Archive for Food
I don’t want Saint Martin’s day 2012 to be associated only with acqua alta and with the words which are being thrown about like fistfuls of gravel: “Disaster,” “Tempest,” “Catastrophe,” and so on.
There is no meteorological event which can get the upper hand of the cookie — the wonderful creation showing Saint Martin astride his horse, sometimes also with his sword upraised ready to cut his cloak in half, translated into dough, colored icing, sprinkles, and chunks of candy that cling to him and his trusty steed.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these cookies come in all sizes, and all calibers of candy, and all are spectacularly overpriced. St. Martin would be ashamed of everybody if he could express himself.
But what’s interesting this year is the bit of history of these confections which I have learned from a leaflet attached to the overpriced cookie Lino gave me. There’s no stopping him: It’s tradition, and if we have to spend the egg-and-butter money for a crumbly San Martino, so be it.
I had assumed that this pastry was some newfangled confection invented by modern bakers looking for a new product for which to charge too much. But no.
Here is what the leaflet said (translated by me):
The custom of giving a San Martino made of shortcrust pastry was introduced and spread, most probably, by the pastrymakers who came from the Canton of Graubunden (Switzerland), who were present in massive numbers in Venice since the 15th century.
They had their own statutes in the scuola (guildhall) adjacent to the church of San Marcuola and near the ancient church of Santa Croce, in the homonymous sestiere, which was subsequently demolished in 1806. (Note: This would have been part of the massacre of Venetian churches, palaces, and guildhalls inflicted by Napoleon after the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797.)
The archives reveal that more than 80 percent of the pastryshops were run by people from Graubunden, in whose favor the Venetian Senate issued special laws.
With the end of the Republic, due to the adverse political situation, the people of Graubunden were compelled, against their wishes, to leave the city, taking with them and diffusing in the major European cities the traditional Venetian pastry. (I’m all for local pride, but it’s interesting to note that according to this writer, the cookie came to Venice from Switzerland, but left Venice as Venetian. If I were Swiss, I’d object to that.)
The celebration of San Martino coincided with the end of the agricultural labor of the year. To celebrate this important moment, the Venetian patricians organized sumptuous banquets in their magnificent country villas, in which all their workers participated, and it was traditional to conclude the feast with a shortcrust pastry in the form of San Martino.
Lino thinks I’m going deaf, but I think I still hear too much.
Example: Yesterday morning on the bus. To be precise, the CA bus on the Lido, which I had boarded with a suitcase full of laundry, bound for the laundromat. Useless details, but I like to set the scene.
A very old lady sat down in front of me. A young-middle-aged man sat down facing her. They began to talk. It wasn’t really what I think of as conversation — it was more like verbal badminton in which cliche’s are used in place of the shuttlecock.
It started with the usual sort of pleasantries (“Am I taking up too much room?” “No no, not at all,” and so forth).
Then they began to bat remarks back and forth.
“Yes, the bora.”
“It will last for three days.”
“It always does.”
“Of course, now it’s cooler, which is good.”
“Yes, the heat has gone on too long.”
“We need rain, though.”
“Yes, the drought is bad now. I was at Jesolo yesterday and there were incredible sandstorms on the beach.”
“Still, what can you do?”
“The weather does what it wants.”
(Are you still with me?)
I must have drifted off for a minute because I lost the thread, if there was one. In any case, they left the weather and moved on to the History of Large Families. Perhaps there was a link somewhere. It might have been Weather in the Old Days. People here love to talk about the way it used to be, in their lives or the life of somebody else. The further back, the better, because then your listener can’t contradict you.
I checked back in at the point where the man was talking. ”My grandfather had ten children,” he said.. (So we’re far back in the Olden Times when life was hard but people were honest and we were all better off when we were worse off. I’ve heard this so many times.)
“He used to go out fishing,” the man continued. So far, so normal. Lots of men did this to keep the family alive. “Then he’d take his catch and sell it, and buy steaks.”
He did what? I’m no genius of domestic economy, but even with only two kids this isn’t a scenario I’d ever have come up with. You take fish, which are free and are hugely nutritious, and you sell them — I’m good so far — and then you buy steak? Does the word “shoes” not come to mind? Books? The electric bill? I’d even accept “wine” before we got to steak.
Then I had to get off the bus with my dirty clothes, so I’ll never know what the old lady’s response was. Maybe everybody did that back in the old days. You were taught to sell fish for beef right after you learned how to knit a new heel onto an old wool sock, or shine the copper polenta pot using lemon and salt.
The world may be crazy now, but it doesn’t appear to have been much saner back then, either, no matter how honest and hardworking the people might have been.
I’m sorry I didn’t think to check on the exact instant of the equinox in order to give Venice an appropriate little salute. I knew this anniversary was imminent and now I’ve discovered it was two days ago.
In any case, most of the signs have been with us for a while now. I can report that March came in like a lamb, but seeing how screwy the weather has become, I have no idea what sort of animal its departure is going to resemble. Maybe a bumblebee bat or a star-nosed mole. I’ll let you know.
Yesterday we rowed to Sant’ Erasmo to forage for some carletti. Unhappily, we didn’t find any at all, which is slightly disturbing (check one “sign of spring” off the life list). So we brought home a big bag full of dandelion greens instead. Lino’s happy because he says it’s good for “purifying the blood.” My grandfather did the same, he said, by dosing himself with blackstrap molasses. That’ll wake you up, no matter what it may do to your blood. I intuit that this instinct is somehow related to the rousing-from-winter-lethargy/hibernation process we watch on the Discovery Channel.
Speaking of rousing, though, I am still awaiting one fundamental sign of spring, which is the blackbirds singing at dawn. Every year I have heard one — evidently assigned to our neighborhood by the Chief Herald — which began to sing exactly at 4:00 AM. It was uncanny. I’m not saying I’ve been getting up at that hour specifically to hear it, though it would certainly be worth it. But considering that I’m up anyway, its solitary cadenzas always made the morning beautiful even while it was still dark.
So far, I’ve heard one (1) blackbird singing at 6:30 PM. Of course it can sing whenever it wants to, but I cannot fathom why I’m not hearing any before then. Frankly, I don’t understand how the sun — or me, for that matter — has managed to rise without it.
At any rate, my favorite phase of spring is already past. Anybody can love spring when the flowers begin to bloom (I’ve already seen early blossoms sneaking out of their buds on a few plum and almond trees, and of course there will be a deluge of jasmine and wisteria before long). But I love spring when the weather is still cold and unfriendly but you can just begin to detect tiny wisps of earlier sunlight and see even tinier buds on the trees just beginning to expand with their extremely tiny leaves, awaiting some signal I’ll never detect.
Once the daffodils come out, spring is so obvious that I consider it to be essentially over.
They go on all year, all over Italy, but for some reason it’s only in the autumn that I give any thought to the innumerable festivals dedicated to food. Or food products, or plants or animals, or anything peptic or nutritious.
The keyword is sagra, which the dictionary defines as “feast,” “festival,” or “religious festival,” because the local product being celebrated is sometimes linked to the local patron saint. Not required, though. It’s more the local product that is worshiped and glorified. Anyway, the public tends to respond more quickly to the phrases “gastronomic stands” and “typical products” than to “religious procession and Mass,” and these events are usually aimed at the paying visitor, not the quaint locals who in days of yore would have been the only participants.
Rummaging through assorted calendars for something fun and comestible to celebrate this month in the Veneto , I discovered that in October there are sagre devoted to chestnuts, pumpkins, cheese, grapes, jujubes (known in Venetian as zizoe), honey, wine, baccala’, black truffles, ducks, walnuts, apples, eels, and the gnocco (plural gnocchi, since you tend not to eat just one). This one is tempting, as “gnocco” is also slang for “dullard,” “poltroon,” “dimwit,” which I think is funny, though I assume the organizers are not referring to the people they want to attract.
I see that “Automotive Dealer Day” sneaked its way onto the list for the area around Verona. Hard to think of what would be good to eat here, though I guess 40W oil might be useful for frying. Maybe this is one event in which food isn’t involved, hard as that may be to imagine. Unless they are cleverly referring to the automotive dealer as the edible item.
The few sagre I’ve been to tend to follow a simple pattern: Pick a local product you wish to festivize; get lots of it; organize it on stands or in halls, possibly with demonstrations of its cultivation, history, industrial management, recipes, or whatever other features seem important; cook lots of it in various ways to sell at inflated prices; add some extra events, such as demonstrations of historic skills (how to make cheese or spin wool or other things the old-fashioned way is popular); perhaps add some race or competitive event; publicize, provide parking (this one is optional), make money.
Oh — and make sure you hold your event in a picturesque little place that is almost (or better, completely) unreachable by public transport. Trains? Buses? Of course they exist, except on Sunday, when often they do not. Then you get off at the nearest station and try to find a taxi or, as happened last year, you walk. We did eight miles. Lino has made it clear that we are not going to repeat this exploit.
The problem is that any sagra reasonably near home base isn’t very appealing. You need distance, even a frustrating distance, to create the necessary allure. Because — let’s be honest — spending the day wandering among pumpkins or grapes doesn’t have a lot more intrinsic appeal than spending the day in the produce department of the supermarket. Spending the day among gnocchi — why travel? As soon as you walk out the door here, you’re surrounded by them. So to speak.
I spent two days trying to organize the logistics to go to Arqua’ Petrarca, which devotes two consecutive Sundays to its local star, the zizoe. In fact, I had my heart set on it. This is always a bad move, because disappointment is usually right behind. I discovered that while a train does go to the nearest town, Monselice, there are two choices for traveling the four miles (six kilometers) to Arqua’ Petrarca. The first was by taxi — there is one taxi in Monselice — and the driver wanted 20 euros ($27) each way. You see that it’s not only in Venice where they flay your wallet alive. Or the bus. I checked, not without some difficulty, with the bus company, and guess what? They don’t run on Sunday.
I myself would seriously considering getting a folding bicycle , which would be easy to carry on the train, but Lino didn’t want to hear about it. He may have sensed I was edging too close to committing an Americanata.
I forgot to mention that for us to arrive at a sagra at a reasonable hour (say, 9:00 AM, when it might be opening), it means getting up at 4:00. Because to be at the train station by 6:00 or so means there is only one vaporetto running — sorry, I meant crawling. So if I’m prepared to get up in the middle of the night like some shift worker in a Christmas-ornament factory, the sagroids — or however the organizers are called — ought to make some provision for me.
Sending a limousine would be acceptable.