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,

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