27 February 2012

LIFE: Awww, Nuts

SARONNO, Italy – Now here is a perfect example of why it took Italy more than 2,000 years to unite. Last week I posted a recipe for nut sauce (http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.com/2012/02/auntie-pasta-nuts-to-you.html) that was credited to Bartolomeo Stefani, chef to the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua. It was a typical Renaissance dish served in the princely court of Mantua. 

Freshly Peeled Walnuts
I don’t remember saying that the Mantua nut sauce was the ONLY nut sauce in Italy, and so I don’t know what the Ligurians  are so worked up about. Everyone knows that the Ligurian nut sauce is way older than the Mantua nut sauce, which may make it the first nut sauce developed on these shores. The key word is may. 

 Sicilian Nut Pesto and Pesto Rosso
If you do an internet search for “nut sauce” you’ll find more than one web site offering recipes for nut sauce including http://www.makepesto.com/classics/sicilian-nut-pesto/ which offers a nut and basil pesto recipe which is even more stripped down than mine. Here, take a look.
Sicilian Nut Pesto
1 bunch basil, leaves picked
1 – 2 cloves garlic, peeled & chopped
1 cup cashews
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
squeeze lemon
Whiz together in a food processor. Eat.
They even call their sauce “pesto” which rankles the Ligurians no end. Truth be known any sauce that you make by pounding the beejeebers out of a bunch of ingredients can legitimately be called “pesto” since pesto comes from the verb “pestare” which means to pound.
Except for the fact that the Sicilian nut pesto recipe calls for cashews, which don’t grow in Italy, the connecting thread for all of these nut sauces is that when they were developed at a time when people made food out of whatever ingredients they found in their area. If they were rich, like the Gonzaga Dukes, they could afford to add exotic bits like cinnamon and nutmeg and jazz the dishes up a bit but otherwise they were limited to what grew outside their door. Think about it, if you walked out your door today and tried to put together a meal using what you found growing about your house or apartment, how successful would that be?
For me it would mean a gloppy soup of chopped grass and boiled twigs. Not particularly appetizing, so I give the Italians a lot of credit for what they managed to do with a handful of nuts.
For the sake of equality of all, here’s the Ligurian recipe,  “Tocco de nux”, which is delicious served with Genovese pansotti (little bellies), a Ligurian version of ravioli.

Ligurian Tocco de Nux

Garlic  - 1 clove  
Milk - 250 ml
Marjoram – small bunch of fresh
Walnuts – 250 grams
Extra virgin olive oil – ½ glass

Crustless bread – 40 grams
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese – 40 grams
Pine nuts – 30 grams
Salt q.b. (you know this means to taste, right?)

First blanch the walnuts in boiling water for about 5 minutes (1), or long enough that the skins peels off easily. After 5 minutes, drain the nuts and let them cool.  In the meantime cube the crustless bread and put it in a bowl along with the milk (2) and when the bread has absorbed the milk squeeze them and set them aside, saving the milk.(3).   

 Peel the walnuts one by one (4) and put them in a food processor (or pestle), together with the pine nuts, garlic, paremesan cheese (5) and the oil (6) .  

Add the bread, sprinkle in the marjoram (7) and whiz together adding a little milk (you can use the milk you soaked the bread in), and mix until the cream is dense (8) then add the salt. The nut sauce (9) is now ready to serve over plain pasta, ravioli (not meat filled) or pansotti.  

Note: It’s a lot easier to just buy already peeled walnuts, which is the way all packaged walnuts are sold.

26 February 2012

LIFE: In My Opinion . . .

SARONNO, Italy – It’s always interesting to read  the public opinion polls taken by the newspapers  in various cities in Italy. Usually I focus on Milan and Genoa, but today I thought I’d venture south and see what the Neapolitans were thinking as well. The results just might surprise you.
Best Way to Start a Day
Readers of Genova’s Il Secolo XIX were asked:

Is the proposed settlement Costa is offering cruise accident victims adequate?
Yes – 50%
No – 50%
Total votes: 4,431

Is the proposed location of a new mosque a good choice?
Proposed location OK – 10%
In the port area of the city’s historic center – 57%
In the center of Genova – 5%
In another location along the coast – 6%
Not in any location – 22%
Total votes 24,188

Then they were asked: In your opinion, how was the cruise ship emergency handled?
Good – more than 4,000 people were saved – 59%
Bad – many passengers were upset – 41%
Total votes: 3,161
What are you hoping to find in 2012?
Love – 10%
Work – 16%
Health -  41%
Money – 18%
Total votes: 4,134

Should older women try to become mothers?
Yes – 10%
No – 60%
Each case should be decided individually – 30%
Total votes: 4240
The Costa Concordia
You Should Know: Genova is the home of Costa Cruises
In Milan, readers of Corriere della Sera were asked:

Italy’s Premier Mario Monti recently withdrew Rome's bid for the 2020 Olympics saying the Italian government can't supply the required financial backing at a time of economic crisis. The cost for hosting the Olympics has been estimated at $12.5 billion. Did he do the right thing?
Yes – 91%
No – 9%
Total votes: 3,143

Which of these news events affected you the most?
The killing of Bin Laden – 2%
The earthquake in Japan -  13%
The wedding of William and Kate – 0%
The Genova soccer team Sampdoria in Series B – 43%
The death of Amy Winehouse – 1%
The absolution of Amanda Knox and  Raffaele Sollecito – 2%
The killing of Gheddeffi – 3%
Death of Marco Simoncelli at Malaysian Moto Gran Prix – 9%
The floods in Liguria – 15%
Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s fall from grace – 5%
The new Premier Mario Monti’s economic plan – 8%
Total votes: 8,162

How would you judge Premier Mario Monti’s first 100 days?
Good, he’s on the right track  - 33%
Not so good, it’s always the same group of people who end up paying the most – 46%
It’s too early to tell – 20%
Total Votes: 457

Tax evasion is a huge problem in Italy, so the question asked was:
What do you think about the government’s stricter controls for tax evasion?
Finally, it’s about time – 78%
They will never be implemented – 22%
Total Votes: 9611
Snappy Looking Guardia di Finanza
You should know: Finance and fashion are Milan's major industries and they are both constantly scrutinized by the Guardia di Finance, Italy's Internal Revenue Service. 

In Naples, readers of Il Mattino were asked:

Do you agree with the plan to allow advertisements in front of Capri’s famous Blue Grotto?
Yes -  14.6
No – 84.3
Don’t Know – 1.1%

There is a plan to arm Naples’ city police with batons, do you think it is a good idea?
Yes – 76.3%
No -  22.9%
Don’t Know - .09%

The concept of allowing merchants to decide their own opening and closing hours is spreading through Italy. Asked if they thought it was a good idea, readers responded this way:
Yes – 62.2
No -  35.6
Don’t Know -  2.1%

And finally Il Mattino readers were asked whether they preferred a Christmas tree or a Nativity crèche.
Tree – 23.4
Crèche – 70%
Neither one -  5.7%
Naples Via San Gregorio Armeno
You should know: The Via San Gregorio Armeno, in central Naples is the center of the world's nativity market, with several hundred workshops, stores and stands selling full nativity scenes and individual statues made of wood, plaster, terra cotta and even chocolate.

23 February 2012


SARONNO, Italy - Back in the day, long before Columbus discovered America and no one in Italy had ever even heard of a tomato let alone tasted one, they used to use other ingredients to create sauces for pasta. In those days pasta was a luxury dish reserved for the very rich. In the powerful courts of the Renaissance princes  official court chefs, like Bartolomeo Stefani of the Court of Gonzaga in Mantua, threw in handfuls of raisins, nuts and exotic spices from far-away places like Africa and India and created unique sauces for the pasta of his rich patron, the Duke of Mantua.  
Lovely Mantua
It was an honor and a privilege to be part of the Gonzaga Court and it was in Chef Stefani’s best interest to keep the Duke happy. It was no secret that the Gonzaga Dukes had clawed their way to the top and were not particularly gentile or tolerant. While Stefani couldn’t see the infamous Torre delle Gabbia from his kitchen in the bowels of the Ducal Palace, he knew that those who lost favor with the Duke stood a strong chance of ending up locked in the open cage on the top of the tower and left there to die of thirst, starvation or exposure to the elements, whichever came first.  
The Gonzaga Family by Andrea Mantegna
But Chef Stefani was a pretty smart cookie, if you’ll pardon the food pun. He published cook books and made a reputation for himself in the Renaissance culinary world.  In one of his books, published in the late 1660’s, he talks about a series of banquets the Duke of Mantua held for Queen Christina of Sweden, who had stopped in Mantua on her way to Rome. The Queen had recently converted to Catholicism and wanted to receive communion from none other than Pope Alexander VII who traditionally celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican.   
Queen Christina of Sweden
He describes the table of honor at last banquet held like this:

“In the middle of the table stood a triumphant sugar carving of Mount Olympus, complete with a miniature altar. At the very top, two cherubs supported a crown with the Coat of Arms of Her Majesty Queen Christina.  As each course of served, it was proceeded by yet another  elaborate sugar sculpture, one more beautiful than the other. The banquet became a spectacular theatrical event.”

The connecting thread for all of the dishes served in the Renaissance courts at celebratory events like the visit of European royalty, was the liberal use of sugar and sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Sugar in particular was a very expensive commodity which only the rich could afford. Therefore the sweeter the dishes the wealthier the host, and by presenting a parade of sugar sculptures for the Queen’s delight, the Duke of Mantua was making a very “bella figura” indeed.

One of the dishes served to Queen Christina at that famous banquet was pasta with nut sauce. Nut sauce is still served in Italy, particularly in Liguria, and it is a perfect example of the use of local ingredients, in this case pasta, raisins, nuts, lemons and basil, which would have all been readily available. Parmesean cheese and butter would have come from the nearby province of Emilia Romagna, but the cinnamon and nutmeg would have been brought by ship from Africa and transported to Mantua by mule trains, making it a very costly ingredient indeed.

Here’s Chef Stefani’s nut sauce recipe.

Maccheroni alla Gonzaga

Ingredients for 4 Servings

320 g  of penne rigate  
1 tablespoon of raisins
Peel of 1 lemon
60 g almonds
30 g walnuts
30 g hazelnuts
Basil leaves
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cinnamon
Vegetable broth, q.b.*
A knob of butter (melted)
Grated parmesan or grana padana cheese  q.b.*
Pinch of salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil q.b.*

(*q.b. quanto basta – Italian for ‘as needed’ or ‘to taste’.)


Finely chop (or pound in a mortar or use a food processor) the raisins, lemon peel, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts. Add the nutmeg and cinnamon and continue working until the ingredients are thoroughly blended – use a little olive oil to help the process. Add the remaining olive oil and melted butter and enough broth to create a sauce that is fluid, but dense.

Cook the macaroni al dente. One minute before the macaroni is ready,  put the sauce in a non-stick pan and heat very gently, diluting it with additional broth if needed. Taste for seasoning, add more salt and pepper if necessary. Add the macaroni to the sauce, mix gently and serve with a sprinkle of grated cheese.