Archive for Food

Jun
13

Gelato on the brain

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"Crema Classica" is just about ready. Stand by with your pointing' trowels to start gorging.

“Crema Classica” is just about ready. Stand by with your pointing trowels ready to start gorging.

And when its done he scrapes it out of the churn with a long spoon and scrapes it into the container which is headed for the display case. Does it look bland? I'll tell you what: It isn't.

And when it’s done he scrapes it out of the freezer-churn with a long spoon and scrapes it into the container which is headed for the display case. Does it look bland? I’ll tell you what: It isn’t.

This must be the place.

This must be the place: Soban Gelateria, 23 Piazza Gramsci, Valenza, Italy.

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.

Of course he's smiling. He's making gelato.

Of course he’s smiling. He’s making gelato.

Fresh whole milk goes into the pasteurizer where it will await its companions.

Followed by fresh cream. more or less 10W-40 weight. (Made up.)

Followed by fresh cream. more or less 10W-40 weight. (Made up.)

Separating eggs by hand. The yolks act as an emulsifer, the whites are often destined for a sorbetto.

Separating eggs by hand. The yolks act as an emulsifier in gelato, the whites are often destined for sorbetto.

There is the machinery, but nothing beats fingers and brain for even the simplest tasks.

There is the machinery, but nothing beats fingers and brain for even the simplest tasks.

Yolks beaten, into the mixture they go.

Yolks beaten, into the mixture they go.

Peeling ten lemons, followed by oranges.

Peeling ten lemons, followed by oranges.

Fat vanilla beans on the right, thin, shrivelly little beans from Tahiti on the left, which are, despite being thin and shrivelly, the most highly prized vanilla beans on the market.

Fat vanilla beans from Madagascar on the right.  The skinny little beans from Tahiti on the left are, despite being thin and shrivelly, the most highly prized vanilla beans on the market.

His forebears from the Zoldo Valley in the Veneto Region were the first to bring gelato down from the rich and powerful and offer it to ordinary people. These gelato-makers spent the summer in northern Europe making their simple concoctions (freezing by hand) and selling them from pushcarts like the man shown here, the grandfather of the owners of “Gelateria Zoldana” in Treviso.

The families from Zoldo also worked in gelaterie abroad. Here is the Arnoldo family working in Vienna in 1934.

The families from Zoldo also worked in gelaterie abroad. Here is the Arnoldo family working in Vienna in 1934.

The ice-cream-freezing machine was invented by Nancy Johnson in Philadelphia in the 1840s. This system, in various sizes (this is a quart) was what all gelato-makers used till mechanization came at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries.

The ice-cream-freezing machine was invented by Nancy Johnson in Philadelphia in the 1840s. This system, in various sizes (this is a quart) was what all gelato-makers used till mechanization came at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries.

And speaking of differences, these are two pistachio pastes from the same producer. The darker one was sent as a sample; as soon as Andrea tasted it, the old product was benched.

Sugar! Or, to be precise, sucrose! Because there are some 100 sugars he could choose from.

Sugar! Or, to be precise, sucrose! Because there are some 100 sugars he could choose from.

Carob flour, a natural stabilizer.

Carob flour, a natural stabilizer.

So you leave it overnight and then put it in the freezer/churn and after just a little while you've got frozen rapture. You just have to keep doing it with all the different flavorings that your people want, as partially shown above.

Here we see how it all turns out.  After the mixture (with any added flavorings) is left overnight, then put into the freezer/churn, after just a little while you’ve got frozen rapture. Notice that each container has its own spatula.  No rinsing one lone scoop all day long here.

The point of it all: Eager crowds craving more.

The point of it all: Eager crowds craving more.

These men work in an office an hour away from Valenza, but have to come to town on business about once a week. How too bad is that? (The man on the right has been coming to Soban since the shop opened 40 years ago. Start 'em early is the best philosophy....).

These men work in an office an hour away from Valenza, but have to come to town on business about once a week. (How too bad is that?).  The man on the right has been coming to Soban since the shop opened 40 years ago. Start ’em early is the best philosophy.

This was dinner: A pound of gelato. Selling by weight means you can organize a sort of tasting menu. Clockwise from left

This was my dinner: A pound of gelato. If five scoops seems like a lot, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even enough.  Counterlockwise from left:  Brachetto (a wine from Piemonte) sorbetto, zabaione, mandarino sorbetto, chocolate (from Venezuela) sorbetto, vanilla cream.  My only regret: Not having bought two pounds.  A big shout-out to Andrea’s brother, Stefano, who mans the helm at the shop in Alessandria — carrying on the family tradition in a big way in another town.

Perhaps this image doesn't call for any explanation. There's so much I could say, but "Yikes!" probably covers it.

But all gelato is not created equal.  Perhaps this image doesn’t call for any explanation. This is the gelateria from hell.

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Feb
18

Carnival afterthoughts

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Here is a picture of the world yesterday, when frolic and carousal were the purpose of life:

Frittelle are so yesterday.  We wandered into a pastry shop near the Rialto and discovered "mamelukes," which have totally overthrown every other Carnival delicacy in my world.  The mamelukes, as you know, were a military caste in medieval Egypt, and flourished from the 9th to the 19th centuries, which is an extremely respectable run.  Because of southern Italy's unfortunate first-hand experiences with Saracens, "mammalucho" has long since become a term for a something of a dimwit.  In this case, however, the term refers to these seductive little bits of sweetness.  I'd have bought the whole tray if I'd known how much I was going to like them.

Frittelle are so last year. We wandered into a pastry shop near the Rialto and discovered “mamelukes,” which have totally overthrown every other Carnival delicacy in my world. The mamelukes, as you know, were a military caste in medieval Egypt, and flourished from the 9th to the 19th centuries. Because of southern Italy’s unfortunate first-hand experiences with Saracens, “mammalucho” has long since become a term you might use to refer to somebody who is a little slow of wit. In this case, however, the term refers to these seductive little four-inch-long bits of sweetness. I’d have bought the whole tray if I’d known how much I was going to like them.

Where frittelle are primarily fried dough, these are primarily I don't know what.  Bits of candied fruit, obviously, but there's a minimum of matrix.  I don't usually promote places (though I love to promote things, such as this), but you should know that these are created at the Pasticceria Targa at the address I so cleverly left visible in this photo.  That was not on purpose, but I guess it was meant to be.  I doubt that they'll be there before next year's Carnival, but this will give you something to look forward to.

Where frittelle are primarily fried dough, these are primarily I don’t know what. Bits of candied fruit, obviously, but there’s a minimum of matrix. I don’t usually promote places (though I love to promote things, such as this), but you should know that these are created at the Pasticceria Targa at number 1050 on the Ruga del Ravano.  I doubt that they’ll be there before next year’s Carnival, but this will give you something to look forward to.

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.

"Wednesday closed.  The ashes."  So either stock up now, or design your fishy menu.  Or buy pizza.  r whatever people do when they want to show how independent they are.

“Wednesday closed. The ashes.” So either stock up now, or go buy fish. Or pizza or hummus or tofu or whatever people eat when they want to show how independent they are.  “No meat today?  Fine.  I’ll just eat a couple of grilled scamorzas.”

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.

 

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Apr
07

Swamped by the seppie

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The sign says they're alive and they're marvelous, which we'd know without a sign.  This is either something like the miraculous draught of fishes, or something beginning to resemble the slaughter of the buffalo.

The sign says they’re alive and they’re marvelous, which we’d know without a sign. This abundance is beginning to approach the appalling.

I realize that cuttlefish do not loom large on many people’s culinary must-eat lists.  Nor, if you’re a sport fisherman, on your must-catch list.

Excuse me if I bring them up again, because contrary to any impression I may have given that I’m obsessed with them, I’m not, no matter how many times they undulate their way into my blog. They’re always here for a reason.  And the reason just now is because of their quantity this season, which is exceptional.

The plethora of seppie this spring is approaching the level of annoying. (Think of the brooms-with-buckets multiplying exponentially  in Fantasia‘s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  The situation here would be brooms-with-buckets-sloshing-with-seppie, more and more, on and on.) That’s what it looks like to me.

My delight — and I think Lino’s, too — in seeing (A) dazzling fresh seppie in the fish market and (B) dazzlingly low prices has been fading for a while now due to the sheer quantity of the tentacly treasures.  Something that once was a special treat has become a freaking fardel, a burden, practically a punishment. It’s become something like finding ourselves overwhelmed every day for weeks and weeks with Almas caviar, Wagyu beef, Swedish moose cheese, all floating on a high tide of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982.  Even all that would lose its appeal. We’d start dreaming of scrambled eggs. The seppie are proof of it.

First, we bought them, and we were happy in our simple pleasure.  Then the indefatigable fisherman upstairs gave us a bag.  And we rejoiced.  Then he gave us another bag, and we smiled.  Then Lino went to the rowing club and discovered buckets of the critters just removed from the fishing net; several people urged him to help himself, but he said, “No, but thanks just the same.”

I came home one afternoon and I could see by the ink by the front door that another gift of seppie had been bestowed on us.  That was back in March, when such a sight still made me smile.

I came home one afternoon and I could see by the ink by the front door that another gift of seppie had been bestowed on us. That was back in March, when such a sight still made me smile.

Now the phone rings, and it’s his son.  The nets that he and his friends put out by the fondamenta where he works have yielded up another major haul, and he says he’s got a bag ready just as soon as we can come by.  What could Lino say? Of course he said “Great, I’ll be there tomorrow morning.”  (I’d have preferred hearing him ask, “You don’t happen to have a kilo of Alba truffles, by any chance?” But that would have been so rude. And pointless.)

We put the last batch in the freezer, for Lord’s sake, something we never do because you can’t freeze the ink.  Only God knows how we’re going to eat all this.  Sandwiches.  Hash.  Croquettes.  Casserole surprise.  Parfait.

Lino says the next time he hears our neighbor’s boat returning, he (Lino) is going to close the shutters and turn out all the lights.  But I think we’d start hearing strange knocks on the door, and  look out to find a herd of seppie on the steps waving their tentacles and saying “What’s wrong with us?  You loved our parents.  Let us in!  Throw us in the pot!  Hurl us onto the griddle!  Send us to Valhalla with the seppie warrior-maidens!”

There are two sayings here, which mean the same thing:  “Piove sempre sul bagnato” (It always rains where it’s wet) and “Quando sei ubriaco tutti ti danno da bere” (When you’re drunk, everybody offers you a drink).  The seppie now need their own proverb.  I’m working on it.  It will be essentially the same idea, but squishier.

Our hardy seppie-slayer came back the other day and we paused to admire his haul.  He said he'd taken 30 seppie in just 15 minutes.  There were several in this bucket whose squishing and sucking noises let me to believe they were not exclamations of admiration for his skill.

Our hardy seppie-slayer came back the other day and we paused to admire his haul. He said he’d taken 30 seppie in just 15 minutes.  It’s like the massacre of the buffalo out there.  Several in this bucket were making squishing and sucking noises which I sensed were not exclamations of esteem for his skill.

 

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Nov
13

San Martino footnote

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Twenty-three euros and 70 cents comes to $30. I leave it to you to decide if any saint on earth would consider that reasonable. However, the cookie has a long and honorable history, and you can’t put a price on that. At least nobody has tried, so far.

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.

A contemporary illustration of the Swiss pastrymakers selling their wares. The caption reads (in Venetian): “The privilege granted to the Nation of the people of Graubunden to sell bussolai, and to have shops in any corner of the city whatsoever.” The historic sources for this information are scrupulously  noted: The Library of Samedan and San Murezzan (Upper Engadine), the Library and Archive of Chur, and the Marciana Library of Venice.

 

 

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