29 January 2012

LIFE: I Feel the Earth Shake Under My Feet

SARONNO, Italy - I didn’t need the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology to tell me we had another earthquake on Friday. The second this week. The Friday quake, which registered 5.6 on the Richter Scale, wasn’t as strong as the one on Wednesday, but scary nonetheless.  The building I live in is well built, secure and strong, it’s like a fortress, so to feel the bearing walls shimmer and shake like an exotic dancer was a bit unnerving.
Church in Santa Lucia, Tuscany
After the initial shake there were two more, one that registered 2.7 and another that registered 3.2. Fortunately there was little damage. The epicenter of the quake was in Parma, and so the first thing the authorities did was to stop all trains between Milan and Bologna. Then the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia checked all the train tracks, bridges and viaducts for any sign of damage. Everything checked out, but just to be on the safe side they reduced the speed of the trains traveling throughout the Province of Emilia Romagna. Dams and the local phone lines were also checked. 

Damage was minimal throughout the quake zone, and no lives were lost. In Santa Lucia, a borgo of Massa Carrara in Tuscany, a part of a church roof fell in causing damage to the interior. And in the town of Colorno, near Parma, statues fell from the facades of several buildings, and balustrades on exterior balconies that had been damaged by the quake on Wednesday, were damaged even further. Engineers and Civil Protection units from Colorno checked to see if there were deep cracks in any of the town’s buildings that would render them unsafe, but everything checked out ok. 
 Church of Santa Lucia
While the quake was most strongly felt in Tuscany, primarily in Massa, Pisa, Lucca, Livorno, Pistoia, Prato, Firenze and Arezzo.  Cinzia, a friend of mine from Savona, on the Italian Riviera, wrote on my facebook page that she had felt the shake where she lives too, and she lives in a real fortress on top of a very high hill. While there were no reports of evacuations in Savona or Genoa, schools and public buildings throughout Emilia Romagna were evacuated as were schools, the Stock Exchange, the Town Hall and La Scala Opera House in Milan.

In Saturday’s Corriere della Sera, Salvatore Barba, seismologist at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology commented on the magnitude of Friday’s 5.4 quake saying, "at 60 kilometers, (37 miles), Friday’s quake was particularly deep, much deeper than the 25-30 km (15-18 miles) which is the average depth of quakes in this area, and this certainly cushioned the effect.  In Aquila, the devastating earthquake of 2009, was only 7 km (4.5 miles) deep and resulted in wide scale destruction.” 
Milan's Stock Exchange
Personally, the news that the interior of the earth is shifting around miles and miles under my feet isn’t quite as comforting as Mr. Barba seemed to think it was. But he’s the expert.

While the earthquake scared the beejeebers out of a lot of people, including yours truly, there was only minor damage and no one was hurt. The Costa Concordia barely quivered but the quivering was minimal and given the tons of fuel on board, that is a very good thing.
Everybody Out -  Near La Scala Opera House
Unfortunately the problem is that authorities claim we are in the grip of a seismic swarm in the Apennine Mountain of Emilia Romagna, and that more earthquakes, much stronger than those already felt, will most likely occur. This may be the time to make one small pile of the things I don’t really want to live without, not that I think we are in any danger. It’s just a “just in case”.
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26 January 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: There's Something About ...

SARONNO, Italy - There is something about the sunny flavors in caponata that conjure up thought of sun and sea and Sicily. While the dish gets its name from one of its ingredients, capers, its main ingredient is eggplant (aubergines). Maybe the dish should be called melanzatta instead.
 Sicilian Caponata

Caponata is another example of a Sicilian dish whose origins lie in the Middle East. Like much of Sicily’s cuisine, caponata was introduced to the island by the Arabs. They ruled Sicily from the year 827 to 1061 and through their highly effective irrigation techniques, they brought water to the cities and the fields, a crucial element to farming in this arid land. In Palermo you can still see the subterranean waterways known as ‘qanats’. 

Street Market, Palermo, Sicily
They ruled Sicily for a little more than two centuries but their influence was nothing short of monumental. Under their administration, the island's population doubled as dozens of towns were founded and cities repopulated. By introducing irrigation techniques to the island, they were able to totally change what the Sicilians grew and ate. It was the Arabs who brought sugar cane, cotton, eggplant, dates, oranges and other citrus fruits to Sicily. And while you see their influence in many Sicilian recipes, more significantly, they changed Sicilian society itself. To this day, many social attitudes found in Sicily are direct decedents of the Arabs who ruled a thousand years ago.  
Eggplant on the Vine
There are a number of caponata recipes including those that call for artichokes or sweet peppers. But regardless of which recipe you use, the primary ingredient is eggplant, followed by celery, green olives, tomatoes (a modern addition), onions, capers, virgin olive oil, vinegar and sugar. The ingredients must be prepared carefully. The celery, for example, should not be overcooked and must remain firm. The cured or salted capers must be thoroughly rinsed. The eggplant may be slightly steamed and then saut├ęd, though some purists prefer frying.

Here's the basic recipe.

Ingredients: 8 medium size aubergines (eggplants), 200 grams of peeled mature tomatoes, 2 medium size sweet white or yellow onions, the heart of a large celery, 200 grams of pitted large cured firm green olives, 200 grams of capers (if salted soak in water and drain to remove salt), extra virgin olive oil, white vinegar, sugar, salt.

Preparation: Cut the unpeeled eggplants into chunks of about one inch (or two centimeter squares). This is not a “written in stone” recipe, so feel free to make adjustments. Cook the cubed eggplant by steaming it in a large, covered pot until completely cooked, but still firm. (Don't boil them.) Drain well and set aside. 

Chop the tomatoes into small pieces or a thick pulp, without discarding the juice or seeds. Chop the onions into medium pieces or thin slices. Cut the celery stalks into pieces about one inch long. Discard leaves. (It’s really best to cut eggplant, tomato and celery in more or less the same sizes, it makes it easier to eat). Cut the olives in half. 

In a large pan, saute the onions and celery pieces in olive oil. The celery should be lightly cooked, firm but not raw. Add the tomato pulp and bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes until the sauce changes color to a lighter red. At this point, simmer over low heat for another 4-6 minutes. Add the eggplants, olives and capers to the mixture. Also add a few tablespoons each of olive oil, vinegar and sugar. Stir gently and allow to simmer covered (steaming) for about five minutes over medium-low heat until mixture thickens but doesn't burn. 

Remove from heat and allow to cool. Salt to taste. Then chill for at least four hours before serving.

Caponata is also good as a vegetarian meal served over rice or couscous. 

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22 January 2012

LIFE: Costa Scruise Up

SARONNO, Italy – Maybe if it hadn’t been Friday the 13th, things would have turned out differently for Captain Schettino and his ship, the Costa Concordia, but it wasn’t to be. Thanks to recently recovered satellite navigation data we now what he did just before the cruise ship hit the rocks and began to capsize. 
Oh Captain, My Captain
The initial impact with the underwater rocks happened because he decided to deviate from the prescribed route – an error he has admitted. The new information shows that he knew the ship was in trouble and in an attempt to make evacuation easier, he performed a sort of nautical hand-brake turn to get closer to the island of Giglio. That maneuver is thought to have subsequently saved lives.

While the Captain has not publically come out and said why he wanted to sail close to the Island, a former Costa Cruise officer, who wants to remain anonymous, told me that a sail by salute to former and existing Costa crew members and officers is a well-known tradition at Costa. A Facebook posting by someone living on the island confirms they were waiting for the sail by salute.  
 The Costa Concordia at home in Savona (Photo by Victoria R.)
After the impact the ship headed away from Giglio towards the mainland. With the ship in total darkness, passengers were told that there was an electrical failure which the engineers were trying to fix. Some have accused the captain of misleading them, but, with 4,200 people on board, not panicking them until the extent of the damage was known seems understandable.

What is not clear is the Captain’s apparent failure to notify port or coastguard authorities of what had occurred although he claims that he did. He says he called the Admiral three times to report the incident and ask for help, but his calls were never returned. This has been denied by Costa Cruise Lines.
Dining Room Costa Concordia
The judge's view is that the captain, due to incompetence and negligence, underestimated the extent of the damage and failed to notify the coastal authorities of the accident in timely fashion. The emergency services center first learned of the seriousness of the situation through a passengers' cell phone calls to land. He said the captain could not help being immediately aware of the seriousness of the damage due to the ever increasingly evident tilt of the ship and because he was advised by the crew of the great amount of water being taken in.

Prosecutor’s transcripts published here in Italy show that Captain Schettino said that 
immediately after hitting the rock he sent two of his officers to the engine room to check on the state of the vessel. As soon as he realized the damage caused to the ship, he called the director of operations for Costa Cruises, Roberto Ferrarini.
The Spa on the Concordia
"I told him: I've got myself into a mess, there was a contact with the seabed. I am telling you the truth, we passed by Giglio and there was an impact," Mr Schettino said. "I can't remember how many times I called him in the following hour and 15 minutes. In any case, I am certain that I informed Ferrarini about everything in real time," he said.

However, Costa's chief executive, Pierluigi Foschi, told Italian state television that the company spoke to the captain at 10.05pm, some 20 minutes after the ship ran aground, but could not offer the ship suitable assistance because the captain's description "did not correspond to the truth".
Concordia's Room with a View
What emerges from the satellite "best guess" tracking of the ship's course is that 11 minutes after impact, at 9.53pm, the ship slowed to about three knots. A few minutes later, as the ship took on water, the captain tried to turn it back towards the island's port, but the ship started to tilt and sink. According to the satellite tracking record, the ship was listing by as much as 20 degrees to starboard, the opposite side of where the 150ft gash had been opened up. At 10.10pm the Concordia came to rest 50 meters from shore, listing badly, and the evacuation order was given.

The evacuation was described as chaotic but with several thousand people trying to get off the ship in the dark, it could hardly be anything else. Coming into question is Captain Schettino's role during this unfortunate event. He says he helped passengers into lifeboats, gave one his own life jacket and, at some point, he tripped and fell into a lifeboat, which seems highly unlikely. An initial reports show he left the ship around 11:30pm, when there were still about 300 people onboard. That resulted in the now notorious conversation with Captain Gregorio de Falco, the senior coastguard officer, in which he was ordered to go back on board.  

 The Dirty Details
Mr Schettino, a 52 year old native of Castellammare di Stabia, a town near Naples, is now under house arrest and faces possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship. He has been suspended and notified that the company will no longer pay his legal fees. In fact, Costa has signed on as a civil party in the prosecution. The former Costa Cruise officer I spoke with said in his opinion Costa is using Schettino as a scapegoat, not that Schettino didn’t make a lot of mistakes, but the blame is not entirely his.

In the meantime the search and rescue efforts for survivors and bodies continues and the operation to remove the 500,000 gallons of fuel in the Concordia’s tanks is on hold, an environmental disaster waiting to happen.  It may take up to four weeks to pump the remaining fuel from the ship. As the ship is no longer functioning, the heavy fuel oil can get thick and viscous, making it harder to pump. To remedy this, a steam-heated element is put through the pipeline to warm the oil, making pumping much faster. The oil will be pumped to a barge and then to a larger offloading vessel.
Who's Sorry Now?
Sucking out the oil creates a vacuum, so another hole is made lower down the tank to allow seawater to be pumped in, replacing the oil. This also ensures extracting the oil does not cause the ship to shift position on the seabed.

As for the Italians, they don’t know what to think. 

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19 January 2012


SARONNO, Italy –A few years back, when I worked for Women’s Wear Daily, I never worked alone.  None of the journalists did, nor do they now. We were always assigned photographers and one of my favorite photographers was Davide Maestri. It was Davide, who had started working for WWD when the office in Milan first opened, who knew all the ins and outs of covering the fashion world. Many of his photographs made the front pages of WWD, DNR, the mens fashion and fabric newspaper and all the other fashion industry papers Fairchild published at the time.
Classic Tiramisu
We covered a lot of assignments together not only in Milan but in Florence, Bologna and lots of other places in between. But Davide had one little quirk. He never wanted to eat in a restaurant that didn’t have Tiramisu’ on the menu. He loved Tiramisu. He was mad for Tiramisu,  so much in fact that over the years he had become a Tiramisu expert. He could tell you which restaurant in which city made the best Tiramisu, and why it was the best, and what was wrong with the others who didn’t make the cut.

I often teased him about his passion and said that he and I should write a book on Tiramisu, but he didn’t care about writing a book, he just liked to eat it. Even though the history of Tiramisu, like so many other Italian dishes, is a little muddled, the most colorful story of its inception dates back to the late 1800’s in a bordello in the northern town of Treviso, a short distance from Venice.
It seems that there was a lot of competition for clients between the bordellos of Treviso and as an incentive to attract clients, one bordello began offering a cup of espresso coffee to its patrons. The other bordellos in town soon followed suit. As competition heated up, some bordellos began offering savoiardi cookies (lady fingers) to dunk in the cups of espresso coffee, or a glass of wine or another alcoholic beverage.

One enterprising Madam, who probably didn’t have a sufficient supply of savoiardi cookies on hand, decided to combine the cookies with the coffee and bind it together with Mascarpone cheese and eggs. She named her dish Tiramisu, which means “pick me up” which some of her clients may have needed after visiting the “ladies” of the house. It may also have been an incentive to get the men up and out, instead of wanting to hang around and take a nap.
Trattoria Alle Beccherie, Treviso, Italy
This story is highly contested by the Trattoria Alle Beccherie in Treviso, which claims the dish was first prepared by their pastry chef, Loly Linguanotto, less than two decades ago. The truth maybe somewhere in the middle as the Trattoria is in a very old building in the historic center of Treviso and the bordello in question  may very well have been in the same building.

This recipe is from Giuliano Bugialli’s Classic Techniques of Italian cooking. Bugialli makes his own mascapone cheese and lady fingers,  but trust me, if you buy good brands of mascapone and lady fingers,  it will work just fine.
Serves 12

8 ounces of bittersweet chocolate
24 ladyfingers*
2 cups of strong espresso coffee cooled
6 eggs separated
6 heaping tablespoons of granulated sugar
1 lb of marcapone

*if using store bought ladyfingers toast them in a 375 degree oven for about 15 minutes.

Chop the chocolate coarsely.
Put the ladyfingers on a plate and lightly soak them with the cold coffee 
Arrange half of the ladyfingers in a rectangular or oval dish, at least 2” high
While the ladyfingers are soaking, use a wooden spoon to mix the egg yolks together with the sugar in a ceramic bowl. Mix until the sugar is completely incorporated and the egg yolks have turned a lighter color. Then add the mascarpone and stir gently. In a copper bowl beat the egg whites with a wire whisk until they are stiff. Gently fold the whiles into the mascarpone-egg yolk mixture.
Use half of this mixture to make a layer on top of the ladyfingers in the serving dish. Sprinkle with half of the chopped chocolate. Repeat the procedure to make another layer of soaked ladyfingers, the mascarpone mixture and the chopped chocolate.
Cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Here’s a video recipe for Tiramisu that is even easier than Bugialli's receipe.  In it, the chef calls the egg yolks the “red” of the egg, because in Italian the yolk is called the “rosso.” And if the video link doesn't work, here's the web site: http://aaron99.hubpages.com/hub/Tiramisu-The-History-of-legendary-Italian-Cake


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15 January 2012

LIFE: Mother and Daughter Together Again (in jail)

SARONNO, Italy  - While I was doing some research  last week I came across an article on Vanna Marchi, a former local television personality. It seems Vanna is now out of Milan’s San Vittore prison on an early release program and working at a local bar. That’s the same program that Patrizia Gucci turned down as it requires the convicted criminal to have a J.O.B. 
Vanna Marchi
In the early 90’s Vanna Marchi ran a profitable business selling magical cures on her popular late night television program. Viewers would call in and tell her their problems and she would offer them a solution. Some wanted to win the lottery, others wanted to know if their husband or wife was cheating on them or if a loved one was going to recover from a serious disease or operation. Others wanted to lose weight and wanted a little of Vanna’s magic to help them.  

One of her best-selling products was a “skinny belly” cream that she said had miraculous slimming properties. The cost of the offer was 3 jars for $100, which, in the early 90’s was a lot of money. Another slimming product made from micronized dandelion and algae extract, and I don't remember if you were suppose to drink it or rub it on your body.  
Vanni Marchi at Work
Throughout the entire TV transmission Vanna spoke in a very loud and shrill voice that apparently the viewers loved, especially her tag line, “d’accordooooooo?”, which is Italian for OK? She was so popular, the Pomodores, an Italian pop group, recorded a song about her entitled “Want to Marchi,” which was distributed on a single 7 inch 45 RPM vinyl in the late 1980’s.  She was also  on a TV show called Superclassifica, which has gone down in history as the beginning of trash TV in Italy. 

She was such a part of the Italian culture that she was hired to appear in a comedy film about a “snake oil” salesman back in the Middle Ages who claimed to have found a cure for the plague. It seemed la Marchi had made her mark – if you’ll excuse the pun.
Like Mother, Like Daughter
But then in the early 90’s she was arrested, along with her daughter Stefania Nobile, Mario Pacheco Do Nascimento, a self-styled Brazilian magician and Francesco Campana, her former lover and Vanna found herself in the center of a huge legal battle. She was convicted of fraudulent bankruptcy, a very serious charge in Italy, with a secondary charge of fraud and aggravated criminal association to commit fraud through her television program. 

Her initial legal problems centered around the fact that after she had declared bankruptcy and shortly thereafter was back on television as an employee of the Axe Company of Milan. The company owners were listed as Stefania Nobile, Vanna daughter, and the magician Mario Pacheco Do Nascimento. In other words, they were all still in business and the business was far from bankrupt.
Vanna and Mago Pacheco
In late 2001, she was arrested again – this time for fraud. She was charged with selling lucky numbers for the lottery and ritual kits guaranteed to make your every wish come true – even if that wish was to see your ex-husband hanging by his maroni in a public piazza. She also sold talismans and amulets against the 'evil eye,' something all Italian dread. In order to understand if your run of bad luck was just bad luck or the result of someone putting the ‘evil eye’ on you, viewers were instructed to dissolve a 2lb box of salt in a half a liter of water. According to Vanna, if the salt didn’t fully dissolve, that was proof positive that someone had put the ‘evil eye’ on you and it was in your best interest to buy one of her "solutions." What the callers didn't know was that sodium chloride (common salt), as all salts, has a limit of solubility in water. If the amount of salt exceeds a certain concentration, it can’t disolve and sinks to the bottom of the container. 

What I remember best were the people who called in asking for lottery numbers for specific lotteries, say the one in Naples, or the one in Catania. Everyone wanted a little of Vanna’s magic and they were willing to pay substantial amounts for it. Vanna sold that service as an investment. Little did the callers know that the lottery numbers, that were told were “customized” for each client were all the same number.
Vanna During the Trial
Vanna's career ended when daughter Stefania was recorded talking to clients who had called in and did not want to buy any of Vanna’s magical products. Stefania was heard wishing them “all the evil in the world”, and predicting terrible misfortunes in their lives. Well, you know how superstitious the Italians are. (See http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.com/2011/11/auntie-pasta-giving-thanks.html ) so of course many callers changed their minds and bought the useless products.

On April 3, 2006, Vanna Marchi and her daughter were sentenced to serve two years and six months for conspiracy to commit fraud and an additional 10 years for an assortment of other charges, as were Pacheco Do Nascimento and Francesco Campagna. They were also required to return more than 2 million euros ( $2.5 dollars) plus an additional 40 million euros ($50,000) to their victims.  
Is That Humble Pie?
 Poor Vanna Marchi. She’s come a long way from a popular television personality to a minimum wage bar maid in a local Milan bar, but I guess she feels that the embarrassment and humiliation of working for a living are better than sitting in jail. Maybe if she had a pet ferret and a couple of plants to keep her company, like Mrs. Gucci, it would have made a difference, but somehow I don’t think so. Nor do I think we’ve seen the last of Vanna Marchi.

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11 January 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Fried Shoes and Other Goodies

SARONNO, Italy – I was reading an article the other day about street food in Sicily and it mentioned a flat, fried cake called panella, that is made from chickpea flour. I had never heard of it and was surprised to learn that it has been around since the Middle Ages. Apparently it is one of the more popular street foods in Sicily and is sold where ever there is a street market, which is just about everywhere.
Lots of Big Appetites in Palermo
The article went on to say that panella is made with chickpea flour, with just enough water to form a thick paste, some chopped parsley, perhaps a bit of fennel seed, salt and pepper, then   deep fried. The cakes should be no more than about a half-centimeter thick, and about eight centimeters (3.5 inches) square, thought smaller sizes are popular too. The cakes should be cooked completely but not to the point of being completely crispy, with the inside being firm but also tender. 

Wait a minute. Except for the size, isn't what they are talking about here farinata, that manna from heaven found only in Liguria? What happened to the story about the sailing ship getting caught in a terrible storm and the bags of chickpea flour getting wet and the frugal Genovese scooping up the mess and frying it for the crew’s dinner? Isn’t that how this fried chick pea dish got started? What’s this business about the Arabs and chick peas in Sicily?  
Ligurian Farinata
The article went on to say that although chick peas were widely cultivated in the tenth century, they have been a food source for centuries. It also said that cicer arietinum, which I’m assuming is the Latin name for chick peas, was originally cultivated by Neolithic man in the Middle East, India and western Asia, domesticated from another variety of cicer reticulatum still grown in Turkey, and present in the central Mediterranean area during the Bronze Age. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated chickpeas, though probably not to the extent of the Arabs.  

That is all well and good but it doesn’t answer my question. How did chickpeas get from the Arabs in Sicily up to the Genovese sailors in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? Were there Arab sailors on that Genovese ship? Somehow I don’t think so. If that was the case the Genovese wouldn’t have had to wait until the sacks of chick pea flour got soaking wet by water splashing on board during a storm to figure out what to do with it, right? Wouldn’t the Arabs have said to them, look pal, all you’ve got to do is mix this stuff with a little water and fry it up and you’ll have yourself a tasty little treat? I'm sure the Genovese would have jumped on it since they love anything fried. In fact they are fond of saying, "even a shoe fried is good."
Sicilian Panella
While fried foods seem to be a big no no these days, the article also said that panella is so delicious you should eat it anyway, and besides it isn’t all that bad for you since it doesn’t require a lot of frying – although the amount of time it fries really doesn’t make much difference, it’s the frying part that’s worrisome.  And as an added incentive it said that chickpeas are a good source of zinc, iron and other minerals and folate, whatever folate is.  
Then, the article busted another one of my food myth bubbles and started talking about arancine, those delicious rice balls you find in almost every bar and delicatessen in Rome. The first time I lived in Italy, way before I moved here permanently, I lived on arancine. I was lucky that they tasted so good because they were all I could afford to buy, apart from my one a day all-inclusive three-course meal at the Delfino Self-Service Cafeteria at the end of Via del Corso. For me aracine were a Roman treat, and for years I marveled at how clever the Romans were to have invented such a simple, but delicious little snack of meat, peas and cheese all stuffed into a rice ball and fried. 
A Tasty Arancine
It turns out – at least according to the article – that arancine were also brought here in the tenth century during the Kalbid rule of Sicily. Stuffed with meat and coated with a light, crispy batter, rice balls are similar to foods based on recipes known in the Middle East during the Middle Ages. Their Italian name comes from the word for orange (arancia), which, if you are a very creative Italian, you can imagine that they sort of resemble oranges in color and texture even though those dots never really ever connected for me. At any rate, it turns out there are two types of arancine. Those made in western Sicily are round, like the ones in Rome, while those made in eastern Sicily (particularly around Catania) are often conical. Why? Don’t ask.

I didn’t even know they grew rice in Sicily. I thought Lombardy was the rice belt, but I am wrong once again. In fact the article states that there is no connection between the rice grown in Piedmont and Lombardy and that in Sicily. Rice was introduced to the island during the Arab period – the famous 10th century they keep talking about.  Of course, rice cultivation requires water so the Arabs had to build an innovative and efficient irrigation systems in Sicily, which looking at Sicily today which is very hot and dry, it’s hard to imagine. It’s true that the island was greener then and the climate was cooler, and that there were more streams that flowed all year round. It was a very different Sicily with navigable rivers and natural lakes. In such an environment the Arabs revolutionized agriculture and introduced new crops such as cotton and sugar cane.  
Time to Hit the Street Markets of Palermo
And then, they struck the final blow with the last line which stated: rice balls are the golden jewel in the crown of Sicilian cuisine. I think the only solution to my dilemma is to get back down to Sicily and stay there for a few weeks and see what else is going on down there that I don’t know about. I need to get to the bottom of this.
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08 January 2012

LIFE: La Befana

SARONNO, Italy - The Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated on January 6th, is  a national holiday in Italy. Technically it is an ancient religious festival celebrating the magi’s visit to the Christ Child. It is sometimes called “Three Kings Day” or “Twelfth Day” because it is celebrated twelve days after Christmas. 
 A Roman Befana
Part of the celebration in Italy is the arrival of La Befana, the good witch.  She comes down the chimney in the middle of the night and fills the stockings that the kids have hung on the fireplace. There are toys and sweets for those who have been good, and a lump of coal for those who have not. Sound familiar?

I remember my father talking about how excited he used to be about the arrival of the La Befana, and the joy of finding a couple of oranges in his stocking in the morning. Granted that was a long time ago in a small village in the hills outside of Rome where oranges were an absolute luxury at the time, but if you could see the faces of the kids here in Saronno this past week, I think you would agree that that sense of excitement still exists. There is something magical about someone flying in on a broomstick (or sled) and leaving gifts.
A Stocking full of Candy
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger with gifts for the Baby Jesus, they stopped at the hovel of an old woman to ask directions. Seeing her alone, they invited her to come along with them but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd, who was also on his way to visit the Baby Jesus, asked her to join him too, but again she refused.

Later that night, when a great light appeared in the sky,  the old woman changed her mind and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd and bring the Baby Jesus gifts that had belonged to her now dead child. She gathered the gifts and some food and like the Magi followed the star toward Bethlehem. Unfortunately she was not able to find the Magi, the shepherds or the new-born Jesus. Disheartened by this lost opportunity she stopped every child she saw along the way and gave each one a treat, hoping that one of them would be the Christ child. 
A Whole Parade of Befane
To this day La Befana continues her search for the Christ Child, using her broom, to fly from house to house. There’s even a little song about La Befana, that parents sing to their kids It goes something like this:

La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!

The Befana comes at night,
with her broken shoes
and raggedy clothes,
long live the Befana!

It's a lousy translation but you get the idea. I was thinking about inserting a video with the music for this ditty but I couldn’t get past the singing “chipmunk” voices, so I’ll leave that up to you. Then I found two videos showing the arrival of La Befana in Rapallo, a town on the Italian Riviera. In the first video she arrives by boat, this is the Riviera after all, and in the second video she’s in one of the piazzas giving away gifts. There is one scene in the second video of a little boy who does not want the small gift she is holding out to him, and points to the one he does want, a big box of something. 


It made me think of my father and how grateful he was to find a couple of oranges in his stocking. I guess that’s what prosperity creates, a sense of entitlement.

Popular tradition dictates that if you see La Befana, or worse yet, if she see you, she will give you a whack with her broomstick. This sounds like a page right out of my parenting playbook as a ploy to keep the kids in bed on the eve of the Epiphany, instead of up hiding behind the furniture trying to get a glimpse of the witch.

One of the biggest celebrations for La Befana is in the town of Urbania, in Le Marche region, where there is a 4-day festival during the weekend of the Epiphany.  Just like Santa Claus has his house up at the North Pole, La Befana has her house in Urbania, and each year between 30,000-50,000 people come to visit her there.
Befana Dolls in Piazza Navona, Rome
In Rome there is the "feast of the Befana" in Piazza Navona and the piazza is ringed with stalls selling candy, including lumps of black, sugar charcoal and toys, and pre-stuffed stockings for the little ones. You can also take part in an ancient Roman tradition of waiting for La Befana to appear in the window of one of the buildings in the piazza, or “fly in” at the stroke of midnight on January 6th with a sack of goodies for the children. 

Rome also celebrates with a procession in medieval costumes. They carry  symbolic gifts for the Pope and parade up the wide avenue that leads to the Vatican. Then the Pope says a morning mass in St Peter's Basilica to commemorate the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts for Jesus. 
 La Befana Flying into Town
The origins of La Befana dates back farther than the Roman's pagan festival of Saturnalia, which was a one or two week festival starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their fortunes told by an wise, old  crone.

Many pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations when Christianity became main stream and La Befana was a good substitute for the old woman who read the augers. The Italian word auguri originated from this practice as it was common to wish someone good augers, or as they say now, tanti aguri (best wishes), instead of Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. And that is what I wish for you – Tanti, tanti auguri per 2012. 

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04 January 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Use Your Zucca

SARONNO, Italy – For quite a long time I’ve have the idea that the food of Lombardy isn’t as interesting as the food found in other parts of Italy, Sicily for example, or Puglia or Tuscany or even Liguria.  
Tortelli di Zucca
But the longer I am here, the more I realize that there are certain Lombard specialties that I’ve grown very fond of, namely tortelli di zucca and mostarda. 

Tortelli di zucca, or pumpkin ravioli, are a specialty of Mantua, a small Lombard city near Verona. They grow the best pumpkins in the world in that area, the small, lumpy dark green ones, and they mix the pureed pumpkin with  crushed amaretti cookies, a Saronnese specialty I might add, grated grana padano, the Lombard version of parmegiano cheese and a few other things and make tortelli with it. 

 Pumpkins from Mantua
Zucca tortelli are a little sweet and they are usually served with spicy sweet and sour fruit mostarda, much like Thanksgiving turkey is served with cranberry sauce.  Tortelli di zucca is one of the dishes created after Colombus discovered America and pumpkins began to appear in the market places of Italy.  
That is not to say that pumpkins were greeted with open arms and their use here is still fairly limited.  Back in the day cooking guru Pellegrino Artusi did not include them in his cookbook “The Science of Cooking and Eating Well” as he didn’t consider pumpkins a suitable vegetable for the emerging middle class.

 Sweet, hot and spicy Mostarda
One of the more colorful sayings here in Lombardy is “use your zucca”, or use your head, or you’ll hear kids calling each other zuccahead.  In other words, it’s not exactly a compliment.  But be that as it may, this is still one of my favorite dishes. As for mostarda, I’ll save that for next week.


The Filling
Amaretti – 100 grams (pulverized)
Grana Padana (or Parmigiano) 100 grams grated
Nutmeg – q.b. (quanto basta/to taste)
Grated lemon peel – just a pinch
Salt and pepper – q.b.
Pumpkin – 600 grams peeled pumpkin
Mostarda (the pears are best for this recipe) 100 grams

The Pasta

Flour – 400 grams
Pinch of salt
4 medium eggs

Peel and clean the pumpkin; rinse it and dry it with a clean towel, and slice it (1). Put the pumpkin slices on a sheet of aluminum foil (2-3) and cook them in the oven for about 1 hour at180°  Celsius.  

When the pumpkin is tender, take it out of the oven and let it cool. (4). Mash it with a passaverdure or with a mixer (5). Then finely chop the pear mostarda (6).  

Add the chopped mostarda to the pumpkin (7) and then add the pulverized amaretti (8), mix it all together with a wooden spoon and then add the grated Grana Padana cheese, the grated lemon peel, the nutmeg and salt (9).

Mix it all together and let it rest for at least 10 hour (10) for the flavors to blend. In the meantime make the pasta for the tortelli (11). Mix the flour, eggs and salt and knead until smooth (12).  

Roll out the pasta and divide it into two equal parts. On one part place little balls of the filling mix, leaving at least 5 mm between each one (13) Brush the edges of the strip with water, cover it with the other part of the pasta and close the edges with your hand (14).  Cut the tortellini in squares using a pasta cutter, leaving a border of at least 4 cm (15). 

Let the tortelli rest on a floured board until you are ready to cook them.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt and the tortelli, stirring  them  gently with a wooden spoon.  Drain them in a colander  and dress them with melted butter and a sprinkle of grated cheese. Serve hot.  

If you don’t have the time or energy to prepare tortelli you can cook macaroni or rigatoni and use the pumpkin mix as a sauce, always topping the dish with melted butter and grated parmigiano cheese. The filling can sit for a day in the refrigerator, and it will actually taste better after the flavors have had a chance to develop.   

Note: It's important to cook the pumpkin in the oven and not boil it as it will be too watery. The same holds for using canned pumpkin. 

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01 January 2012

LIFE: It's a New Day, It's a New Year

SARONNO, Italy – Happy New Year – I think it’s the 1st of January and the beginning of a new year, but then again this is Italy and not everything is what it seems to be. Think I'm kidding? Well just ask those who still follow the Julian calendar and they’ll tell you today isn’t January 1st at all, but December 21st.

Not to get too embroiled in this topic, suffice to say that for centuries the then known world – i.e. the Roman Empire – operated on a calendar, called the Julian calendar after the Holy Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. It was made up of 355 days divided into 12 months, with extra time added every four years. During the leap year, an intercalary month was sometimes inserted between February and March, which meant that 22 or 23 days were added to the year, creating an intercalary year of 377 or 378 days. 

But, not quite.  For eight years out of 24, there were only three years with 377 days. This made the year longer by 365 ¼ days over the 24 year period. In addition, this adding and subtracting of days was not done on a fixed schedule, instead it was decided by the Pope. The Pope could put a few days in every second or third year if he wanted to, but there was no law that said he had to.

Julian Calendar
The problem was that the Popes were also politicians and could, and often would, change the calendar to suit their needs, sometimes at the last minute. This meant that the average Roman citizen was never really sure what the date was, especially if he was away from home and not getting the latest news bulletins from Rome on what day it was. You can see why the last years of the Julian calendar were known as the years of confusion. 

This really became a big problem in 63-46 BC, when there were only five intercalary months when there should have been eight, and none at all during the five Roman years before 46 BC. To appreciate the problem, let me just say that according to the official calendar Caesar crossed the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BC,  but the official calendar was so messed up he actually crossed the Rubicon months before that, in mid-autumn.
 Pope Gregory XIII

Enter Pope Gregory. The Pope’s chief astronomer Christopher Clavius reasoned that the problem was that the Julian calendar was too long. It gave each year 365 days of 6 hours in length. According to his calculations the actual average year was closer to 365 days, 5 hours and 49 minutes long. 

So the Pope, being a man of action, decreed that the day after Thursday, 4 October 1582 would not be Friday, 5 October, 1582, but Friday 15 October, 1582. He then declared the Julian calendar dead, long live the Gregorian calendar. 
Gregorian Calendar
If I were to tell you that everyone welcomed the new calendar with open arms, I would be fibbing. People were bitterly opposed to losing an entire week, but after a little arm twisting the Catholic countries, Spain, Portugal, Poland and Italy went along with it. Some of the others, France, a few of the states of the Dutch Republic and some of the Catholic states in Germany and Switzerland continued to resist, but within a year, they also complied.

The Protestant countries were a little more difficult to convince. It took some of them more than a century to come around and some of them didn’t adopt the new calendar until the 1700’s. By this time they were 11 days behind the Catholics. Great Britain and the American Colonies finally gave in in 1752, where Wednesday, 2 September 1752 was immediately followed by Thursday, 14 September, 1752. The last holdout, Sweden, finally got on board on 1 March, 1753.
Old Father Time Tarot Card
Over the next couple of hundred years the reluctance to conform continued, especially in parts of the world dominated by the Christian Orthodox church. It took the Russian Bolsheviks to finally institute the calendar in Russia in 1917, and the Romanians only accepted it when their King Ferdinand decreed it law in 1919. They were most unhappy that 1 November 1919 was suddenly transformed into 14 November 1919 but they were not about to argue with their King. The last Orthodox countries to accept the Gregorian calendar were Turkey and Greece, both in 1923.

And there are still holdouts. Some Orthodox churches still used the Julian calendar for fixed feast days, while using the Gregorian calendar for the rest of the time, and the Berber people of North Africa and on Mount Athos have never given in and continue to use the Julian calendar to this day. Must be fun when they are trying to book airline reservations. 

So now that you know all the trials and tribulations your new 2012 calendar has been through, you might want to hang it in an exalted position that it deserves, say over the fireplace, instead of tacking it up out behind the garage door. I’m just kidding, of course.  Happy New Year!