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.

Good Food, Not Just Any Food: Andrea Camilleri’s ‘Inspector Montalbano’s Arancini’ (1999)

Not long ago, I was informed by a student in an essay that the word ‘arancini’ had made its way into Oxford Dictionaries in 2014. This made me smile, of course, because it means Italian can still influence other languages –albeit mainly through food items. Then again, I find it hard to believe that such a specific Italian word for one type of Sicilian street food could be added to a dictionary of the English language: yet, I remember seeing the local Zizzi’s (a most popular “Italian” restaurant chain in the UK) advertise their new arancini (which, I suspect, I am not going to try soon, as I have made mine own!), and I can imagine they can be occasionally spotted here and there in some Italian restaurants in the UK, although I have not seen them frequently in their menus. At the same time, how could “arancini” (little oranges) be otherwise translated in English? Their name is reminiscent of warm, sun-ripened Sicilian oranges, whilst being in the shape of this fruit, but occasionally of pears too, and their connotation makes most Italians’ mouths water immediately with the crispiness of their deep-fried, breadcrumb coating, the juiciness of their savoury filling (which, indeed, reminds one of blood oranges), and the comforting texture of risotto.

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The ‘original’ arancini from a shop

Apparently of legendary Arab and Norman origins, like most original Sicilian food otherwise (remember Joyce’s blancmange/biancomangiare?), arancini are now the most wanted Sicilian street food across Italy. Andrea Camilleri viscerally connects his genial literary creation, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, with food, and most specifically with arancini. Those of you who are familiar with his novels and collections of short stories, or maybe have watched the series as it was broadcasted on RAI and BBC, will be familiar with Montalbano’s obsession with food. Actually, his obsession with good food. Montalbano is not one to eat voraciously, or even frequently: Montalbano takes his time eating, and most importantly he is one of those that he would probably not eat at all if he were to eat bad food. This is importantly also symbolical of his own relationship with Livia, his long-term, long-distance girlfriend. Livia is from Northern Italy (she lives in Genoa, and often visits Montalbano at weekends where she is repeatedly neglected because of the Inspector’s job duties) and is “obviously” depicted as a bad cook, and is praised in the rare occasions when she manages to prepare something vaguely acceptable for Montalbano. In order to prevent her from cooking, Montalbano often suggests taking her out for dinner to his favourite restaurant (Calogero’s) in Vigata, the imaginary Sicilian town where all of his stories are set: their relationship always appears of the oscillating kind, partly and perhaps also because Montalbano ultimately fails to let Livia cook him food, and so feed him. While he is occasionally depicted as doing it for her, she is negated this possibility of making her love for Montalbano explicit by way of her culinary preparations. His taste and high ideals of food and cooking do not match with hers: while Camilleri here obviously hints at the never-ending suspicions of Southern Italians towards Northern Italian cuisine, he is also really trying to portray the relationship between Montalbano and his loved one as unstable and complex for their different personalities, their living far apart, but also because of their opposite conceptions of food. Montalbano, while disregarding Livia’s cooking skills, always praises his maid Adelina’s Sicilian skills as a cook.

And so, it is not by chance that in the short story ‘Gli arancini di Montalbano’ (‘Montalbano’s Arancinis’) Camilleri has Montalbano argue with Livia, reason why they will not spend New Year’s Eve together, and has him opt for a night with arancini instead, carefully prepared by his maid. But this won’t prove to be an easy task: Adelina’s criminal son will get in the way, and the circumstances will make him dread the idea that he might not taste those gorgeous savoury “oranges” on New Year’s Eve: but he is, after all, a most successful inspector…

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Arancini

Adelina’s Recipe (adapted and revised by Nico)

Ingredients

(Since Adelina’s recipe in Camilleri’s short story does not have an indication of measures etc. I have adapted those myself.)

  • 250gr beef mince (Camilleri’s Adelina actually says you should use a mixture of pork and veal mince, but I have used beef mince as that is easier to purchase in the UK, and also because the idea is that one should make a kind of Bolognese sauce, and I normally use beef mince for that)
  • 250ml tomato passata
  • ½ small onion
  • herbs (parsley, basil)
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 300gr Arborio rice
  • saffron (now, be very careful: Adelina does not use saffron – saffron risotto being typically Northern Italian, and not Southern Italian, but, to be entirely honest with you, I prefer the inside of my arancini to be yellow and lightly saffron flavoured)
  • 1 egg
  • ½ small tin of petit pois
  • béchamel sauce/cheese (now, I haven’t added either béchamel sauce or mozzarella because in my head typical beef arancini don’t contain either things, but Adelina says she adds a little béchamel. I have also seen cheese in beef arancini occasionally; more often, though, in cheese-and-ham arancini, which is another typically Sicilian variety)
  • flour and breadcrumbs for coating
  • sunflower/vegetable oil for deep-frying

Directions

First of all, as Camilleri says, good arancini are made very slowly. His Adelina apparently takes two whole days to make them. My recent attempt at making these went slightly wrong because I did not follow two major rules for successful arancini-making: 1- be patient, and 2- make risotto (I boiled rice instead, as I was in a hurry…). Whilst patience is a rather difficult virtue at times, making risotto is an inescapable step to make good arancini. And in fact, making risotto takes roughly the same amount of time as boiling rice (20 minutes), so I am not sure why I went for this rice preparation which reminded me very much of sushi making- maybe, in a moment of distraction, I thought I was going to make saffron-infused sushi rice balls (which I could try and make some other time, and maybe include them in some novel, or poem). But now, let’s start explaining how to make proper (hopefully Montalbano-approved) arancini!

  1. Make the sauce first, I would recommend making this the day/night before, so that it is already ready when you are making arancini.
  2. To make the sauce, follow Nico’s recipe for Italian tomato sauce (as in my earlier blogpost on E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread), only quickly fry beef mince after onions have got golden brown, and before putting in the tomato passata. Cook slowly for at least half an hour. Add petit pois at the end and cook for another 10 minutes or so.
  3. Leave the sauce to rest (it will taste even better the day after, when you will need it to make arancini), and get started on making risotto now.
  4. Chop half of a small onion and fry it with some olive oil and a clove of garlic. When the onion is golden brown, remove garlic clove and add rice, with a splash of white wine, and add boiling stock to the rice. Add hot water when needed, continue stirring the risotto so that it won’t stick to the pan, and rice will be cooked in about 20 minutes. As I mentioned before, I would add saffron (if you do, then after adding hot water), but it is not necessary.
  5. Leave the rice to cool.
  6. When the rice has got cold, add an egg so that the rice mixture will stick together more easily.
  7. Now the fun part begins – if you ever liked playing with PlayDo as a child, this is for you! Make balls (as big as oranges) with your risotto, and add a big spoonful of sauce in the middle of the rice ball. Make sure the sauce stays inside and is fully covered with rice.
  8. Heat the sunflower oil in a deep saucepan and prepare a mixture of flour and breadcrumbs on a plate. The oil will be hot enough and ready when you throw a breadcrumb in the oil, and it immediately starts frying. This is really important – if your oil is not hot enough, your arancini will start to crumble and your breadcrumbs will go everywhere in the pan!
  9. Roll your rice balls in the flour and breadcrumbs, and place them in the oil in the frying pan. After a couple of minutes turn them so that both sides become golden.
  10. When your arancini are of a nice golden brown colour on the whole of their surface, take them out of the pan (be careful not burning yourself as the oil will be very hot!) and place them on a plate with kitchen paper (to absorb the oil).
  11. To be served hot!
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Nico’s ‘slightly’ less-than-perfect arancini!

 

A Literary History of Chocolate: Part 2

Similarly to England, in the early eighteenth century Italy saw the arrival and diffusion of the tea, coffee and chocolate, and the latter two in particular become particularly popular, with the creation of ‘botteghe del caffè’ (coffee houses), where you could also taste the miraculous chocolate drink – attitudes towards it were of course mixed, with one physician (Dr Giovanni Batista Felici) at the Tuscan court in 1728 proclaiming chocolate as cause of shortening human lives, and must never be mixed with ‘hot’ ingredients, such as cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, cloves, ambergris, and achiote. Because of chocolate ‘certain serious and taciturn persons […] become for a while the greatest chatters, some lose sleep and get hot-headed, others become angry and shout. In children it awakens such an agitation that in no way can they be quiet or sit in one place.’ According to the same doctor, chocolate was only good against consumption or tuberculosis (!), but of course not because something is good for one illness means it is necessarily good for health! About thirty years later (1760-1), again in Italy, in the pages of Gazzetta Veneta Gaspare Gozzi praises chocolate as:

Excellent drink however you prepare it, it is refreshing and energizing, precisely to restore our strength and give more vigour. It manages to contrast our bad moods, fortify our stomach, brain and all other vital body parts, it softens all serious matters falling from our brain to our heart, it helps digestion and against wine-induced stupor.

Gazzetta Veneta obviously was a magazine based in Veneto, the area of Venice, and it was especially Venice in Italy in the 18th century which was particularly associated with chocolate and coffee-houses, and with noblemen and intellectuals sipping their days away at the cafes, with a cup of either hot drink and leafing through newspapers.

It was Carlo Goldoni in particular (1707-1793), a famous Venetian lawyer and playwright who celebrated the drinking of chocolate in Venetian and Northern Italian scenarios in his plays. He is mainly remembered for his reform of the Italian theatre and for his witty comedies, which are still commonly performed in Italy: his characters often sip cups of hot chocolate over breakfast, at the beginning of scenes while waiting for action to take place, or while pleasantly conversing with other characters.

At times, hot chocolate also gives way to comical scenes, as in La locandiera (The Mistress of the Inn, 1753), where two guests (Cavaliere di Ripafratta, a misogynous aristocratic ‘knight’, and Marchese di Forlipopoli, a penniless ‘marquis’ and in love with the innkeeper) at the inn run by the protagonist, Mirandolina, in Florence, ironically “duet” over a cup of hot chocolate. In Act I, Scene XI, the Cavaliere had asked the servant to bring him a cup of hot chocolate with his mail. Just when the servant eventually gives him his chocolate, the Marchese tells him his farmer is giving him quite a lot of trouble, and so the Cavaliere feels compelled to offer him his cup, only to find that is the last hot chocolate at the inn (Act I, Scene XIII):

Enter the SERVANT with the chocolate.

CAVALIER: Oh I am sorry… Get me another, right away. (To Servant.)

SERVANT: At present there isn’t any other in the house, your lordship.

CAVALIER: You must get it. If you would be so good as to accept this… (To Marquis.)

MARQUIS: (Takes the chocolate and drink sit without ceremony, keeping on talking and drinking at the same time.): This overseer of mine, as I told you… (Drinks.)

CAVALIER: And I shall go without. (Aside.)

MARQUIS: He promised to send me by post… (Drinks.) twenty sequins… (Drinks.)

CAVALIER: Now he comes with a second thrust. (Aside.)

MARQUIS: And he has not sent it to me… (Drinks.)

CAVALIER: Maybe some other time.

MARQUIS: The point is… the point is… (Finishes drinking.) Here. (Gives the glass to the servant.) The point is that I’m in great difficulty, and I don’t know what to do.

[…] The Marchese asks the Cavaliere to lend him twenty gold coins, and with his eloquence the Cavaliere manages to only give him one gold coin, and yet what he regrets the most is having had to give up on his cup of hot chocolate:

Act I, Scene XIV.

CAVALIER (alone): Fine! The Marquis wanted to extort twenty sequins from me and then he is contented with one. After all it doesn’t matter much if I do lose a sequin, and if he didn’t pay it back he wouldn’t bore me any more. What displeases me mosti s that he drank my chocolate. What impudence. And then, “I am who I am, I am a gentleman.” Oh most polite gentleman!

The last cup of hot chocolate available at Mirandolina’s inn is indeed most precious and the Cavaliere let the Marchese have it, who did not even say thank you!

In La bottega del caffè (The Coffee House, 1750), hot chocolate is even used in the dialogue between two characters, Eugenio, merchant with a gambling addiction, and Lisaura, a dancer, giving way to a crescendo of sexual innuendos not unlike that of a Catherine and Petruchio (Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), a great entertainment for the audience at that time, and nowadays (Act I, Scene XII):

LISAURA. I am your most humble servant.

EUGENIO. Dear Madam, when did you get up from your bed?

LISAURA. Just now.

EUGENIO. Have you had your coffee yet?

LISAURA. It is still early. I haven’t drunk it yet.

EUGENIO. Would you like me to order it for you?

LISAURA. Thank you very much, but please don’t worry about it.

EUGENIO. Not at all, I am surprised you haven’t had it yet: hey, boy, bring some coffee, or chocolate, to that lady – anything she likes, I am paying.

LISAURA. Thank you, thank you, but I make my own coffee and chocolate at home.

EUGENIO. Your chocolate must be pretty good then.

LISAURA. Actually, it is perfect.

EUGENIO. Can you make it well?

LISAURA. My servant is quite talented.

EUGENIO. Would you like me to give your chocolate a little whip?

LISAURA. Ah, you shouldn’t worry about it.

EUGENIO. I will come and drink it with you, if you let me.

LISAURA. It is not for you, Sir.

EUGENIO. I like everything; come on, open the door, we’ll spend a nice hour together.

LISAURA. Please excuse me, but I don’t open the door that easily.

EUGENIO. Hey! Do say, would you rather me come for the back door?

LISAURA. My visitors come publicly.

EUGENIO. Come on, open the door, let’s not make a scene.

(Nico’s translation)

From this quick exchange between Eugenio and Lisaura, we already understand how it was common to drink hot chocolate in the morning (while it is too “early” for coffee), and that it could easily be made at home (Lisaura has it made by her servant, for instance) or order it (Eugenio offers to get it for her). The whole dialogue then escalates to a vocabulary of sexual hints, with Eugenio insisting on coming into her house, offering her chocolate and to give her chocolate ‘a whip’, with Lisaura always rejecting his propositions, as she is not one to open ‘her door easily’…

Chocolate, over most its history, had been a drink for the elite, rather than for everyone: it was only with the Industrial Revolution that we witnessed to chocolate’s change from a costly drink to a cheap food, and indeed changing from its typical liquid form to the one we know best these days: solid chocolate bars, chocolate pralines, truffles, and so on. Chocolate becomes a food for the masses rather than just the elite. The development of modern medicine also helped with the increase of people consuming chocolate in the nineteenth century: chocolate was finally released from beliefs of its therapeutic virtues, which meant that ‘anyone, anywhere, was able to take chocolate whenever they chose, in any form they preferred […], [n]o longer did they have to fret over whether chocolate or its flavorings were “hot”, “cold”, or “temperate”, “dry”, or “moist” (Coe 241). So if the eighteenth century saw the spread of chocolate as a drink across Western and Southern Europe, the nineteenth century turned chocolate into a much more common food, but mainly in its new, solid form. And yet, despite its increase in diffusion, popularity and affordability, chocolate does not seem to feature very prominently in nineteenth-century texts. Was it perhaps too enjoyable, too “lascivious” almost, for literates from that time, especially in rigid Victorian England?

References

Goldoni, Carlo. The Mistress of the Inn (La Locandiera). Wisconsin Dramatic Society, 1912.

Goldoni, Carlo. The Coffee House (La bottega del caffè). My translation of Liberliber text.Cioccolata_025cr

Italian Style Hot Chocolate

250ml milk

50gr granulated sugar

20gr potato starch

30gr cocoa powder

1- Sieve potato starch and cocoa powder together , then add sugar in a small saucepan.

2- Add milk gradually, and whisk so as to get a smooth mixture.

3- Place the saucepan on low heat and keep stirring with a whisk.

4- Be careful, your hot chocolate should never boil! Your hot chocolate will be ready once it thickens (around 5 mins) – remove from the heat and pour in a nice cup with whipped cream on top, if you like!

When you miss home: saltless Tuscan bread in Dante’s Paradiso (La Divina Commedia, c. 1304-1321)

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As I (Nico, clearly) am about to leave Italy once again, and as migrants and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East sadly gallop through Southern Europe to reach the better-off North, the Literary Kitchen today will offer you something from a most famous Italian writer who went through political exile: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante was, of course, a privileged exile: being already a famous individual at the time, when he was forced to go on exile in 1302 by the opposite political party (the Black Guelphs) coming to power, he was welcomed and hosted by several important Italian families and courts of the time, amongst whom the Malaspinas in Romagna, the Scalas in Verona and finally at Guido Novello da Polenta’s in Ravenna, where he died in 1321.

Dante’s masterpiece, La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), is, to an extent, a reflection on the theme of exile. In this epic poem Dante imagines to be undertaking a journey through Hell, Purgatory (at the time, a rather new “invention”), and Heaven. The whole journey takes place in the days around Easter in 1300, and the poem is filled with prophecies of things that will happen to Florence and the Florentines, relations to specific souls from the three otherworldly kingdoms, and of course Dante himself. Throughout this journey, various souls interrogate him on the state of things on Earth (mainly Florence/Italy) and give him advice and foresee his future (although what Dante is told is effectively not much of a prediction, after all, as he already knows what is going to happen to him when he is writing, as he writes years after 1300): one of these “predictions” is naturally his exile from beloved Florence.

Dante receives confirmation of his exile precisely from the soul of his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida degli Elisei, in Paradiso XVII. Blood of his own blood, Cacciaguida cannot obviously lie to Dante and so he “foretells” his exile: ‘tal di Fiorenza partir ti convene’ (Pd XVII, l. 48, ‘such must thou depart from Florence.’). Cacciaguida particularly lingers on the suffering Dante will have to go through during his exile:

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta

più caramente; e questo è quello strale

che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale

lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle

lo scendere e’l salir per l’altrui scale.

(ll. 55-60)

(‘Thou shalt leave each thing beloved most dearly: this is the first shaft shot from the bow of exile. Thou shalt prove how salt the savour is of other’s bread; how hard the passage, to descend and climb by other’s stairs.’)

Many are the things Cacciaguida lists as terrible in Dante’s future exile: he will leave every beloved thing, he will see Florence fall in the violent hands of the wicked Black Guelphs, but especially he will have to beg – and, incidentally, eat a type of bread which is not the one from his country. He shall try how salty other people’s bread is: ‘salt’ in Italian is of course the ingredient itself, but the adjective ‘salato’ (salty) is also used to indicate something expensive, or hard to come by. And so, most commentators and scholars of Dante have glossed this line pronounced by Cacciaguida as the exile’s bread being expensive, and also bitter, because one has to beg for it in order to obtain it. But that is just one side of it: Dante’s great-great-grandfather is also warning him that the bread he will find outside Florence, and Tuscany, is indeed different, as it does contain salt. Tuscan bread even today is hard to find outside the region of Tuscany, mainly because of its complete lack of salt, which gives it a quite unusual taste. This type of bread (‘pane sciocco’, in Italian silly bread, or saltless bread) is indeed ideal to be eaten with a sprinkle of olive oil on top, to accompany dishes with a strong flavour, or even just to be enjoyed by itself, once one gets adjusted to its distinct neutral flavour, porous texture and crusty top.

And so Cacciaguida is also warning Dante that not just politics, customs, and climate are different outside Florence, but even bread – indeed, the simplest food – is, and that will make his exile even more painful, despite his hosts’ generosity. No matter our situation, it is those small, silly things from our own home country we end up missing the most when we are abroad. I still remember how I was once stopped at the security in an Italian airport, and asked to open my carry-on. This was filled with Italian goodies, which made the security guy laugh heartily, and add jokingly: ‘You don’t need to show me your boarding card, Miss.’ He glanced at the departures board and exclaimed: ‘For sure you’re flying to Edinburgh, and not Madrid or Paris!’. I smiled of course, and when he continued with a question on British food, whether it was really bad as it was perceived all over Europe, he was a little surprised by my reply: ‘No it is not bad at all, but one cannot help missing food from home. Food you are used to. Food you were given as a child…’ It does not matter what it is: it can be a particular spice from India which you can’t find anywhere else, a type of Italian biscuits, a strong French cheese, or difficult-to-check-in German sausages and Greek olive oil. It can also be a bread without salt, which perhaps only real Tuscans can appreciate, and you my dear readers will find tasteless; but, if you cared to make it, here is how, and you will not regret experiencing a very simple flavour from medieval Italy, spiced with an exile’s nostalgia for home…

Recipe (makes one big loaf or two small ones)

Ingredients

500gr white flour

1 sachet dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar

2 cups warm water

Directions

  1. Dissolve one sachet of dry yeast in a cup of warm water.
  2. Pour the mixture of yeast and water over the white flour (previously placed in a large bowl).
  3. Stir the mixture and start kneading.
  4. Dissolve a teaspoonful of sugar in a cup of warm water, and pour over the dough and knead for about 10 minutes.
  5. Leave dough in the bowl and cover with a plastic film and leave in warm place to rise for a couple of hours (but the more the better really!).
  6. Remove dough from the bowl and knead it onto a surface with your hands dusted in flour – the dough will have to be a bit sticky, so do not add to much extra flour to it.
  7. After kneading it for a couple of minutes, shape it into whatever form you prefer for your bread and place it onto a greased baking tray.
  8. It is ready to be baked in the oven at 200°C for 40 minutes!
  9. When the crust has become all golden, take it out of the oven and place it onto a grill to cool.

References

Dante Alighieri. La Divina Commedia: Paradiso. Ed. Umberto Bosco and Giovanni Reggio. Florence: Le Monnier, 2002. (English translation used: Harvard Classics available online).

Italy vs. England: E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)

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Shortly before I moved to the UK for my Ph.D., my father took me aside and told me I could not leave Italy before first having learnt how to make a proper salsa al pomodoro, a tomato sauce. At the time, I was compiling a recipe book with all the recipes from home I was sure I would have missed when abroad, and that I wanted to be able to make for my future British (and non-British) friends. So when my father offered to show me how he makes his own sauce, I thought I would add it to my recipe book. And so it happened, and I am sure for most of my housemates and friends during my time in the UK, I was the crazy Italian person who could not bear to buy a tomato sauce in a jar, or a tin, or plastic tub, or anything really, but had to make it from the scratch — every single time.

Tomato sauce is quintessentially Italian, of course, with its essence of sun and the Mediterranean, its shallow aftertaste of onions mildly cutting through the tomatoes’ texture, and its beautiful colour of ripeness, so it is no wonder that E. M. Forster should choose this particular dish to represent Italian culture and character, in his first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (originally entitled ‘Monteriano’, after the name of the fictional Tuscan town where the story takes place). Italy, much like in the later, more successful novel A Room with a View, features in Forster’s story as a character in its own right: it is almost as if Italy were used to mould the British characters’ actions, urging them to behave in a less restrained manner, and in a way which is truer to their actual nature. Lilia, a British widow, falls in love with a dashing young Italian man, twelve years her junior, and marries him without much thinking about it; Caroline, Lilia’s friend, eventually falls in love with the same Italian man after Lilia’s death; Philip, Lilia’s brother-in-law, first restrains himself and then cannot but fall under the spell of Italy’s charms.

When the British widow’s family (actually, her dead husband’s family, rather than hers) runs to her rescue by sending Philip to Italy, who cannot but witness the fact that Lilia has already got married to Gino, the first, memorable meeting between Lilia, Gino, her friend Caroline, and Philip takes place at a dinner-table before a hearty plate of spaghetti:

 

‘Dinner was a nightmare. […]

For the youth was hungry, and his lady filled his plate with spaghetti, and when those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred time – seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.

Conversation, to give it that name, was carried on in a mixture of English and Italian. Lilia had picked up hardly any of the latter language, and Signor Carella had not yet learned any of the former. Occasionally Miss Abbott had to act as interpreter between the lovers, and the situation became uncouth and revolting in the extreme. Yet Philip was too cowardly to break forth and denounce the engagement. […]

Signor Carella, heartened by the spaghetti and the throat-rasping wine, attempted to talk, and, looking politely towards Philip, said: ‘England is a great country. The Italians love England and the English.’ ’ (p. 23)

 

Spaghetti_002cr

 

How can any dinner featuring some Italian wine and a plate of nice spaghetti be a nightmare, really! But of course, if spaghetti these days are common everywhere in the world, and even the Italian term has seldom been translated into other languages, at the time it was something which one could only really find in Italy. Forster’s Italy becomes thus embodied by its signature dish, the tomato sauce spaghetti. The scene’s focus is deliberately on Gino in the act of eating his plate of spaghetti (despite the fact that they are all participating in that meal): the Italian man is hungry, for life and for food, he is young, and he is, indeed, the rightful eater of that dish. Eating that worm-shaped food makes Gino lose whatever look he had of a gentleman still left in him: eating spaghetti cannot be but “messy”, with the sauce going everywhere, and one does require a little training with their fork (please don’t use a spoon!) in order to master the sublime art of eating spaghetti without having the sauce all over one’s face (or one’s shirt, in fact). Amongst all Italian national dishes, tomato sauce spaghetti is perhaps the one dish which best suits this incredible first encounter between nations at the dinner table: sensual, messy, earthly – especially if compared to the tea the English composedly drink throughout the novel! Forster’s ‘succulent, flavourful and satisfying’ spaghetti is the dish that best represents the Italian soul: ‘unreserved and passionate’. About food.

 

 

Spaghetti al pomodoro / Tomato sauce spaghetti

 

Ingredients

spaghetti, of course – in Italy, we tend to consider 70-80g dried pasta per person as a ‘regular’ portion, but that’s because we divide our main course into first and second course; if you’re aiming to make of this your single main course then aim for 100g (or more, depending on your hunger!) dried spaghetti. TIP: so that the spaghetti don’t become too long while cooking (they can entangle quite badly), break them in half before boiling them.

For the sauce: (will feed about 12, you can also freeze it or keep it in the fridge for a few days)

1 garlic clove

¼ onion (I prefer brown onions)

700g passata

olive oil

 

Directions

  1. Chop the garlic clove in two and cut the quarter onion extremely finely (you may want to use an electric food chopper/processor for this, or a typical Italian kitchen utensil, the mezzaluna knife). Place the chopped onion and garlic in a saucepan.
  2. Add a little olive oil and sauté the onion and garlic.
  3. Once the onion has turned golden, take the garlic out of the saucepan (yes! We are not garlic-lovers I am afraid) and pour the tomato passata over the sautéed onion.
  4. Cook the passata with onion at a high heat until it starts boiling, then turn it down to the lowest heat, making sure the sauce goes on boiling very slowly for about 45-50 minutes – then switch off the heat, and you’re done!
  5. Very important: don’t forget to stir the sauce every five minutes or so – the trick in a good tomato sauce is (apart from good passata) in never leaving the sauce alone!
  6. Bring some salted water to boil and then cook the spaghetti for about 10 minutes (or for how long it says on the package).
  7. Buon appetito!

 

References

Jan Ondaatje Rolls. The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014.

 

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