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