29 April 2012

LIFE: Pretty Parma

SARONNO, Italy - Parma is one of Italy’s little cities of art. It’s not a city that gets a lot of tourist attention, and that may be a good thing. It’s an easy city to visit, the train station isn’t far from the center of town, you can walk there in less than ten minutes, which is exactly what I was doing just a few weeks ago. The only problem is the street from the train station to the center of town is lined with food shops, and it is very, but very easy to be distracted by glowing wheels of Parmesan cheese and mounds of home-made tortellini. But if you are strong, and resist, you will be rewarded.   
Pretty Parma
It is true that over the years the city has been ravaged by fires and earthquakes, but there is no trace of them now. What you will find within the walls of the old city, are buildings dating back to the 11th and 12th century.  One of them is the Palazzo Vescovile, an 11th century bishop's palace. The palace is in a medieval square which it shares with the town’s Cathedral and Parma's great octagonal baptistery, both of which were built in the 12th century. 
 Cathedral of Parma
I decided to go into the Cathedral first. As I pushed open the heavy door , silvery musical notes were hanging in the air. I looked up and saw an organ tuner running his fingers over the keyboard of the church's organ. He would randomly hit keys and then stop and then step back and wait. When the ancient pipes finally pushed out musical notes they floated upward toward the dome and then faded away like a whisper as they reach Correggio's fresco of the Assumption that is painted there. I walked around and then sat for a bit, thoroughly enjoying the fact that I had the church to myself. When a young couple came in I left and walked across the square to the Baptistery.

The pink Verona marble Baptistery is considered one of the most interesting buildings in Italy. It was started in 1195 under the supervision of sculptor Benedetto Antelami, or as the architrave over the north door puts it: "twice two years before 1200 the sculptor Benedetto doth began this work.". Antelami was also responsible for all of the Baptistery’s elaborate  carvings, both inside and out. On the inside he intricately sculpted representations of the four seasons, the signs of the zodiac, animals and fabulous beasts, creatures from Hell, sea monsters, centaurs, mermaids, and unicorns. A miraculous marble menagerie. On the outside of the building scenes from the old and new Testament crown each portal.
Detail  Parma's Baptistery
Parma is a city that has been dominated by Spain, France, Austria, the Catholic Church, and through the church, the Dukes of Farnese. But unlike its other rulers, the Farnese were patrons of the arts and under their influence Parma entered its golden age. The rich heritage they left behind changed the medieval character of the city forever. 

The Farnese were already a well established family back in 1513 when Parma was part of the territory controlled by the Popes and the Catholic church. They were a family of successful mercenaries, and through their ties to the church and a series of well-planned marriages they managed to achieve considerable wealth and power. But it was Julia Farnese, the Papal Venus as she  came to be known, who was responsible for bringing Parma under the control of the Farnese family. 
Portrait of Giulia Farnese by Raphael
When Giulia Farnese was born in 1474, she was promised in marriage to Orsino Orsini, the son of the Count of Pitigliano. They married when she turned 15 and he was 18. He was dark and handsome, she was beautiful and fair. Giulia's father was particularly happy with the union as Orsini was related to some of the most powerful families in Italy, including Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, father of the infamous Lucrezia.  

At the wedding the Cardinal, who was almost 60 years old at the time, fell head-over-heels in love with Giulia. And it wasn't long before she became his mistress. The powerful Cardinal and Giulia had a long relationship, and when he became Pope, taking the name Alexander VI, he favored his mistress by making her brother Alessandro, a Cardinal. Alessandro went on to become Pope Paul III, and the Farnese family legacy was insured. It was not many years later that Parma was given to Pope Paul III's son, Pier Luigi Farnese, in payment for services rendered as a knight for the Catholic Church. And thus the Duchy of Farnese was created. 

Parma is also the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi, one of Italy’s leading composers of opera. So it is not surprising that the resourceful Parmigiani managed to combine their two main loves – opera and food – in one happy place.  At the Teatro Regio, Parma's historic opera house, the back of one of the opera house boxes is fitted like a restaurant, its walls decorated with photographs and posters of scenes from past operas and their stars. 
 Always a Crowd at the Teatro Regio
During the intermission of an operatic performance, the Club of 27, a private group of opera lovers whose membership is limited to 27 as that was the number of operas Guiseppe Verdi wrote, gather in the restaurant. Here they discuss and argue the finer points of the opera being performed, and its cast, as they devour gastronomical delights and drink down glasses of sparkling Lambrusco wine. This is not a tradition that originated in Parma but  the Teatro Regio Parma is the only opera house in the world that has continued this ancient tradition of high-spirited dining in the back of the boxes. 

It goes back to what I said before, the biggest problem with Parma is it’s much too easy to be distracted by the food. Under ‘What to Buy” in the Geografico DeAgostini Guide to Parma, the food and pastry shops are listed first. Not only is it home to Parmesan cheese and Parma ham, it is also home to Parmalat, Barilla pasta, a large sugar industry, a company that sells Borgotaro porcini mushrooms, Italy's third largest Christmas cake factory, three food museums and the European Union’s Food Safety Authority. Is it a surprise the saying "you live to eat well, you don't eat to live" originated here? I didn't think so. 
 One of the Many Food Shops in Parma
It was getting late and I had a train to catch so I reluctantly made my way back to the train station.  The sky was darkening as I boarded the train that would take me back to Milan and a spring fog was starting to settle over the city like a soft feather quilt. I watched as the gray sky outside the train window deepened to charcoal and then went black. In a little more than an hour I would be back in Milan. There are some days when I feel incredibly lucky to live here in Italy, and this was one of them.

26 April 2012

AUNTIE PASTA; It's Not Easy Being Green

SARONNO, Italy – No doubt you’ve all heard of the war on drugs and the war on women, well there is another war being waged in Italy. The Italian war is all about basil. Not just any old basil, but Ligurian basil – and the reprobate? The Italian Minister of the Environment Corrado Clini. 
 Capitano Basilico to the Rescue
The situation is a little convoluted and a little complicated, like most things Italian, but it seems Clini thinks it is time Italians accepted the use of genetically modified seeds. He even had the audacity to suggest that there were some foods, like Ligurian basil, that have already been modified by the mutagenesis of seeds, which is just another way of saying genetically modified.  Well, I can tell you he set off a firestorm of protests. He would have been better off saying Ligurian grandmothers can't cook. In fact, the Ligurians were so offended he's lucky they didn't send out Capitano Basilico to teach him a lesson or two.

As the law stands now, genetically modified seeds are prohibited in Italy. The only genetically modified foodstuffs allowed to be imported into the country are soy and corn used in animal feed. So when Minister Clini went on to suggest that basil,  the pride of Liguria, was on a par with animal feed, all hell broke loose.
Nobody Messes with Ligurian Basil, says Capitano Basilico
A much offended and indignant President of the Consortium of Genovese Basil DOP, Mario Anfossi, issued a statement refuting the Minister’s claim and has even gone so far as to request the Consortium’s Legal Department look into filing a claim against the Minister of the Environment for damages to the sacrosanct image of Ligurian basil. 

“It is absurd,” Anfossi said, “ that an Italian government official would purposely issue false and misleading statements nullifying the good work carried out by the Ligurian Basil Consortium. “After all,” he added, “Genovese basil didn’t earn the coveted DOP designation for no reason.

Having a DOP designation, you may recall, means that the product is the real deal. It's part of a system established by the European Union to protect the reputation of regional foods and eliminate the chance of misleading consumers with non-genuine products, which may be of inferior quality or of different flavor. (for more info on this you can check out http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2010/08/auntie-pasta-italians-do-it-whey-better.html)
On Your Mark, Get Ready, Pound!
Minister Clini’s timing couldn’t have been any worse. While this firestorm was raging, in the hallowed halls of the Ducal Palace in Genoa the finals of the IAAF World Pesto Championship were in full swing. 

100 participants from around the world were pounding their little hearts out, trying to win the coveted Wooden Pestle. It was a fair fight. Each pesto maker was given four packs of DOP Genovese basil, 40 grams of Pecorino Fiore Sardo cheese, 50-60 grams of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, 2 cloves of Vessalico garlic, 10 grams of salt, 30 grams of pine nuts from Pisa, a bottle of DOP Ligurian extra-virgin olive oil, a marble mortar and pestle and 40 minutes to prepare their pesto.

Surrounded by TV cameras and photographers, they were then judged by a jury of 30 experts, including restaurateurs, sommeliers and journalists. The judges kept a careful eye on each of the finalist, awarding points for how well they handled the ingredients, how well they organized their work, and of course the color, consistency and taste of their pesto. 
The Real Deal
Among the magnificent 100 finalists there was a naturalized Genovese from Sri Lanka, 83 year old Alfonsina Trucco, the oldest participant, and 25 year old Christina Orilia, the youngest participant.  Other pesto makers included a businessman and a computer consultant from Genoa, an entrepreneur from Moscow, a consultant from Lyon, France, a nuclear physicist from Genoa, and two medical doctors. Some contestants had come from as far away as the USA, Canada and Argentina.

And the winner of this year’s Campionato Mondiale del Pesto al Mortaio (World Championship of Mortar-Made Pesto) was 54 year old Sergio Muto, an Italian who lives in Germany.
The Happy Winner - Sergio Muto
You know, this pesto business has inspired me. I’m actually thinking about entering the pesto competition myself next year.  After all, as the Italians say, it’s not about winning, it’s about being there. Anyone care to join me?

22 April 2012

LIFE: Edgardo Simoni, "The Fox"

SARONNO, Italy - During World War II, a total of close to 18,000 Italian prisoners of war were held in Australian prisons.  Among the prisoners was a young Italian Lieutenant from Lucca, Italy, Edgardo Simoni.
 Edgardo Simoni, the "Fox"
Simoni had been captured at Bardia in North Africa and shipped to the Murchison POW Camp near Shepparton in Victoria. It was a high security prison  in the middle of harsh, desolate country, an Australian land-locked Alcatraz, escape proof, or so they thought.  

But Simoni was not an ordinary POW, but a man of extraordinary daring and cunning who managed to do the impossible. Not only did he escape, but he escaped twice.  His escape was so stunning, it made front page news of the June 11, 1942 edition of The Advertiser, the newspaper of Adelaide in South Australia. The article read in part: 

 “Police and military authorities (are) searching for Lt. Edgardo Simoni, 25, the Italian who escaped on a bicycle from a prisoner of war camp in Goulburn Valley on Saturday. It is believed he has crossed the Victorian border. Detectives and railway Inquiry Officers are checking every interstate and country train and interstate detectives have joined the search.”

This was serious business. Lieutenant Simoni had managed to do the impossible, and they had no idea of how. They began to call him “the Fox”. 
Italian Prisoners in Australia
But his freedom was short lived. He was captured 24 hours later and when he was returned, he was placed in a solitary cell in the high security section of the prison. Prison authorities slept soundly after that secure in the knowledge that it would be impossible for him to escape again.

 What probably tripped him up the first time was his inability to speak English. There was no way he would have been able to survive the hardships of the isolated Australian landscape without having to ask for food or water along the way.  But when he escaped the second time, language was no longer a problem. 

It was such an incredible feat, the BBC made a film about Lt. Simoni’s, now known as the “Fox”,  great escape. It was only then, in the film, that the mystery of just how he managed to get out of that small cell which was surrounded on four sides by steel bars, was revealed. With a twinkle in his eye, Simoni explained that he had somehow managed to get ahold of a file and with an infinite amount of patience he gradually sawed through one of the whitewashed bars that surrounded his cell. 
The Australian Guards
 He said he worked mostly at night, covering the sound of the constant sawing by singing “Waltzing Matilda” over and over again. He told the BBC that he apologized to his fellow prisoners for keeping them awake, but explained that he couldn’t help it. He had to sing. And as the bar became thinner and thinner, he covered his work by molding a piece of white soap over the sawed off section. No one was ever the wiser. And so once again the Fox was free. This time he spoke English. 

He almost got caught the day he stole a boat and was rowing down the Murrumbidgee River and a farmer, who was out hunting along the side of the river, spotted him. The farmer recognized him as the escapee the authorities were searching for and told him to row to shore or he would shoot him dead in the water. 
It was the largest POW camp in Australia
Simoni turned the boat toward shore but stopped several hundred feet from where the farmer had been standing. In the time it took the farmer to run down to where the boat was, Simoni had already swum across the river and was on his feet and running in the opposite direction. The farmer started searching the woods on his side of the river, not knowing that the Fox was on the other side and already long gone.

When Simoni got to Melbourne, he landed a job selling cosmetics door to door. With    his good looks and Italian charm it wasn’t long before he became the company’s Number One salesman. That got Simoni, who was Number One on Australia’s Most Wanted list  a prize and his picture in the local paper.  Amazingly, no one recognized him.
The harsh Australian countryside
The Fox was free for more than ten months. Then one day one when he was walking around Adelaide, of the guards from the prison spotted him, walked over and said, “Hello, Eddie, how are you?”

At the end of the war Lt. Simoni was repatriated to Italy where he continued his army career, retiring with the rank of Colonel. In 1974, Colonel Simoni made a sentimental journey back to visit the site of his incarceration and to try to re-trace his escape route. But he was older then and things had changed, but it didn’t matter. The Fox would always be the Fox, the one that got away.  
The Uncertain life of Italian POW's
They still remember the Fox in Australia. The prison has now been turned into a museum, with a special plaque on cell where the Fox was kept. 

As I sat with my neighbor Eddie listening to this story and watching the BBC film that was made about his uncle, it was obvious who in the family had inherited the spirit of the Fox. Not only does Eddie look like his uncle, he is just like him: charming and funny with that ever present twinkle in his eye and his suitcase packed always ready for an adventure. It’s days like these that make this Italian life special.

19 April 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: The Hills are Alive

SARONNO, Italy –  The province of Abruzzo is beautiful, it’s hill country and has more than its share of medieval towns like Castel del Monte. It’s not the best place to farm but definitely a great place to raise sheep. You might ask just what you can do with sheep after you’ve sheered them, milked them and bred them? Well, you can eat them. In fact, one of the most typical and delicious dishes found in Abruzzo is called “arrosticini”,  skewers of lamb meat cooked on a charcoal grill. 

 Castel del Monte, Abruzzo
Writing this post made me think about a dinner I once cooked for some friends, who brought along a friend who was visiting from Philadelphia. I made, among other things, roast chicken and potatoes.  A few weeks later my friend told me her visitor had been very disappointed that I hadn’t made “real” Italian food, even though it’s hard to imagine something more Italian than chicken with potatoes pan roasted in the oven with fresh rosemary. And odd as it may seem, lamb kebabs, usually associated with middle eastern cultures, are also very much Italian.
 Mangia, mangia   (photo from Flickr)
Today’s recipe is super simple, but there is one small trick. The trick is to not use a cut of meat that is too lean. If the meat is too lean it dries out and becomes super tough. Lamb shoulder is good because it has a good proportion of fat to lean. If you don’t want to bother making your own kebabs you can probably buy them ready-made in your grocery store or butcher shop. They sell them in most grocery stores throughout Italy, but not all year round. What we eat at any particular time of the year depends on the season, including meat. Remember my ordeal of trying to find a whole turkey last November?
Lamb keb...errr, I mean Arrosticini
The most traditional method of cooking the kebabs is over a charcoal grill, but any grill will do. If you are not using charcoal you can flavor the kebabs by brushing them with a long sprig of fresh rosemary that has been dipped in olive oil and crushed red pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice. It’s not the same as using charcoal, but it’s good. 

800 grams (about 1 ¼ lbs) of cubed lamb meat
Juice of ½ lemon
Crushed red pepper (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sprigs of fresh rosemary

Lay the skewers of lamb out on a plate and brush them with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper. You can add a squeeze of lemon if you want. Turn them to be sure they are well coated and place them on the grill. Cook them over low heat (too high a heat will burn them and dry them out). Baste and turn occasionally with the sprig of rosemary dipped in olive oil.

Serve with crusty Italian bread, a crispy salad and a glass of red wine and you’ve got classic Italian country cooking at its best.

15 April 2012

LIFE: Some Rainy Morning

SARONNO, Italy - Woke up this morning to yet another rainy day in a long week of rainy days and realized that today’s post would be number 200 and I had nothing to write about. Normally I write blog posts over the course of a week, starting with an idea and then squeezing in changes and adding photos or video, or in the case of Auntie Pasta, a recipe or two over the course of three or four days. Sometimes I don’t have three or four days to write and you can tell those posts by the number of mistakes you find in them.    
Morning Has Broken (thank you Cat Stevens)
But here it is Sunday morning and I’m staring at a blank white page. I’ve been totally distracted this week, some of it spent worrying about friends and family in the States, some of it spent working on a novel I’ve decided to write. Even though I know there is not a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting it published, I still slog on every morning with my tale of Martina, an American film maker who has come to Italy to make a documentary about the gypsies – or Rom as they prefer to be called.

It’s a story that fascinates me, or rather the inherent fierceness of the Rom to hold on to their culture and traditions and resist every effort to integrate into the general European population fascinates me. Some Rom families have been in Italy for generations, others for centuries. They have Italian names and Italian citizenship and if they dressed like the general population, you’d be hard pressed to single them out. So it isn’t that they look “different” that sets them apart, but something else.
Santino Spinelli (on the right) being introduced by an Italian Journalist
I don’t know how Santino Spinelli, an ethnic Rom living in Italy dresses, but he made news a few years ago by becoming the first Rom to hold a university post in Italy. The path he traveled to get to that point was long, starting as a child begging on the streets to a university graduate and now a professor teaching a course which will cover Gypsy language, literature, traditions, music and theater. 

But he is only one of how many Rom in Europe? Would you believe more than 6 million? 

The seed for this story was planted back in 2003 when the Italian government took a hard right turn and passed ground breaking, stringent legislation requiring all non-Italians living in Italy to be fingerprinted and photographed. And yes, if you go through the files of mug shots held in who knows what Office of Immigration’s data base, will find one of yours truly, darling daughter of an Italian born in Italy and legal resident of Italy, but nonetheless part of the roundup.
The Oh, So Cultured Umberto Bossi, Ex-Leader of Italy's Northern League
As Milan is the home to the Northern League, the Tea Baggers of Italy, the new laws encouraged anti-immigrant sentiment, and blatant discrimination became more evident. No one could ever take me for anything but Italian, which is what I am, that is until I open my mouth and my twangy American accent spews forth. And that’s when the worms turned. A friendly greeting in a shop suddenly became a frozen stare, my reply to a simple question asked of me like where is Piazza Dante, resulted in the questioner turning his back and walking away before I could even finished the sentence.

I really felt that my Italy, the land where I had lived and paid taxes and obeyed every law I could figure out, had suddenly turned against me. Thankfully the political climate has changed now, we have a new government, and the beleaguered Northern League is barely hanging on by its collective fingernails. Now it’s the Italians who want to have - actually need -  that twangy American accent for it’s that twangy American accent, and the language skills that go with it, that’s going to move them ahead in today’s global economy. And the way the European economy is shaping up, they don’t have a choice –  parla inglese or don’t bother to apply for the job.  

Even the prestigious University of Milano is now requiring its professors to teach some courses each semester in English. But that’s another story for another day.

So, where was I? Oh, right. Nothing to write about this morning. Well, I think the best thing for me to do is make another cup of coffee and think about it a little while longer. I’m sure I'll come up with something.

(I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who take the time to comment on the blog posts. I appreciate hearing from you, and sharing your thoughts and comments with others who read this blog.)


12 April 2012


SARONNO, Italy – It’s been a busy week with little time to cook. Not only was Sunday Easter, but Monday was also a  holiday here, Pasquetta, little Easter. The tradition, at least it is a tradition in Rome, is that on Pasquetta you pack up the left overs from your Easter dinner and head for the countryside for a picnic.
All Purpose White Fish
I think that idea works better in Rome than in Milan because Pasquetta was no day for a picnic. After a few glorious weeks it has turned not really cold, but cold compared to what it was, and rainy. I know, I know, April showers bring May flowers, and I really shouldn’t complain because the weather has been wonderful, but still, after three days of rain you start to feel a little moldy.

Since I had company over the weekend one of the dishes I did prepare was an old Sicilian recipe for fish. As it turned out we went out to eat that night so the fish dish sat in the refrigerator. And it sat there the next day as well as we went out to eat again. So I decided to divide it into two containers and freezer it. Today, because I have an appointment in Milan and again no time to cook, I took out one of the containers of frozen fish, made some cous cous and abracadabra! lunch was ready.
Glorious Cherry Tomatoes
Freezing the fish didn’t alter its texture at all, which is what I was afraid of since the fish was frozen to start with.  You can use any white fish for this recipe, I happened to use codfish because I like it, especially for this recipe which is super simple and practically fool proof. This recipe feeds two people, for four people, just double it.

One trick I learned from a cook down in Tuscany was to pre-cook onions in the microwave until they are soft.  You have to add a little water to them, unlike other vegetables i.e. broccoli or carrots, because onions don’t contain water and they will burn.  I don’t know if there is a real name for this recipe, but I call it Sicilian Fish in Tomato Sauce.
Easy as 1,2,3

Sicilian Fish in Tomato Sauce

2 frozen codfish filets
1 can of peeled cherry tomatoes (you can use regular canned tomatoes, but I prefer cherry tomatoes)
¼ cup (more or less) water
1 clove of garlic (peeled and crushed)
1 onion, roughly chopped and partially cooked in microwave
1 teaspoon of capers (in brine)
1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of oregano or marjoram

In a frying pan, sauté the onions and garlic until the onions are completely cooked. If the garlic turns brown, discard it, and turn the heat under the frying pan down. Add the can of tomatoes, juice and all, and the water. You can also add a little dry white wine instead of the water if you want. The fish will not complain. 

Let the tomatoes cook for a few minutes, about 5 minutes, and then add the frozen fish. They do not have to be defrosted. Cover the frying pan and let it all cook until the fish is soft. Add the capers and the oregano and let cook for another 5 minutes or so until the fish is thoroughly cooked. 

At this point you can turn off the heat and let it sit until you are ready to eat. Actually the longer it sits the better it is, even overnight is not too long – in the refrigerator of course. Just let it cool to room temperature before you put it in the refrigerator.

Serve hot over rice or cous cous or spaghetti or curly pasta, I think even mashed potatoes would work. 

This is a recipe my mother used to make, but instead of adding capers she added raisins and it was just as delicious. If you don’t have capers and you do have raisins, you might want to try her version.