Yogurt’s Ancestor: Mezzorado, or Soured Milk in Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (1963)

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Kislo mleko on Šmarna gora

As I (Nico) was hiking in the mountains of beautiful Slovenia this summer, I came across one interesting dish: soured milk, or kislo mleko as they call it on the sunny side of the Alps. Made with one main simple ingredient (milk), it is nevertheless complex to make as it can easily go wrong – on one occasion, a farmer had to regretfully deny us soured milk, since that morning it just did not come out right.

Earlier this year, I re-read Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings in English) in preparation for a class. In this fascinating depiction of a Jewish-Italian family during the interwar and World War II periods, Natalia Ginzburg invites us to experience the everyday life of her family members, the Levis. Reading it now, I could not help spotting the various foods that are mentioned throughout the novel. A middle-class family, the Levis even in their liveliest and wealthiest moments always eat what we would find today as incredibly simple food: a clear soup (made with Liebig beef stock), an omelette, and of course soured milk or, as she calls it, mezzorado.

‘My father always got up at four in the morning. His first thought on waking was to go and see if the mezzorado had turned out well. Mezzorado was a kind of sour milk which he had learned how to make from some shepherds in Sardinia. It was in fact just yoghurt. In those days yoghurt was not yet the fashion. It was not sold as it is nowadays, in dairies and bars. In eating yoghurt, as in many other things, my father was a pioneer.’ (p. 31)

Mezzorado is, in Natalia Ginzburg’s memory, closely associated with her father. Giuseppe Levi, an Italian Jew, a professor of Human Anatomy at the University of Sassari, then Palermo, and finally of Turin, was obsessed with two things: mountains and soured milk. As Ginzburg describes it in the novel, he was truly a pioneer of yogurt as we know it today: often in the morning, with oats and dried fruits. Ginzburg remembers the difficulty of making the mezzorado through genuine descriptions of the interactions between Professor Levi and his wife, Natalia Ginzburg’s parents:

‘[…] the mezzorado was never as it should be, and always seemed to be to watery or too thick.

“Lydia! The mezzorado has not set,” my father bellowed down the passage. The mezzorado was in the kitchen, inside a soup-tureen, covered by a plate, and wrapped in a salmon-pink shawl that had belonged at one time to my mother. Sometimes in fact there was only a greenish watery mess with some lumps of marbly white stuff which had to be thrown away. The mezzorado was very tricky, and the smallest thing was enough to spoil it. It was enough if the shawl was a bit out of position and allowed a little air to seep in. “It has not set again today. It is all your Natalina’s fault,” my father bellowed from the passage to my mother who was still half-asleep, and answered rather incoherently from her bed. When we went away for our holiday, we had to remember to take with us the “mother” of the mezzorado which was a small cupful, wrapped in paper and tied with string.

“Where is the mother? Have you brought the mother?” my father would ask on the train, rummaging in the rucksack. “It’s not here, it’s not here,” he would cry, and sometimes it had actually been forgotten, and it was necessary to start again from scratch, with beer yeast.

My father had a cold shower in the morning. Under the lash of the water he let out a shout like a long roar, then he dressed and swallowed large cupfuls of freezing cold mezzorado with several spoonfuls of sugar.’

Natalia Ginzburg often records this type of exchanges between her family members in a way which is peculiar to her style of writing: she is a silent listener, reporting everything, yet hardly ever making judgements about her family; she is simply recreating a lost scene of former family warmth and affection. In the idiosyncrasies of Ginzburg’s family, we sense the daughter’s unconditional affection for her family: even the simplest dishes and the barest dialogues retain a deeper significance within the framework of her family world.

The mezzorado, as the author’s father correctly remarks, cannot be made without the “mother”: a bit like sour dough bread cannot be made without a starter (in Italian “madre”, mother), similarly milk should be soured with a starter (I have used yogurt, but you could use yeast, or leftover mezzorado). The mezzorado’s starter thus becomes almost a living component of the Levi family, with its “mother” status; it contains a bit of all the previous mezzorados and so we could extend the metaphor further, also containing a bit of all the members of this incredible family. After all, Professor Levi learnt this yogurt-making techinque in Sardinia, and brought it with him to Sicily and then Turin. Ginzburg’s family resembles mezzorado, where each and every one of its members become active parts of this unifying, yet lumpy texture that is soured milk.

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 500 ml full fat (whole) milk
  • 125 ml full fat yogurt

Directions

  1. If milk is cold, you will need to warm it up in a saucepan for a couple of minutes and then let it cool down so that it reaches room temperature (or slightly above room temperature).
  2. Place yogurt in a large bowl and mix with half of the lukewarm milk. Then add the rest of the milk and keep stirring until it looks quite smooth.
  3. Wrap bowl with a towel (it is hot in Italy now – you’ll need a woollen shawl in the UK, or in the winter) so that bowl surface is completely covered.
  4. Leave to rest for 12 hours at least, then uncover and you should have your primordial yogurt, your soured milk or Ginzburg’s mezzorado!
  5. Keep a bit of mezzorado and put it aside to start mezzorado without using fresh yogurt. We are sure you’ll love it and want to make it over and over again!

References

Natalia Ginzburg. Family Sayings. Trans. D. M. Low. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1989.

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