Archive for Food
Just kidding. Lamentations seem no longer to apply to the spiritual life; if you feel a lamentation coming on, it’s usually related to politics or family members, certainly not to yourself.
But Ash Wednesday (“le ceneri“) is still a crucial day in the Christian calendar, and even though people have become very lax about denying themselves meat today, the day remains a vestigial holiday for the butchers. Those few that remain. Those even fewer who maintain the Old Ways. Of course, the public can still buy all the meat it wants at the supermarkets, so closing the butcher shop is by now just a symbol. But a good one, if you have turned your thoughts toward penance, even for just a minute.
Of course, there’s that famous gap between the letter and the spirit of the law, and I’d like to share an amazing menu for your consideration. It was displayed in an expensive restaurant in Udine right across the street from the Patriarchal Palace and adjoining church, and I supposed that the proprietors might be wanting to look good for the patriarch even though the rank of patriarch is no more, and the archbishop lives a 15-minute walk away.
I have never seen a menu created and advertised as being for Ash Wednesday (I thought bread and water pretty much covered the nutritional options, or at least week-old beans and a frightening lettuce from the back of the fridge). The idea of promoting a day of renunciation with items as listed — EVEN THOUGH THEY DO NOT BREAK ANY RULES (except in spirit) — seems totally in keeping with the zeitgeist, and times being what they are. I mean, there isn’t any clause saying you’re only allowed to eat horrible food. I THINK the notion is that you shouldn’t be wallowing in your food fixations for one little 24-hour cycle in the entire year. But then I think: If the owners were inclined to give such a gracious nod to contrition, they might at least have lowered the prices. Why should the customer always be the one to repent when the bill comes?
Regional cookery is one of the zillion things that Italy is so proud of and so admired for. (End of preposition storm.) But the funny thing is that a dish will be super-famous as being from one place, and then you discover its stolen-at-birth sibling in a completely different region, and then you discover it again, and again, and sometimes even again. The reason is simple: People all over Italy have the same needs (eating) and many of the same ingredients, and what develops is something like a theme and variations.
Take castagnaccio (kas-ta-NYA-cho). Perhaps its most noted version is from Tuscany, but there are variations from Naples, Corsica, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, Piemonte, Calabria, and even the Veneto — anywhere there are chestnut trees, in fact. The names may change along the way — baldino, pattona, ghirighio, castigna’, pane di castagna, migliaccio, gnaccia, and in Venice, “gardo” — but the essential ingredients originally couldn’t rise beyond the gravity pull of poverty: chestnut flour and water, and a little olive oil. Then came raisins and pinoli nuts and sugar, even wine and milk and orange peel and chocolate. But I don’t see how you can improve on the basics, which produce something super-dense, not too sweet, and loaded with winter-useful calories (193 per 100 grams).
Chestnuts were the perennial backup when you had no more flour of any sort, and not even polenta. When the countryfolk would burn the effigy on Epiphany (the “befana”), eyes used to be fixed on the direction the sparks flew. People still look, but now it’s more like a game, though it wasn’t always so. The doggerel makes that clear: “Se le falive va a marina / Tol su saco e va a farina / Se le falive va a montagne / Tol su saco e va a castagne” (if the sparks fly toward the sea (east), take your sack and go to make flour (the wheat harvest will be good) / If the sparks fly toward the mountains (west), take your sack and go gather chestnuts.”)
But like so many other “poor” dishes, castagnaccio is apparently being rediscovered by people who have had enough of smoked salmon and foie gras (just an expression — does anybody still eat foie gras?). Anyway, Lino is impervious to fashions and fads. He’s always eaten something, he’s going to continue eating it. Every so often the urge for castagnaccio will strike him and off he goes to acquire some chestnut flour. It is reliably available at the ever-amazing Mascari. (Full disclosure: I have no connection with this shop.) He doesn’t add either pinoli nuts or raisins, but sticks to the bare bones of the recipe, with a sprinkling of rosemary.
Lino remembers that there was a little shop at the corner of the Riva degli Schiavoni and Calle de la Pescaria which sold slices of gardo and also a “cake” made of chickpea flour. That was all, he sold nothing else.
As it happens, however, a bar-cafe in via Garibaldi has recently taken up the baton:
The internet is full of recipes, but here’s the simplest version of castagnaccio, if you want to chance your arm:
Ingredients: 750 ml water, 500 gr chestnut flour, some fresh rosemary “needles,” a pinch of salt, 6 spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil, to keep it soft.
Heat the oven to 200 degrees C or 350 F. Put the flour in a bowl and add the water slowly while stirring. Spread a little olive oil on the bottom of the pan. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for one hour. (Note: The pan, or casserole, or whatever you’re using, shouldn’t be so broad that the batter only barely covers it. Use your judgment, but bear in mind that this isn’t going to rise.) The surface of the final product should have slight cracks or fissures.
Modify it as you wish, of course; I’ll never know. In fact, the heathen thought of topping it with whipped cream or ice cream did cross my mind, but I quashed it. We like the basics here.
I have spent the last few months immersed –now there’s a thrilling thought — in gelato. Specifically, in the artisanal gelato made by Andrea Soban in Valenza, Italy.
Guess what? It’s simpler, and also harder, than you might think. Simpler in the sense of ingredients and procedure, and harder because, like playing a Bach fugue, you can’t just up and do it one day when the mood strikes you. And don’t think that even professionals always (or ever) reach this empyreal level. Those images above represent a literal lifetime of effort.
As it happens, though, we can leave it to him to deal with the details. Anyone who can make it to Valenza can enter this parallel universe where everything conspires to make you happy.
The following photos are not intended as a manual on how make sublime gelato (I’ve left out a few things, such as “equipment” and “expertise”) but to show the attention to detail and the quality of ingredients Andrea lavishes on his ephemeral creations. In fact, he’s always one day behind the gelato staring at you from the display case; ordering the milk and cream, making the mixture and leaving it in the pasteurizer overnight to “mature” means that what he freezes today he actually brewed up yesterday.
I wish he lived next door. Life would be so much better.
Here is a picture of the world yesterday, when frolic and carousal were the purpose of life:
Lino was telling me about Carnival when he was a lad — or rather, not-Carnival.
“Who celebrated Carnival?” he asked in his characteristically rhetorical way. “It was right after the war and nobody had anything to eat. Everybody was just trying to survive.”
There’s another reason why there was no costumed jollification before Lent. “The government forbade you to wear a mask,” he said. Why? “For fear of reprisals. There was a lot of settling of scores from the war.” He means civilian scores, struggles between Fascists and Socialists on the home front.
“I had two uncles — I can’t remember their names right now,” he went on. “They were really vocal Socialists, and every time the Duce came to Venice, they were put in prison.” Ostensibly for their own protection, but more probably to keep whatever peace could be kept while company was visiting.
But prison didn’t have to be involved in these domestic conflicts. Mussolini’s squads of paramilitary “Blackshirts” (officially known as the Voluntary Militia for National Security) were notorious for taking political dissidents and forcing them to drink large quantities of castor oil. That experience would certainly leave a memory that would call for redress.
“And the Ponte brothers,” he went on. “You remember Bruno Ponte, he worked at the airport with me. My older brother, who was a Socialist, told me that when the brothers went home at night, they walked backwards to their front door, holding machine guns, so nobody would shoot them in the back.”
Carnival? You mean, let’s all dress up like Mozart and walk around the Piazza San Marco so people can take our picture? I’d say people weren’t really in the mood.
Now we have to say a word about today, Ash Wednesday. You might be aware that it is a day of abstinence and penitence, which used to involve a number of practices, most of which no longer survive.
The major custom (apart from going to Mass and having ashes sprinkled on your head) was to abstain from eating meat today. Only fish. Or maybe nothing, if anybody were to feel extremely penitent.
Therefore it has long been the custom for the butcher shops to be closed on Ash Wednesday. A cynical person might interpret that as “They might as well, if they’re not going to have any business.” But in any case, the tradition is still observed in our little lobe of Venice and, I’m guessing/hoping, elsewhere.
Butcher shops, though, are in a steep decline, so this valuable reminder of at least one day a year when they’re not standing there ready to provide T-bone steak is probably going to disappear eventually. After all, the supermarkets are all open and are merrily selling meat of every sort, including tripe.
I see I started with food and I’m ending with food. Maybe this abstinence thing is beginning to affect my brain. I mean, stomach.