli (he willed his fortune to the town, to provide dowries for poor girls), and a wreath from the city of Florence.

Pretty, and since I was quite early I took advantage of the opportunity to wander about the grave yard. Le Porte Sante is Florence's Cimitero Monumentale, where the famed and respected as well as citizens of means ended up, and the headstones, especially those from the Art Deco period, are quite nice, displaying a wonderful sense of pathos that many more modern headstones don't quite manage. Much to photograph, and I did.

After a time I called Carlo, who said they would be coming up the stairway to San Miniato, so I went to wait for them there, in time to see a Chinese wedding party that had come to the church with a photographer. The groom looked very young, while the bride, who was beautiful, surprised me by lifting her wedding gown to her knees to keep it from getting dusty as she walked. Sensible, I suppose, but I didn't expect her to be wearing odd heelless black leather tennis shoes.

A few other reporters and a couple of television crews joined me, and then the gang appeared! Stopped, too, to unfurl the Artusi banner we had carried, and came up the stairs, while everyone else in the piazzale in front of San Miniato peered curiously at us. Paolo Zoffoli, Forlimpopoli's mayor, joined us, as did Elisabetta Cianfanelli, Florence's Assessore per il Turismo (among other things) and a Standard Bearer and several trumpeters (dressed in Renaissance garb). They blew, the notables talked, we gave Assessore Cianfafelli the copy of Artusi's book and the banner, and took lots of pictures -- Artusi's descendants, one of whom walked with us today, were there too -- and then it was time to say good by and go back to life as usual.

A sad moment with some tears and thoughtful faces, and we'll be thinking about our adventure for a while. Leonardo had a wonderful idea, and we all owe him a tremendous debt for following through on it and inviting us along.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Il Pellegrinaggio Artusiano, Day 4

Considering the sun that had set, beautifully red, the night before, the misty drizzle that greeted us when we arose was a definite letdown. Fortunately Emma's breakfast was as lavish as her dinner, with all sorts of tasty morsels to nibble on. I'm afraid we didn't do it the justice it deserved, but one can only eat so much in the space of 12 hours.

In any case, after eating we donned our rain gear, I opened my umbrella, and we set out for Pontassieve, a 28-km walk. Considering that it was all down hill I would have expected it to be easier, but for me it was the toughest day of the trip, and I found myself going a slow, steady pace while everyone else pulled inexorably away. Tried going faster several times, but slowed down after a hundred yards or so each time, and finally simply walked along, while the rain stopped, allowing me to close my umbrella and start taking pictures of this and that, the mountains, the spillway of a mill, a guy riding his bicycle (a weird one) lying down, and so on. It was quiet, the sound of my shoes on the road and the occasional whoosh of a car, and after a while I reached Dicomano, about when everyone else was setting out from Dicomano (after a meeting with the authorities) along the stream -- Leonardo said it was muddy, and I decided to stick to the road.

Rufina is a lot farther from Dicomano than I had realized, and the miles passed with excruciating slowness, also because the river had grown enough that the valley was flatter, while the road was straight -- much less opportunity to discover something neat around the bend.

In the meantime the clouds broke up and the sun came out. Beautiful skies and vistas, and as I was entering Rufina I came to one of those "you are now going" meters, which was flashing at people going way above the speed limit. As I neared, it started jumping between 3 and 4 km, and I kicked myself for not thinking to take a picture before another car whooshed by.

The nice thing about Rufina's being far from Dicomano is that it's close to Pontassieve, and shortly before reaching to town I left SS67, the route we had followed, to take an older much less trafficked road along the river. Pontassieve owes its name to its being the site of a bridge (ponte) over the Sieve river, and while the bridge I crossed is new, the ones a little upstream of me are much older and quite pretty.

This evening we were the guests of fellow pilgrim Stefano Fassineti, the only professional cook among us, who has a Locanda in the old part of town called Toscani da Sempre. It took us a bit longer than it had other days to get showered and cleaned up, and then we went to meet the local authorities -- a several people dressed in Renaissance garb, including the bearer of Pontassieve's standard, and the Assessore alla Cultura, who escorted us into the town hall while people looked and TV cameras rolled. Speeches inside, a diploma for each of us, and then we went back to Stefano's for some bubbly before dinner.

Good bubbly, and we were decidedly merry by the time we squeezed into our table (with Artusi's descendents and their wives). Dinner was very nice; we began with baccalà Montebianco, creamy baccalà with crusty bread, followed by passatelli in broth and pappardelle (broad tagliatelle) with rabbit sauce, then stewed castrato (castrated lamb) with beans and baked eggplant, and then latte alla portoghese, a delicate crème caramel, and Artusian biscotti. All washed down with wines from Chianti Rufina (while Leonardo read aloud from Artusi), because all the Sangiovese di Romagna we had been given was gone, and when we were winding down Stefano brought out two threatening looking bottles, one filled with a creamy yellow liquid with orange threads, and the other with just creamy yellow liquid.

It turns out Stefano is fanatical when it comes to hot peppers, growing all sorts of kinds (and worrying lest a kid who comes to the restaurant eat one during the summer), and uses the habaneras and other central American varieties to make the shot-with-read liqueur, which he advised those who are hesitant about heat try. The other is instead made with naga and ghost peppers, and it was something. A touch of sweetness followed by a blast of napalm, and then an electrical zing as the endorphins kicked in. Most impressive, the sort of thing to sip a teaspoon of, by the drop.

It was the perfect close to a delightful evening.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pellegrinaggio Artusiano Day 3

Before talking about today, a few words on Yesterday's dinner. We were staying in the Vecchio Convento, a nice hotel/restaurant in the heart of Portico di Romagna that has wonderful rooms with turn of the last century furniture. For dinner we were joined by about 20 Artusian devotees, some who had driven all the way from Florence, and I have to say the meal was worth the trip.

We began with Cacimperio, what is essentially a fondue, though Artusi takes digs at a French cook in presenting the recipe, and then says it will work well as a starter, but is a trifle. Ours had some truffles in it, which made it less trifling, and then we had Rifreddo di Lepre, a duck paté en croute, which was followed by zuppa di cipolle, onion soup -- Artusi warns that those with frail digestions should avoid it -- and tortelli, pasta with a ricotta and greens (just a tough) filling in a butter and sage sauce. We then had the umido, or stew, anatra domestica con polenta, stewed duck with polenta, and as a side dish, stewed fava beans, which have a bitterness to them one will like or not. Dessert was biscotti, chocolate and almond, and what Artusi calls Latteruolo, which is essentially latte alla portoghese, a delicate variation on crème caramel.

Returning to day three, this was -- on paper -- the most difficult day of the trip: 27 km, the first 20 uphill to the Passo del Muraglione (907 m) from a starting elevation of about 300 meters, and the last 7 down to San Godenzo -- the first town on the Tuscan side of the divide -- at an elevation of about 400 meters. To make the day even more interesting, the weather people for once got it right, and we awoke to steady rain and lead-gray skies. The others all packed extra pairs of shoes in their back packs and donned ponchos of the sort that have a hump with which to cover their packs,

I instead switched shoes, putting those with leather uppers into my suitcase and donning shoes with Goretex-lined uppers and, since my rain jacket didn't have a hump, added my pack to the baggage to be carried forward, slung my camera bag over my shoulder (just one lens), and got out my umbrella.

Which everyone else laughed at as we set out, but I found the steady drumming above my head to be rather comforting, and was quite happy that it provided enough cover to keep the camera bag dry, and to let me take the occasional photo without soaking everything. Then the rain started coming down in earnest and I just walked. Beautiful colors, deep greens and muted browns, with occasional gray stone houses in the fields. The road changed pitch repeatedly -- and there were a few downhill sections that were vexing indeed, because altitude lost must be regained -- with the result that at times I was quite close to the river, and at others was far above it, and looking down into the rushing whitewaters from sheer cliffs was quite impressive.

At one point I came to an abandoned house whose roof had mostly fallen in; the wet and the ruin made for a remarkably melancholy atmosphere. A few more miles, mostly uphill, and I caught up with Roy Berardi, the lone Romagnolo of our party, who told me the roofing of the abandoned house was Ardesia, the traditional Romagnan roofing material that is no longer anywhere near as common as it once was. When we got to a hamlet he stopped to change his shirt -- water was filtering into his poncho -- while I slogged on, eventually reaching the border between Tuscany and Romagna, which is not -- as I had always thought -- at the pass, but rather well before it.

The restraining walls in Tuscany aren't as well kept as those in Romagna -- there are places one could sip through them and in some of them it's a long way down -- so I was glad motorcyclists are a weekend phenomenon. There was snow by the side of the road in more sheltered spots -- old snow, but snow just the same, and eventually I came to a flat, followed by a series of switchbacks, during which -- Miracle! -- it stopped raining. It's surprising how much shade an umbrella casts, and it felt rather nice to be able to fold it up; more light means more energy, I was feeling quite happy when I got to the Passo del Muraglione, which is literally marked by a wall that divides the two lanes. Alas, the happiness was short lived; our leader Leonardo, who -- with the others, had preceded me, and was getting ready to continue while I attacked my sandwich -- told me there weren't 7, but rather 9 more km to go.

Beautiful views over Tuscany, and the mountains facing us had snow at our elevation, and then I started the walk down, which was considerably steeper than the walk up had been. Pretty countryside, with evergreens that gave way to deciduous trees as I descended, and at one point while I was taking a picture of a milestone I noticed something gray about a hundreds yards below -- it was the side of a car. Food for thought, and a bit further down I came to chestnut groves, and after that the countryside opened out to pastures in the flatter part of the valley, and there was San Godenzo, with the abbey where Dante met with other Florentine exiles in 1302 to discuss a strategy for reentering Florence. The meeting was ultimately unsuccessful -- Dante died in exile -- but that didn't stop me from entering the Abbey to leave an offering in the basket before entering our hotel (Eredi Agnoletti, which is also a restaurant, right next to the Abbazzia).

We were once again greeted by the Mayor, who gave us a tour of the Abbey and then invited us for an aperitivo in the porticoes below the Abbey. Which was quite nice; a woman had excellent olive oil, there were finger foods and fine castagnaccio made from local chestnut flour, there was some tasty pinot nero, and I met a guy from the Microbirrificio Conte di Campiglia who was pouring an excellent lager and a frankly impressive porter.

Dinner was prepared by Emma Agnoletti, and we were joined by several dozen Artusiani, who made a wise decision to come: All sorts of antipasti, including cold cuts, giardiniera (pickled vegetables, which fellow Pilgrim Serena looked at with a critical eye and pronounced freshly made), crostini with liver paté and polenta crostini with wild mushrooms, followed by ravioli with greens and cheese seasoned with butter and sage, potato-filled tortelli with a tasty meat sauce, and, since Emma was afraid that wouldn't be enough, tagliatelle with mushroom sauce, and one of the pilgrims ate an entire tray of them. Then mixed grilled meats with fried artichokes and (if I remember right) potatoes, and, to make certain nobody would leave hungry, cinghiale in dolce forte, wild boar with a savory chocolate sauce, which is an ancient dish that's extremely hard to find now. Very good, too. And then dessert, zuppa inglese, English trifle, and frittelle di riso, rice fritters. All washed down with all sorts of wine -- we finished all the Romagnan wines we had and drank lots of Tuscan too, and I was glad it was just a flight of stairs to our bedrooms.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Il Pellegrinaggio Artusiano Day 2

Made it, and as before I'll add photos when I get home.

Picking up where I left off, last night we had a very nice Artusian dinner, which began with cappelletti in broth, followed by boiled fish -- another pilgrim said trout, but it seemed more of a sea fish to me -- with home-made mayonnaise, followed by a stew, filetto alla finanziera, made with castrato, which is a castrated lamb, served in a sauce with finely chopped liver. The sauce translates roughly as "industrialist's sauce, and dates to the late 1899s, when it was popular in financial circles. The stew was followed by roast rabbit (Artusi decries the aversion his dinner guests had to roast rabbit more than once) with potatoes, and finally Torta Manovana. All served with a couple of Romagnan wines, a red and a white, and a Chianti Rufina Riserva,

Very nice, and this morning we assembled at 9, and set off following the Montone valley, which climbs steadily towards Tuscany. At first we were passed by a steady stream of cyclists and motorcyclists (the latter bent upon reaching the pass as quickly as possible), and also saw a few people on horseback Pleasant, easy walking, and after about 7 km we reached the town of Dovadola, which draws its name from "two fords," which is what distinguished the hamlet before the bridges were built. It's a pretty town, with an imposing medieval fortress (largely scaffolded), which is also known for a fall white truffle festival, and herein lies a tale.

Dovadola is tiny, about 1500 people, and despite the quality of its truffles can't compete with the likes of Alba or San Miniato. So they hired Edoardo Raspelli, an Italian critic whose press kit says he has insured his nose and palate for an exorbitant amount, to publicize and preside over the event. Raspelli did assemble a pamphlet of truffle recipes (with his picture, not Dovadola's) on the front, but come time to preside, told them he was sick, and would they kindly pay his fee anyways, thank you.

As you might guess, they are not pleased, and are trying to avoid paying someone what for them is a large amount for not showing up.

After Dovadola we continued up stream, and in another couple of hours reached Rocca San Casciano, which was the local center of Government when this section of Romagna was under Tuscan rule (until 1923, when Mussolini redrew the maps, assigning Romagna Toscana to Emilia Romagna), and as I entered town I beheld a sign inviting me to visit where they worked pietre dure, semi-precious stones, and also the Medici prisons. One advertises what one has.

I found the rest of the party lunching (and in some cases rubbing or bandaging their feet) by the river, and after we went to the town hall, where they mayor offered local foodstuffs -- there's a guy who makes a variety of thick fruit drinks, for example apple-grape, which will be perfect for hikers /of which there are many) in the summer, while they also have someone who makes excellent salami, and a Sardinian family that settled 50 years ago, began herding cattle rather than the sheep more common in Sardegna, and now make an excellent pecorino-sardo-style cheese from cow's milk.

Rocca San Casciano's irregularly shaped main square has pretty porticoes that bring to mind the porticoes in the square in Greve in Chianti, while there are Medici coats of arms on more than one building. After admiring a Della Robbia in the church on the square we set out for Portico di Romagna, another 8 km up the valley.

On the way we passed a bizarre sculpture garden assembled by a guy who retired and then began overtones make and put on display sculptures from whatever he found, Interesting to look at, and after that it was one pretty view after another until I reached Portico di Romagna, where the mayor greeted us with considerable enthusiasm, and Champagne was poured.

Portico is a pretty town, perched on a hill with fortifications at the top of the hill, and -- I am told -- a pretty bridge in the valley below that dates to the year 1000. I should go, but my feet are complaining, and tomorrow 27 km (about 17 miles) await us, including a mountain pass, and it's supposed to rain.

Departure is schduled for 8 AM. Wish us luck.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Il Pellegrinaggio Artusiano Day 1

Our walk to Florence begins at Casa Artusi, in Forlimpopoli, which is not, as one might expect, Artusi's home, because that was raised at some point after he moved to Florence. Rather, it was the seat of the Servi di Maria, a Florentine monastic order that was quite powerful and quite active in the Papal lands beyond Castrocaro and Città del Sole, which were the final Tuscan outposts on this side of the Appennini. Photos, you wonder? I'll add them when I get back to Florence.

The Servi di Maria's facility had been abandoned and was in disrepair when Forlimpopoli decided to do something to celebrate their foremost Native Son; they purchased it at great expense, renovated it, and set up a cooking library with Artusi's books and more recent editions of his cookbooks (including translations, and I was happy to see mine on the shelf) and other books on cookery too. And Artusi's sitting room furniture, with matching sofa and chairs, and his desk, with another high-backed chair that was too small for me to fit into.

Forlimpopoli's mayor gave us a copy of an anastatic reprint of the first edition (Dedicated by Artusi to his two cats), an Artusi flag, and we wet off, all 12 of us. But perhaps I should backtrack. The logical thing would have been for us to come together to Forlimpopoli, but we aren't logical, and last night 6 of us -- me, Carlo, Rossana, Serena, Stefano and Marco -- set off from Florence's station, armed with bags and back packs and sandwich meats and pecorino cheese and bread and… 4 bottles of bubbly and 3 bottles of still wine. It was a happy trip to Forlì, during which we drank the bubbly, attracting the attention of our fellow passages, and put a serious dent in the cold cuts. We reached Forlì on schedule, but were greeted by the announcer saying our connection was 20 minutes late. So we set up on a bench and continued to eat, while the announcer periodically told us our connection was later. By the time it arrived everything was gone, including the cheese, so its lateness wasn't that bad a thing.

We spent the night in Bertinoro, a pretty town perched on a hill overlooking the plains of Romagna, with the coast line quite evident in the distance -- it was where the lights stopped. It's an interesting town with all sorts of plaques -- one dedicated to Garibaldi, and another to the Christian Democrats who governed Italy until the 80s, elevating corruption to an art few others have matched. Odd to honor the corrupt, but Bertinoro did.

And this brings us back to Casa Artusi; after shaking hands we set off at a good pace, walking along the roads, which were agreeably flat, and in just a little longer than we waited at Forlì's station last night we arrived in the main square (note the fascist symbols on the lamp posts, a reminder of a not too distant past), where the Mayor was waiting to greet us, with her tricolored sash, and Ciocofest, a chocolate festival, was getting started. We tasted all sorts of things, and I was especially impressed by the chocolate from Modica, in Sicily, which has a sandy texture derived from sugar crystals that's unlike that of any other chocolate I know of. It's very nice, and they had some that was al sale -- salty --in which as the sugary sweetness faded delicate salty accents emerged. Captivating.

From the heart of Forlì we set off for Castrocaro, cutting through a new park that was full of young lovers lying on the grass, and crawling with rabbits that showed no fear at all of us. Emerging from the park, we started up the valley to Castrocaro, which was one of those gently sloping things that allow you to walk and walk, and if you turn around realize that you have also been climbing. At one point we cut across the valley and turned up a dirt road that was much more pleasant -- no motorcycles zinging by at insane speed, and after several miles reached Città del Sole, a fortified town built by the Medici, who designed it both as a military outpost, and as an ideal city, with precisely laid out streets, which are as wide as the buildings are tall. The gate facing Romagna is called Porta Romana, because it faces the Papal lands, while the gate facing Florence (and Rome, which is a few hundred miles further south) is called Porta Fiorentina.

We got to Castrocaro's town hall a few minutes before the Mayor, and while we waited for her the Assessore del Turismo told us that when the Medici ruled this area, it was extremely active, with a steady stream of spies and reporters coming to tell what was happening in the Papal lands, Venice, and points further north. 8-10 runners bearing reports set out daily for Florence (their reports are now in the archives of the Biblioteca Comunale), while as many runners came back in the other direction, with instructions and requests of all kinds that are now in Castrocaro's archives; among other things one of the Grand Dukes asked about a hunting dog, and another asked for 2000 barrels of red wine (it would have been Sangiovese). The local magistrate answered the question about the dog, and, considering that sending 2000 barrels of wine over the mountains would entail assembling a 1000-mule train (2 barrels per mule), asked the Duke to send soldiers to protect the mules and their drivers from bandits.

Very interesting, and then we went to our hotel, the Grand Hotel Terme, which also has hot springs and with pools and such, and smells vaguely of sulfur. Alas, I didn't think to bring a suit, and they didn't have one in my size. So here I am writing. Today we walked 20 km, and tomorrow will be walking 24, up steeper slopes. We'll see how it goes!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Il Pellegrinaggio Artusiano!

In 1891, Pellegrino Artusi, a 71-year-old retired silk merchant, gave up on trying to find a publisher for his cookbook, La Scienza in Cucina e L'Arte di Mangiar Bene (The Science of cookery and the Art of Eating Well), and self-published it. It took him four years to sell a thousand copies.

The next edition sold faster, so he increased the print-run of the third. Then, a miracle happened: The book was discovered by the middle class. Sales skyrocketed, and continue undiminished to this day. L'Artusi, as the book is called in Italy, is a household icon, a source of inspiration for generations of cooks, a family heirloom passed from mother to daughter.

March 30th will be the hundredth anniversary Pellegrino Artusi's death, which came a few months after he published the 15th edition in 1910. To honor Artusi my friend and colleague Leonardo Romanelli has organized a five-day pilgrimage from Artusi's native Forlimpopoli to the cemetery where he rests in Florence; we'll be in 8, all food writers, walking about 20 miles per day, talking Artusi (and the foods of Tuscany and Romagna), dining in places he might have been familiar with, and enjoying his recipes. It should be interesting, instructive, and a lot of fun, and I will keep you posted.

We depart from Casa Artusi in Forlimpopoli on March 25, and should be in Florence March 30.

More about Artusi, and my translation of his book (which is, alas, out of print).

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Olive Oil, Clusone and More: Being the 175th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! Sorry to have missed last week, but I was at the Anteprime Toscane, or Tuscan vintage presentations, which were quite interesting. But more of them anon. The latest on Italian food is perfect for Carnevale, illustrated instructions for making what Artusi calls cenci, wonderfully tasty twisty sheets of fried dough liberally coated with powdered sugar, that others in other parts of Italy call all by sorts of names, including frappe, lattughe, busie and more. On the Italian Wine review I have instead put op notes from Montecucco, a vast appellation that borders Montalcino inland, and extends almost all the way from Monte Amiata to the coast, Poggio Rosso, a new winery on the Promontorio di Piombino (south of Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast) that is doing some interesting things, and from the IX Tuscan Wine Selection. And more.

The EEU Relaxes -- According to Some -- Olive Oil Standards

It has been a while since I last wrote about food politics, but La Repubblica recently published a frankly disquieting article about the new regulations governing olive oil that the EEU has adopted, and that will become effective on April 1. According to the article, the EEU is opening the door to inferior olive oils, because in drawing up parameters to define olive oil quality it sets the allowable limit of alcohol esters, which are compounds that form when the olives begin to ferment, with the production of methyl and ethyl alcohol and the release of fatty acids from triglycerides, at 150 mg/kg.

In an olive oil made form olives that are properly picked and handled, says the article, which draws from negative comments about the regulations from Slowfood's Carlin Petrini, the alcohol ester concentration will be (except in rare cases) less than 30 mg/kg, and the value is usually considerably lower.

The article (and Carlin) go on to say that the high alcohol ester limits allowed by the regulations open the door to what are called "deodorized" oils, in other words extravirgin oils produced by blending oils pressed from olives that were poorly stored and began to ferment (the resultant oils lack quality oil's beneficial quantities, in particular its antioxidants, and also taste and smell unpleasantly strong -- they don't qualify as extravirgin) with fruitier lots of extravirgin olive oil to obtain an end product olive oil that isn't particularly good, and doesn't have the healthful qualities of oil made from properly kept olives, but can qualify as extravirgin. The chemical evidence for this blending is the high alcohol ester content.

On the face of it, one might be tempted to agree with Carlin in saying that the new regulations, by setting the allowable alcohol ester limits as high as they do, do open the door to poor quality industrially produced and manipulated extravirgin olive oils.

But they don't, because a consumer testing agency visited several Italian supermarkets and artisinal olive presses, purchased inexpensive and expensive extravirgin olive oils, and measured their alcohol ester contents: the cheap industrial oils on the shelves all had high -- on the order of 150 mg/kg -- alcohol ester contents, whereas the artisinal oils had 10-15 mg/kg alcohol ester contents.

In other words, the regulations that will be going into effect take a snapshot of the situation on the ground, as it were. And, IF the regulations require that the olive oil producers indicate the alcohol ester content on the labels, will provide consumers with a method with which to gauge the quality of the olives that went into the oil. Poorly stored olives will result in higher alcohol ester contents that are indicative of poor quality oil. If the regulations don't require the statistic be printed, Carlin will have a point, though the rules again just recognize the current situation.

And this brings up a very important point: with olive oil, as with everything else, you get what you pay for. If you buy a liter of olive oil for less than 5 Euros (in terms of purchasing power this is about 5 dollars), it will be poor quality, because there is no way one can hand-pick olives, rush them to the press, bottle the oil immediately, and sell it for less than 5 Euros/liter without going out of business. Rather, the olive oil producer who sells at these prices will harvest mechanically, or let the olives fall from the trees and vacuum them (yes, people do do this, and by the time they have fallen they are overripe for making quality oil), warehouse the olives, because at these prices one must make high volumes, and then deodorize the oil to make it extravirgin. It's just the way things are.

How to avoid this sort of oil? As I have said before, don't pick the cheapest oil on the shelf. Rather, select an oil that is in a dark bottle (I do like to be able to see it, and therefore don't care as much for cans) that says on the label where the olives came from and when they were pressed. If the label simply says "estate bottled," it could be form a tank truck.

And do, assuming that the new regulations will require it be printed, check the alcohol ester content. I would wonder about an artisinal oil with an alcohol ester content much higher than 30, because it begs two questions: How well were the olives stored, and, if the count is much (much) higher, is the olive oil in the bottle what the label says it is?

The bottom line is that the limit of 150 mg/kg for alcohol esters doesn't open the door to deodorized oils, because that door has been open for a while by now, and closing it would be extremely difficult. However, if the value is printed, you will have an idea of the quality of the olives that went into the oil, and that's a very important thing to know when selecting an oil.

The other thing the consumer organization discovered is potentially more vexing: A significant percentage of the samples were contaminated -- 15% of the samples from artisinal presses had traces of allowed phytopharmaceutical compounds, while 15% had traces of prohibited phytopharmaceuticals, including Fenitrotion, Endosulfan (alfa, beta and sulfate) and Dicofol, which derives from DDT (I would hope there was some overlap, though the organization doesn't say), while 85% (!) of the industrial oils had traces of allowed phytopharmaceuticals, and 35 % (!!) had traces of prohibited phytopharmaceuticals. I find this contamination much more serious than alcohol esters, which are a result of industrial processing, and think the energies of regulators should be directed to eliminating the contamination.

Clusone's Orologio Planetario

Moving in a decidedly different direction, this year the folks who organized the Emozioni dal Mondo wine competition took us to visit the city of Clusone, which is located high in the Val Seriana, behind Bergamo. It's located ina perfectly defensable area and for this reason is ancient: the Orbi founded it before 1000 BC, while the Romans, who called it Clausus, because it is hemmed in by the mountains, made it a major defensive bastion, a position it continued to occupy subsequently under the Longobards and Franks, who assigned it to the monks of San Martin of Tours in 774. It passed under the Bishop of Bergamo in 1026, became a Free Commune in the XIII century, and in 1427 went to the Venetians, who invested heavily in the town; because of its beauty and richness Napoleon declared it a city in 1801.

The guide who took us around Clusone told us it was an important trading post and was also known for its hemp (used to make cloth, ropes and such) and for its iron and silver mines, and also said it was laid out following the classic Medirval view of society, in concentric levels. The lowest hosted the artisans and tradespeople, while the nobility lived above them. Above the nobility were the palaces of the civil authorities, and the religious buildings are above all -- Santa Maria Assunta, a beautiful, extremely ornate 17th century cathedral whose richness, which rather surprised me given how out-of-the-way Clusone is, shows how important and wealthy the city was, and the Oratorio delle Discipline, which has spectacular frescos of the Triumph of Death and the Danza Macabra (townspeople dancing with and being led by skeletons) on the façade, painted in 1485 by Giacomo Borlone de Buschis. Giacomo's paintings are especially interesting because these cycles reflect a very brooding view of life -- the grim reminder that death awaits, dictated in part by the great Plague of 1348 -- that faded with the Renaissance, and also because they are much more common in northern Europe than in Italy.

But what really makes Clusone unique is its clock, set into the façade of the Palazzo Comunale, or Town Hall. It was installed in 1583 by Pietro Fanzago and it is much, much more than a clock: it tells time, and rings out the hours, but also gives the phases of the moon, the relative lengths of the nights, the signs of the zodiac, the months, the inclination of the sunlight, and even indicates the position of the sun in the sky -- to perform this last feat, the hand turns counterclockwise, and the clock face is oriented so the hand points to the west in the afternoon.

This is a case in which a photo can explain much better than words, so I invite you to look at the picture (the current works are more recent, but you will find several clock works in the town museum).

Put simply, the man was a genius, and it comes as no surprise that after he finished his clock he was summoned to Venice, where he developed a system for dredging the canals.

Winding down, Carnevale, or Mardigras is this Tuesday, and we have time for a quick recipe:


The word castagna means chestnut,a nd these fritters do vaguely resemble a chestnut in size and shape. Since they're fairly firm, they can be made in advance if need be.

  • The grated zest (yellow part only) of an organically grown lemon
  • 4 1/5 cup (500 g) all purpose flour, sifted
  • 4 eggs and 4 yolks, beaten
  • 1 1/8 cups (225 g) sugar
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2/5 cup milk
  • 4 tablespoons Marsala or dry Sherry
  • A pinch of salt
  • Flour for dusting
  • Powdered sugar
  • Oil for frying

Whir the sugar and the lemon zest in a blender.

Make a mound of the flour on your work surface and scoop a well into it. Add the sugar, baking powder, and salt, and then use a fork to stir in the eggs, melted butter, milk and Marsala. Work the resulting dough with your hands until it is firm and elastic.

Divide the dough into 6-8 pieces and roll each out into a 3/4 inch (2 cm) diameter snake, cut the snakes into 3/4-inch pieces, roll them between your palms to round them, and set them on a floured surface.

When you are close to finished, set your oil to heating. Fry the castagnole until they are a pretty golden brown, drain them well on absorbent paper, dust them with powdered sugar, and enjoy.

This time's proverb is for Carnevale: E' come un cardo senza sale, far col marito il Carnevale - To spend Carnevale with one's husband is like eating a cardoon without salt.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review

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

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Valentine's Day, the Lost Ravioli & More: Being the 174th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! I am still doing administrative things on About Italian Food, and also adding a few recipes. In other words, doing things that aren't necessarily obvious, but that add depth to the site.

On the IWR on the other hand, I've posted tasting notes for R, a wine made by the father of one of Daughter C's classmates, and also notes on several Emilian wines sent me by Paola Rinaldini of the Azienda Moro Rinaldini -- A Lambrusco Rosato, several inky Lambruschi including one that is bottle-fermented, and also some still wines made with the grapes used to make Lambrusco. Quite enjoyable, and a refreshing change of pace with respect to Sangiovese, which I taste a lot of as it's the major Tuscan red varietal.

Moving to Cosa Bolle, Valentine's Day is a time for sweets and confectionery and whatnot, and at Florence's Fiera del Cioccolato, which is -- how convenient! -- taking place this week in Piazza Santa Croce, you will find all sorts of delights that make fine gifts for that special someone, from chocolate truffles to candied orange peels dipped in chocolate, to white chocolate mice that drew a crowd of photographers, all clicking away. There are about 40 chocolatiers, and it was a fun event that will, I expect, take place again next year too.

The other upcoming travel-food related thing of interest is Pitti Taste, a food festival that will take place in Florence's Stazione Leopolda (between Porta al Prato and the entrance to the Parco delle Cascine) from March 6th through March 8th. You'll find excellent foods, fine wines, and more, and the Stazione, a superb example of mid-19th century industrial architecture that is now used to host all manner of shows and events, is well worth visiting in any case.

Insalata di Aranci e Finocchi, Orange and Fennel Salad

The goal of a Valentine's day meal is to set the stage, as it were, for dallying with one's Significant Other, and for said dalliance to be enjoyable, it's important that one not weigh one's self down. Bulb fennel and oranges are both light and refreshing, and work quite nicely in this salad.

  • 2 fennel bulbs
  • 2 heads of Belgian endive
  • 1/3 cup (about 80 ml) plain unflavored yogurt
  • 2 succulent oranges
  • 8 walnut meats, halved or quartered as you prefer
  • The juice of half a lemon
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Begin by washing the fennel bulbs and discarding the outer ring of leaves if they are dinged or discolored. Cut the fennel bulbs in half lengthwise and finely slice them crosswise, separating the rings.

Wash and pat dry the endive, and slice it finely crosswise too.

Peel the oranges, removing all white membranes, and slice the oranges crosswise, separating the cut sections into pieces.

Combine the fennel, endive and oranges in a salad bowl.

Mix the yogurt, mayonnaise, and lemon juice in a small bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad. Add the walnut meats, a good grind of pepper, salt to taste, mix well, and serve.

Portafogli di Viterllo - Veal Wallets

Portafogli are similar to involtini -- both are made using cutlets, veal in this case, but whereas the involtino is spread with a filling and rolled up, the portafoglio is simply folded over the filling, making a wallet. These will be a nice variation in a family meal, and could also -- if you halve the recipe -- be nice for a romantic occasion.

  • 4 lean boneless veal cutlets weighing about 3 ounces (90 g) each
  • 4 slices prosciutto (if you must, you could use good cooked ham, but prosciutto will be better)
  • 4 thin slices of Fontina cheese
  • 4 small pickles, chopped
  • A strip of pickled bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 eggs
  • Breadcrumbs
  • 1 teaspoon paprika, or more to taste
  • A lemon
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter or oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Toothpicks

Begin by putting the cutlets between two sheets of oven parchment and pounding them with the flat of a broad-bladed knife to thin them.

Beat one of the eggs in a bowl, squeeze the lemon into it, mix well, and add the meat, turning the pieces to coat them uniformly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate the cutlets in the egg for 4 hours.

In the meantime, hard-boil the egg, remove it from the water, and when it has cooled enough to be touchable, peel it. Mince the pickles and pickled pepper, and cop the egg. Mix the three together.

Come time to assemble the wallets, drain the slices well and lay them on a flat surface. Put a slice of prosciutto on each, and then a slice of cheese, and then spread the chopped pickle mixture over the cheese. Fold the wallets up, using toothpicks to hold them shut, and dredge them in the bread crumbs.

Heat the butter or oil in a skillet large enough to contain all four wallets in a single layer. Cook over a fairly brisk flame for 5 minutes, flip, and cook the other side for 5 more. Darin the wallets on absorbent paper, Dust them with the paprika and serve.

The wine? White, and I might be tempted by a lighter dry bubbly here, along the lines of a Prosecco.

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken

Laura Schenone and I follow the same food list on the web, and at some point she mentioned the book that grew of her search for her family roots, which revolve in a fascinating way around ravioli.

Her great grandfather Salvatore was a uomo delle montagne, a dirt-poor resident of one of the craggy mountain villages above Genova, where if the ground isn't sloping up it's sloping down, and too steep to plant much of anything while her great grandmother Adalgisa was from Genova, and a free enough spirit that she married the mountain man rather than the husband her family had hoped for. But times were tough, and with little in the way of opportunity in Liguria he headed for North America, and when it became clear that he was staying, Adalgisa got on a boat and joined him.

This Laura knew, and also that Adalgisa had made, as a specialty, meat-filled Ravioli, and she knew about the relationships of the more recent generations, but she wanted to know more about the beginnings, and began to call elderly relatives, both to find out about Adalgisa and Salvatore, and to find out about the ravioli. Calls led to visits, which resulted in recipes and making ravioli, and also resulted in her wanting to know more, so she went to Liguria to find out how Adalgisa's recipe compared with what was made in the old country.

Not as much as one might have expected; Adalgisa used raw meat, whereas the Ligurian tradition for meat-filled ravioli is to use cooked meat, and Adalgisa used cream cheese, which is foreign to Liguria. Once home she tried to duplicate what she had learned, and as one might expect things didn't turn out right in the first try -- as with all manual tasks, it takes a while for the muscles to learn what they must do.

And in the meantime she continued to talk with relatives, do research in libraries, and think about her family and her past, returned to Italy with her husband and children, moved to a smaller house, came to an understanding with one of her sisters, from whom she was to a degree estranged, and made ravioli. Lots of ravioli, and by the time you finish the book you will have a wonderful understanding of her and her family, all woven in and around ravioli. One wouldn't expect the concept to work, but it does, and very well.

Recipes, you wonder? The last 50 pages, and Laura assumes that when you're starting out you have about as much experience as she did. So she begins by walking you through the process of making pasta dough and rolling it out (both with rolling pin and pasta machine), and then presents a number of recipes for ravioli stuffings, beginning with a simple ricotta filling "for beginners" and going from there to her grandmother's filling, a rich Ligurian Christmas filling, a simple every day greens filling, and more. And since one cannot live just upon ravioli (though it might be nice), she explains how to make tagliatelle and trofie, a traditional Ligurian pasta, and gives recipes for other Ligurian specialties, from pest sauce though Pandolce.

Highly recommended.
Practical things:
The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken
Laura Schenone, 2008
W.W. Norton & Co
New York, N.Y.
On Amazon

This time's proverb is from the Valle D'Aosta: Quan la rosà reste gran ten su l'erba l'est segno de be ten - When the dew lingers on the grass, it means good weather.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review

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

Friday, February 04, 2011

Tuscany, Sediment & More: Being the 173rd issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! To begin at the beginning, I have been doing administrative work on About Italian Food -- splitting up overly long categories of recipes and whatnot. Not exciting, but with thousands of pages on the site I do have to manage things or they will be impossible to find. The latest on the Italian Wine review is a new feature, the weekly photo (click on the image and you will see a larger version), while the latest IGP post is a look at a fine restaurant in Livigno, from Stefano Tesi.

A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany

A while ago -- longer than it should be, and I apologize -- Beth Elon sent me a copy of her book, A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany. She, like me, was bit by the Italy bug, though differently: She and her husband chanced upon an abandoned farmhouse in the foothills of the Appennini towards Pistoia, bought it, and gradually and casually restored it (too casually, she says in the introduction: "when you don't add a fireplace to the living room it never gets done.") And in time discovered the village just above their house, which had been a tenant farmer's podere in the midst of his lands, and became part of the village, learning to do things the traditional way -- canning by the phase of the moon, for example. Eventually the house stopped being a summer home, and became their permanent residence.

She is blessed with a beautiful way of stringing words together and a keen eye for detail, and her book, which is subtitled "Exploring & Eating off the Beaten Track," is a great deal of fun. And apt; she avoids the parts of Tuscany in which one is most likely to meet a foreigner (Chianti, for example), rather going up into the Casentino (the craggy highlands between Florence and Arezzo) and the Alta Valle Teverina, or to the Valle Del Serchio (behind Lucca), which is as wild and steep-sided as any valley you'll find in the Alps. The closest she comes to Florence is Montelupo, a town once known for its spectacular ceramics, but that many modern Florentines associate primarily with the Manicomio criminale, or Home for the Criminally Insane.

Of course Beth doesn't discuss the Home; rather, she starts out by noting that Montelupo is still a hotbed of ceramicists, and says it's her favorite place to buy wedding gifts, and after discussing several artisans, takes us along the winding back roads to San Miniato, a town whose stature as a white truffle capital rivals Alba's, and whose history is simply fascinating. From there we go to Montopoli Val D'Arno, which is now much sleepier than it once was, though there are flashes of elegance, and on to Palaia, another one of those pretty towns of the kind most people stumble upon (with joy) when they make a wrong turn and follow the road to see where it goes.

But there's more to the book; each itinerary is followed by a section dedicated to local specialties, and since San Miniato is a truffle capital we get to tag along as she accompanies a truffle hunter who is training a young dog to find the elusive tubers. And then there are notes on restaurants, and the dishes most noteworthy, with... Recipes.

All sorts of things, from mushrooms packed in oil to gnocchi with hazelnut sauce to risotto with apples and shrimp. And this is just one of the ten itineraries!

It's a beautiful book to read, and even if you're not planning to get into a car and drive (public transportation is not an option here) you will very much enjoy it. And, who knows? You may find yourself planning an unexpected trip...

Practical things:
A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany

Exploring and Eating off the Beaten Track

By Beth Elon, © 2006
The Little Bookroom

1755 Broadway, Fifth Floor

NY NY 10019
ISBN-10 1-892145-36-7

On Amazon

Thoughts about Sediment in Wine

A few years ago I visited a winery near the eastern boarder of the Chianti Classico region, and, since it was near Christmas, I asked the cellermaster if he had any Riserva left. He said no, then hesitated. "Well, I do have last year's, but I don't know if you'd like it - we've had lots of people return it to us."

It turns out that he doesn't filter his wines, and for some reason that vintage gave off more sediment than usual. He must have seen something in my expression, because he ventured, "I can let you have it at 5 Euros per bottle - all sales final, you understand."

I tasted it and bought a case.

The sediment? Well, to be honest I'd almost rather that a well-aged red wine have some - it's a natural byproduct of the aging process, a mix of tartaric acid crystals and other chemicals that settle out as the wine matures. An old wine with no sediment at all would make me wonder what has happened to it that has kept it from developing in the bottle.

Has it been filtered, perhaps? Filtration will improve clarity, but at the expense of body, color and bouquet. Or has it received some other insult - a shot of sulfur dioxide? The compound works as a preservative, but can make the wine smell like a burnt match. Better to have a little bit of sediment, which indicates that the wine is still alive.

Note the word little - if there's a lot, there may well be something amiss. Also, the wine above the sediment should be crystal clear, not cloudy.

Returning to sediment, it is true that finding a dark deposit in the bottom of your goblet (we are talking about an aged wine here) is a bit off-putting. To avoid this, simply decant the wine.

Though the procedure looks complicated, it's easy to do: A day or two before you plan to open the bottle, stand it upright to give the sediment a chance to settle to the bottom. At opening time you will need a decanter (crystal or clear glass is best, because it reveals the color of the wine, but you could even use a pitcher if you had to) and a candle.

Remove the metal capsule and uncork the bottle gently. Light the candle and slowly pour the wine into the decanter, holding the bottle in front of (not over) the candle, and watching the candle flame through the neck of the bottle. When the sediment reaches the neck of the bottle it will appear as a dark stream silhouetted against the flame; at this point stop pouring. With practice, you will be able to pour all but the last half-inch or so before the sediment gets there. The trick is to be gentle. And then, enjoy!

Tartino al Cioccolato e Arance

Valentine's Day is nearing, and one of my favorite sweet combinations is orange and chocolate. Chocolate covered orange peel immediately comes to mind, but orangy chocolate tart will also be quite nice.

  • 1 5/6 cups (220 g) flour
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) unsalted butter
  • 1cup (100 g) powdered sugar
  • 3 eggs and 4 yolks
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) baking chocolate
  • The zest (orange part only) of 2 oranges, organically grown if possible -- that from one grated, and from the other cut into thin strips
  • 2/5 cup (1 dl) heavy cream
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1/2 pound dried beans or chickpeas

Dice the butter and whir it briefly in a blender with the flour, half the sugar, the grated zest of one of the oranges, and a pinch of salt. Add the egg and continue whirring until the dough forms a ball. Wrap it in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for a half hour.

Preheat your oven to 360 F (180 C).

Roll the chilled dough out to a thickness of 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) and use it to line a round 9-inch (22 cm) cake pan or crostata pan (they're a little lower sided than cake pans). Cover the dough with oven parchment and fill the pan with the dried legumes. Bake the dough for 15 minutes, remove the legumes and the paper, and bake it for 10 more.

In the meantime, melt 3/4 of the chocolate over a double boiler. While it's melting beat the remaining eggs and the yolks with the remaining powdered sugar, to obtain a sweet frothy mixture. Add the cream and the melted chocolate and mix gently. Turn the mixture out into the pie shell and bake for 30 minutes at 320 F (160 C).

Let the tart cool. Decorate it with thin strips of orange zest and chocolate shavings made from the bitter chocolate you did not melt.

Happy Valentine's Day!

This time's proverb is Tuscan: Ama chi t'ama, e chi non t'ama lascia - love those who love you, and leave those who do not.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Guide to Italian Food

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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Politics, Valentine's Day & More: Being the 172nd issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola


To begin at the beginning, the most recent additions to Italian food are a few recipes and a list of recipes that I especially like with Polenta, and therefore find uniquely suited to the cold weather we've been having. The latest on the Italian Wine review are instead an overview of the wines presented at Bolgheri this June, which I apologize for not getting up until now, and a post from Luciano Pignataro profiling three dynamic south Italian women; I've been invited to join IGP, a group of Italian journalists who post articles simultaneously on their sites -- on their site in Italian and on the IWR translated. We've got some interesting things in the works.


Turning to Cosa Bolle, long-term readers know that I usually greet any opportunity to discuss politics with poorly repressed glee, and the scandal that has brewed up around 74-year-old Prime Minister Berlusconi's dalliance with a barely-legal (now; she wasn't yet when the news broke) Moroccan illegal immigrant who goes by the name Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby Heart Thief) and a host of other young strumpets of roughly the same age would have resulted in rivers of ink, especially when then-underage Ruby was caught stealing, and the police who had her in custody received a call from the Prime Minister's office, telling them they had arrested Egyptian President Mubarak's Nipote (niece or granddaughter; the word can mean either), and demanding that she be released to Milanese City Councilwoman Nicole Minetti, a woman who became a City Councilwoman after her considerable charms caught Mr. Berlusconi's attention while she was cleaning his teeth -- she was a dental hygienist -- and he put her on his party's ticket.

One simply cannot make this sort of stuff up, and things have only become more tortured and convoluted since then, as Rachel Donadio elegantly states in a recent article in the NY Times.

But this isn't the politics I had in mind.

Rather, Italy seems to have inadvertently done away with food fraud legislation.

I'm serious; the Italian Parliament has drafted a tremendous number of laws over the decades, many of which are either seriously out-dated, unclear, or at loggerheads with each other. As a result the legal system moves at a glacial pace, and it is quite possible for one court to find a plaintiff guilty, and another to find one innocent, when the plaintiffs did the same thing and the same law was applied in both trials -- what changed from one judge to the next was how the law was interpreted.

This is obviously not good, and a while back Mr. Calderoli, the Minister of Semplificazione Normativa, or Simplification of the Laws, announced to loud fanfare that he had taken stock of all the laws enacted prior to 1970, noted which were worth keeping, and voided the rest. Every last one.

Unfortunately for us, law 263 of 1962, entitled "Disciplina igienica della produzione e della vendita delle sostanze alimentari," or Rules Governing Hygiene in the Production and Sale of Foodstuffs, didn't make the cut, and since all of the food health and safety rules and regulations drafted since then are based upon that law, they are all null & void.

This means that if somebody decides to make his pesto sauce greener by adding verdigris, a toxic copper-based compound, he can. If the spring water he's bottling is packed with pesticides due to aquifer contamination, that's fine. If he buys a warehouse of old food, doctors the expiration dates on the packages, and resells it all, he has done nothing wrong. At least formally, and that's what counts, because one can only be convicted for formal trespasses against a law, not for doing things that are morally repugnant.

Reenact the law? That would be a step in the right direction, but it wouldn't solve the problem, says a judge who was investigating blue mozzarella ("mozzarella" made in Germany that was sold very cheaply by several discount chains, and turned blue upon exposure to the air due to bacterial contamination of the packaging water; a number of people got sick from eating it), because Italian law states that if something is under investigation, it must be judged according to the most favorable of the laws being used to evaluate it. Here there is no law, and therefore everyone currently under investigation for food fraud in Italy is off Scott free.

All the more reason to buy locally, from people you know and trust, and be wary of deals that seem too good to be true.

Happy Valentine's Day
Stepping off my soap box, San Valentino's Day is rapidly approaching, and it is custom to prepare something romantic to celebrate the Day with one's Significant Other. A great many recipes are sweet, and involve Chocolate (see for example this collection, or this chocolate espresso mousse). And there is the classic pasta with smoked salmon, which is one of my favorites.

You can do more with smoked salmon than make pasta sauce, however: It's perfect for making flavored butter, which you could spread on slices of toast (perhaps with a little smoked salmon on top) as an antipasto, or add a dab of to other fish dishes for a burst of salmony aroma.

To make salmon butter you'll need:
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • About 2 ounces (60 g) smoked salmon, chopped
  • A few drops of lemon juice
  • Salt to taste
Cream the butter in a bowl. Transfer half the creamed butter to a blender, add the salmon, and blend, using short bursts, until the mixture is uniformly creamy. Work in the remaining butter, adding a few drops of lemon juice and salt to taste.

Turn the soft butter onto a sheet of aluminum foil, shape it into a cylinder about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) in diameter, roll up the foil, and chill until the butter is firm.

Instead of salmon you could use boned anchovy fillets (my father often did), and you could also, for color contrast, add a little finely chopped parsley or dill to the butter.

Another option would be to make herb butter, and here exactly what you do is up to personal taste.

Assuming you start with a half pound (225 g) of unsalted butter, you could chop

  • A bunch of parsley
  • Several sprigs fresh dill
  • 3-4 cloves garlic

Cream the butter as above, work the herbs into it, add salt and lemon juice (roughly a teaspoon of each, or to taste), and chill the resulting butter until firm.

Another herb combination might be rosemary needles, basil (or oregano), and a small bunch of chives, again with a splash of lemon juice and salt to taste.

Either of these butters will be quite nice on toast, and they will also be nice with fish, boiled vegetables (especially potatoes), on grilled steak, and even as a simple pasta sauce.

A final option would be to make mustard butter, by creaming 1/2 cup (100 g) unsalted butter with a teaspoon each of powdered mustard and Dijon mustard seeds, adding salt to taste. It will be nice on grilled meats or boiled or baked potatoes.

In short, lots of options!

This time's proverb is Emiliano: Par i och an fa mai l'alba - For fools, dawn never comes.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Guide to Italian Food

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

Monday, January 24, 2011

Soda & Soda, Bottarga & More: Being the 171st issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! I trust all had the happiest of holidays and apologize for not having posted an issue during the break, but between kids and family things were hectic. The latest on the Italian Wine Review are a look at Chianti Rufina, which also includes a comparison between Chianti Rufina and Burgundy -- the Rufina folks invited several Burgundy producers to their vintage presentation this year -- a pair of Caparzo Verticals, and a Tedeschi Vertical, while the latest major thing on Italian food is an image gallery that groups all of my Almost Wordless Wednesday posts together. Pretty pictures, and if you like the AWW posts I think you'll like flipping though them. I've also added a quick thing dedicated to bombette Pugliesi, one of the finest street foods I know of.

Soda & Soda

Turning to Cosa Bolle, Torino's Salone del Gusto has a great many Laboratori del Gusto, or Taste Workshops, and if you flip through the catalog you'll likely be attracted to things such as a comparison between great Burgundy and great Barolo, the discovery of rare age-worthy Alpine cheeses, or old Champagnes (including the degorgement of a bottle during the workshop, using a saber). You might not think to look at soda. But if you had -- like I did -- you'd have made out very well.

By soda I mean a fizzy bottled drink, and most modern soda is industrially produced and frankly banal. However, there are artisinal productions, which hearken back to the early days of the drink, and they can be quite interesting.

Soda shares, we were told, a common origin with ice creams and sorbets, while the name Selz derives from Selters, a German town known for its naturally carbonated spring water. In addition to this naturally carbonated spring water, we were told, the people living in the region made carbonated the water by adding to it under pressure the CO2 that is a natural byproduct of the fermentation of beer.

The carbonated water thus obtained was distributed to druggists who would add syrups to it and sell it, either as a refreshing tonic or as a curative -- The folks in Atlanta added cocaine and cola to theirs, giving it an uplifting zing, and called it Coca Cola, whereas the people behind Pepsi were initially aiming for a cure for Dyspepsia.

In 1892 the crown cap was invented, and industrial production of carbonated drinks took off in Great Britain and the United states.

But not in Italy, where local chemists and druggists continued to make syrups and flavor fizzy water with them until the end of the teens. The first Italian bottled sparkling drink was Gazzosa, which is lemon flavored. It was introduced between the wars, as was Chinotto, which is made with a small, green bitter citrus fruit called the Chinotto (it's bitter enough that you might think quinine, though there is none involved). Chinotto didn't catch on until after WWII, when a number of other drinks were introduced as well, including something called Ginger that didn't contain ginger, but rather bitter oranges: it was named after Ginger Rogers, and made by a factory called Copacabana that opened outside of Milano.

To be honest, the future looked rosy for Italian soft drink makers; the products were good and had considerable character. However, to gain market share the industrialists cut prices (and costs, by reducing the amount of flavoring). Since their products were cheap they did sell, but came to be viewed as second rate by consumers, who much preferred the more flavorful American soft drinks that were introduced in the 50s and 60s. Nor has the situation changed much since then; if you visit an Italian supermarket today most of the soft drink section will be colas, with some orange soda, tonic water, and so on. Very little Gazzosa, a few bottles of Chinotto, and I have never seen Ginger. In short, Italian soft drink manufacturers shot themselves in their collective foot and have never really recovered.

But there are still artisinal producers of both Chinotto and Gazzosa, and with them things can get quite interesting, primarily because they don't stint on the flavorings -- Italian law requires that a fruit-flavored drink contain a minimum of 12% of the given fruit juice, and they are adding more;

We began the workshop with a comparison of several different artisinal Chinotto bottles. Taken as a group, they were varying shades of pale slightly orangish brown, a color that derives from caramel, or even simple burnt sugar in the paler bottles. In terms of flavor and aroma, chinotto is a little unusual and takes some getting used to; it has citrus notes with candied bitter orange and fairly intense, almost pugnacious bitterness as well that comes though strongly on the palate too.

There was also a surprising amount of variation, with some Chinotto more delicate and others, in particular a Sicilian Chinotto called Polara much, much bitterer than the rest.

After the Chinotto, the organizers distributed bottles of Gazzosa, which is essentially fizzy lemonade, and is actually -- provided the fruit juice concentration is high enough -- extremely refreshing, leaving the palate crisp and clean, much as a good lemon sherbet does. In this case the fruit used was of high quality -- Lurisia uses lemons from Amalfi, the same lemons used to make Limoncello, while Polara's lemons are Sicilian and just as flavorful if not more.

Very nice, and all I could think as I sipped -- I finished most of the Gazzosa samples, which were easier to drink than the Chinotto -- is that it is very sad that Italian legislators relaxed the standards in the 1950s to allow soft drink makers to increase their profits by weakening their drinks. Had they not, Gazzosa would likely be as popular today as the -Cola family of soft drinks is.

The final thing to note about Gazzosa is that it is more versatile at table than some of the other soft drinks; it is a good option for those who want some sparkle, and a drink that won't overwhelm the food the way a cola can, but don't want alcohol, and can also be served between courses much the way a lemon sorbetto is. Some people also enjoy it after richly flavored fish such as salmon, again because it leaves the palate crisp and clean.

On Bottarga

Moving in a very different direction, if you visit Sardegna, you're certain to find bottarga for sale. What is it? Salted fish roe, and as such it might not seem much to get excited over. However, it is very tasty, and I quote Hank Shaw, from his article on how to make bottarga: "Bottarga's flavor is the essence of the sea: Fishy, but not in a bad way, and very briny from the salt." It also has a very long history.

Traces of fish processing have been found in the Sardegna's insediamenti Nuragici, the prehistoric (1000+ BC) settlements with buildings made from huge stones that one can find scattered across the island, and the Phoenicians are known to have smoked the tuna they caught along the Sardinian coast. They also explored the Cabras Lagoon, on the western side of the island near what is now Oristano. It's quite large, extending over 2000 hectares (about 7500 acres), and teeming with muggine, or gray mullet. Which they eagerly caught, and when they realized that the hens were replete with roe, began to salt it to preserve it. Production of bottarga has continued since then, and is still a major local industry.

As I said, bottarga can be made with any fish roe, and Hank Shaw gives excellent illustrated instructions.

The major Sardinian kinds of bottarga are bottarga tonno, tuna bottarga (the shot to the left), and bottarga di muggine, gray mullet bottarga (the shot above). Since the first bottarga to be produced in Sardegna -- we were told -- was bottarga di tonno, we will start with it: bottarga is made by salting and preserving the hen fish's egg sack, and since the egg sacks of tuna fish are quite large, so is a whole piece of tuna bottarga -- it can be as large as a barrel slat, and weigh up to 5 k, or more than 10 pounds. With respect to mullet bottarga, tuna bottarga has a much sharper (almost bitter), more fishy flavor, and is also saltier.

Bottarga di muggine is again made from the hen fishes' egg sacks, and since the fish are considerably smaller, so are the pieces of bottarga -- they range from 3-8 or so inches, or 7-20 cm, and if you purchase a piece, we were told that the best will have a white rim on one end that resembles a fingernail. In terms of flavor, bottarga di muggine is more delicate than bottarga di tonno, and has more of that essence of the sea to it.

Either kind should be consumed shortly after purchase; though bottarga is of necessity packaged in plastic to keep it from drying out in transit, it suffers being wrapped up. So upon getting it home, unwrap it and enjoy it. At the presentation we were given bottarga with finely sliced raw artichoke hearts, which provided a very interesting taste combination, with the bitterness of the artichokes making the bottarga seem sweet, and quite complex.

Another very tasty option would be to butter slices of toasted bread with unsalted butter, and sprinkle them with finely shaved bottarga.

The most common way to enjoy bottarga however is in pasta sauce: Cook your pasta, and while it is cooking shave the bottarga into a bowl and stir in some good quality extra virgin olive oil. Turn the drained pasta into the bowl and mix well. That's it; cooking bottarga makes it bitter, and that's something you don't want.

In terms of proportions, figure, for a healthy pound (500 g) pasta 60 g (2 ounces) bottarga and 1/3 cup olive oil; this will serve about 4. One could do much, much worse.

This time's proverb is Ligurian: L'é megio ciammâ I osti in terra, che i Santi per mâ - It's better to call for the hostler on land than for the Saints at sea

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
About Italian Food,

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