30 January 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Viva la French Cuisine

CHIAVARI, Italy – In the past couple of years, something has happened to French food in Paris, at least it seemed that way in the restaurants I ate in last week. The food in Paris used to be good. It used to be one of the reasons I looked forward to going to there. But I’m afraid those days are gone, never to return.  
 Le Consulat,  A Quintessential French Restaurant in Paris
And it wasn’t as if we just picked bad restaurants. My friend and I went back to some of the same bistros and brasserie that we’ve been to in the past and where we enjoyed great meals, but this time the results were down right disappointing.

While the French cooks may still be working off of their reputation as the creators of haute cuisine, I hope enough people complain about the food being served today that the restaurateurs will pay attention and make an effort to improve it. Locals may already be protesting as the restaurants were far from crowded, a fact I had put off as a sign of the economic problems in Europe and the fact that it was mid-January. Now I’m starting to think it really was all about the food.

 Catherine de Medici
As an Italian I have a vested interest in French food since it was an Italian, Catherine de Medici, a noblewoman from Florence, who introduced cuisine and the art of cooking to the French. Back in the early 1500’s when Catherine married Henry duc d’Orleans and moved to Paris, she brought her Italian chefs with her. Her chefs stunned the French court with incredibly delicious dishes that included ingredients   like truffles, garlic and mushrooms all heretofore unheard of and totally unknown to the French royals.

The Italians were light years ahead of the French culinary experts and even what we would not consider haute cuisine, dishes like lasagna and manicotti that every Italian housewife could make with her eyes closed, became a marvel of creativity and deliciousness to the Royal Court.

It took the French Revolution to loosen the restraints on French chefs. They began to experiment with different types of ingredients and from this experimentation Chef Marie-Antoine Carême created what he called his “mother sauces”. He created hundreds of them, many of which are still being used today in French cuisine.

And that was when and why the French and the Italian cuisines parted ways. The French continued down the sauce path and Italians, being purists, wanted to taste what they were eating and not have the flavors confused by the addition of a jumble of other ingredients. It could also have been that the quality of the food was better Italy, but that’s pure conjecture on my part.

In a conversation with Chef Stefano Visini, owner of Ristorante Visini in Como, Italy, he said “the less you do to a food in taking it from the market to the table, the better.” I whole heartedly agree. He said other interesting things too and if you are interested, you can see that interview at http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2010_04_01_archive.html

But to get back to the business of French food, the recipe I’m posting today is going to set some people’s hair on fire, not the recipe but some of the words I’m going to use to describe it. The recipe is one of France’s signature dishes, soupe à l'oignon aka onion soup and is from Julia Child’s The French Chef’s Cookbook, one of the best cookbooks ever written in my estimation.
Traditional French Onion Soup
It is a traditional French soup made of onions and beef stock, and is usually served with croutons and cheese on top. The soup gets its robust taste from the caramelized onions and the simple trick of adding a bay leaf to the broth. And what’s the hair on fire part? Well it seems the origins of French onion soup can be traced back to the Romans There, I said it. French onion soup is actually Italian. 

Soupe a’l’oignon alla Julia Child

Serves 6-8

5 -6 cups yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 to 2 lbs)
1 tablespoon cooking oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons flour
6 cups beef stock (preferably homemade)
1 cup wine (dry red or white)
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
salt and pepper
12 ounces swiss cheese, grated
4 ounces parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 raw yellow onion
2 -3 tablespoons cognac (optional)
8 slices French bread (about 1 inch thick)
4 tablespoons olive oil, for drizzling


1. Place heavy bottom stock pot or dutch oven over medium-low heat.
2. Add 1 Tbs cooking oil, 2Tbs butter to pot.
3. Add sliced onions and stir until they are evenly coated with the oil.
4. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes until they are very tender and translucent.
5. To brown or caramelize the onions turn heat under pot to medium or medium high heat.
6. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp sugar and 1 tsp salt over the onions and continue to cook uncovered, stirring frequently until the onions have browned and reduced significantly.
7. Once caramelized, reduce heat to medium-low and add 3 Tbs flour to the onions.
8. Brown the flour for about 2-3 minutes trying not to scorch it. (If the flour does not form a thick paste, you can add a bit more butter here).
9 .Stir in about 1 cup of warm stock, scraping the bottom of the pan to get up all of the cooked-on bits.
10. Add the rest of the stock, wine, sage, and bay leaf to the soup.
11. Simmer for 30 minutes.
12. To make the "croutes" (toasted bread), heat oven to 325 degrees F.
13. Drizzle each side of the bread slices with a bit of olive oil and place on baking sheet.
14. Cook the “croutes” for 15 minutes in oven on each side (30 minutes total). Or you can toast them in a toaster and drizzle the olive oil on afterwards.
15. Check the soup for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.
16. Remove the bay leaf (if you can find it).
17. Transfer to a casserole dish.
18. At this point you can add the 2-3 Tbs cognac and grate the 1/2 raw onion into the soup. (I don’t do this, but you can if you want).
19. Add a few more ounces of Swiss cheese directly into the soup and stir.
20. Place the toasted bread in a single layer on top of the soup.
21. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese in a thick layer on top of the bread making sure to cover the edges of the toast to prevent burning.
22. Drizzle with a little more oil or melted butter.
23. Place in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes.
24. Turn on broiler and brown cheese well.
25. Let cool for a few minutes.
 Buon Apetito!

26 January 2014

LIFE: On the Road to Paris

CHIAVARI – Italy - The decision to take the train to Paris was easy to make. I like traveling by train in Italy, and besides if I went from Chiavari to Nice, in the south of France, I could spend some time there and still be in Paris on Friday afternoon.  It sounded like a plan to me. The truth of the matter was that whichever way I went to Paris, which was my final destination, it was going to require spending a night in either Pisa, Milan or Nice and Nice  won. 

 Gare de Nice Ville - Train Station in Nice, France
I can’t count the number of times I have traveled to Nice by train. It was practically my home away from home back in the day when I was an illegal immigrant trying to stay one step ahead of the carabineri. Just to maintain a quasi legal status I had to periodically leave Italy and re-enter. With a new entry stamp in my passport, I was then legal to stay in Italy, but only for tourism. As a tourist I was not supposed to open a bank account or rent an apartment, and most of all I was not supposed to work. In reality I did all three.

Since I was living in the Genoa suburb of Nervi, France was the closest country I could get to.  So every three months I would pack my black leather traveling bag and take the train from Nervi to Nice. Two hours to the French Italian border, then ½ hour to Nice, passing the one and only ultra-glamorous James Bond, Princess Grace Monte Carlo, Monte Carlo along the way.

The Royal Castle in Monte Carlo
As time passed I started exploring some of the small towns near Nice like: Canne, of film festival fame; Saint Paul de Vence, an artist’s colony set in a small Medieval village in the Maritime Alps; and Grasse, where the French perfume industry got its start. But Nice was always my favorite destination so the idea of going back there, even for a short visit, was definitely appealing to me.

But now things are a little more complicated. Because of an on-going dispute between the French rail company and the Italian rail company, there are no direct trains to Nice any more. I was going to have to go from Chiavari to Genova, change trains and go the the French/Italian border town of Ventimiglia. From Ventimiglia I would have to change trains again for Nice. Not really a problem, just a pain in the butt. What I could do though, was buy a ticket from Chiavari to Nice. That was good. But not to Paris. For Paris I had to buy my train ticket in Nice.

 Nice is really Nice
And that was when I almost got arrested. I had just bought my ticket to Paris and was walking out of the Nice train station when I spotted the Accqueil/Information Desk. You see, I have an article that I occasionally re-sell about being in Nice, breaking my foot and having my leg encased in a cast at the Emergency Room of the Lady of the Rocks Hospital in downtown Nice.  http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2012/12/life-travels-with-ginny.html  Because my leg was in a cast  my poor cousin Ginny began going round and round from one Accqueil/Information to another Accqueil/Information desk  trying to get a wheelchair for me as I certainly couldn’t carry bags and hop up and down stairs at the same time. It’s a nice article, I have sold it several times, but what I don’t have are photos of the Accqueil/Information desk at the Nice train station. So I took out my little camera and started snapping away.

It was then that I was accosted by the Accqueil/Information lady who growled at me and started making threatening moves toward my camera. She actually grabbed it out of my hands and started frantically pressing buttons in an attempt to delete the photos I had just taken. She was very upset, more upset than the situation actually called for, and when she couldn’t delete the photos she shoved the camera back into my hands saying something, in a threatening tone of voice that I understood to mean that I should delete the photos immediately. 

 The Casino in Nice, France
I have never deleted photos on my camera. I don’t know how to do it. I really don’t. As I tried to explain that to her, she was getting more and more frustrated and kept reaching over and trying to press more buttons. Her face was bright red and if she could have justified bopping me on the head I’m sure she would have. But in the crowded train station with hundreds of people as witness to my non-aggressive behavior it was not a good idea and I could see her re-thinking her options.

She thought my non-compliance was due to not understanding French, but I understood perfectly, I just couldn’t do what she wanted. She, the person in charge of information at the train station, was the one who didn’t understand. She finally called over one of the guards that guard the entrance to the train tracks, asking him if he spoke English and telling him about my egregious offense. The guard came over, he seemed calm and reasonable. I told him I didn’t know how to delete the photos and handed him the camera saying if you know how to do it, go ahead, be my guest. I’ve sold the article several times without a photo of the Accqueil desk, and I’m sure I can do it again.  

 Nice is a very glamorous city
He did manage to delete the photos and totally ignoring her he told me that photos of the Accqueil Desk are not allowed – even though there is no sign saying that – and that she could have called the police and had me arrested. Did I believe him? No. And even if she did call the police would they have come to arrest a tourist who doesn’t speak French for taking photos of the Welcome/Information Desk? Not likely.

If the unpleasant experience dampened my spirits they were quickly revived with a stroll through my favorite French department store, Galleries LaFayette. The next morning I was sitting in First Class on the TVG heading for a fun weekend in Paris, and that poor woman was back sitting in the Information booth welcoming visitors to Nice in her own inimitable way. 

  The object of my affection - Galleries LaFayette Dept. Store, Nice France
I still don’t know what the fuss was all about, but Nice is a major tourist destination on the French Riviera, a great place to visit and you would think they would hire someone for the Information desk of the train station who not only speaks English, but has a kinder, more gently approach to people visiting the city. What do you think?

15 January 2014


Taking a little time off to do some traveling. My first stop is going to be Nice, in the south of France, then it's off to Paris. Be back next week with new tales to tell and, hopefully, lots of photos to share.

12 January 2014

LIFE: Now That I Think About It

CHIAVARI, Italy – Before I moved back to the Italian Riviera last January, I lived in a small town about 20 minutes from Milan, called Saronno. I lived there for about 12 years. In the beginning I worked as editor of an English language magazine and then, since Milan is all about fashion, I moved on to Women’s Wear Daily, a somewhat influential newspaper dedicated to the fashion industry. 
 Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy
After 12 years in Saronno I figured I knew the town pretty well, but it wasn’t until someone asked me where they could buy postcards of Saronno did I realize that there are no postcards of Saronno. There aren’t any stickers that say I heart Saronno, or Go Saronno soccer banners either. And as far as I know absolutely nothing ever happened there that anyone would want to know about. I also realized that was what I liked the most about the place.

Saronno is an old, unpretentious market town that has been around since the days of the Romans. If the name rings a bell, it’s probably because of Amaretto di Saronno liqueur and Lazzaroni cookies, which both come from there, or rather came from there. Seems to me the production plants have moved south, but I may be wrong about that.

What I’m not wrong about though is that absolutely nothing of any importance ever happened in Saronno, no one famous was ever born there or even visited there, not even Cecilia Gallerani and she was the Countess of Saronno.

 Cecilia Gallerani
“Who?” said my neighbor. “There was a Countess of Saronno?”

“You would know who she is if you saw a picture of The Lady with Ermine," said her husband who claims to know about these things. "That is what Leonardo daVinci named the portrait he painted of her in 1490,” he says. “The portrait, and the town of Saronno was a gift to Cecilia from her lover, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He is the one who lived in the big brick castle in the center of Milan and the one who started building the Duomo di Milano, Milan’s massive cathedral. Technically the Duke gave Saronno to Caesar, the son he had with Cecilia in 1491,” he continues, “but of course Cecilia had control of it as Caesar was a newborn baby. That all happened the same year the Duke married Beatrice d’Este.”

“The Duke and Cecilia had a baby and then he married another woman a few months later?” I ask.

“Yep,” says my neighbor. “He had arranged it with Beatrice’s father when she was born and by the time they got married the Duke was 39 and I think Beatrice had just turned 16.”

 And what about Cecilia?” I ask, “She couldn’t have been too happy about that, having just given birth to his baby. What happened to her?”

“Nothing,” says my neighbor. “The Duke eventually married her off to his best friend and moved them into a palazzo just outside of Milan. The Duke and Cecilia continued to see each other even after they were both married to other people, but then he got involved with another woman, Lucrezia Crivelli, and that was that.”

“His poor wife,” I say. “Poor Cecilia too. So what year was that?”

Ludovico Sfoza, Duke of Milan
“Around 1492,” he says. “A few years later the Duke was defeated by the French and for the next couple of years Saronno and Milan, and the rest of his Dukedom was under French control. But then the Duke formed an alliance with the Pope, and with the help of the Pope’s army and Swiss, German and Spanish mercenaries he was able to recapture his Dukedom. Then the bubonic plague hit.”

“Didn’t anything nice ever happen here?” I ask.

“Not that I know of,” he says.

“Well, how about important people. Are there any important people here?“

“Actually, most of the old people you see in Saronno now weren’t born here, they came from Milan during World War II, like me. It was the summer of 1942, the year I was supposed to start school that the British began bombing Italy. By the autumn of that year, they had dropped more than 1,600 tons of explosives on northern Italy. Our neighborhood in Milan was in shambles. I remember my mother clutching her food coupons and standing in long lines, stepping over piles of rubble from the buildings that had been bombed. That’s how we lived, barely lived to tell you the truth. My brothers and I went to bed hungry more often than not. And it was scary. Sometimes during the night the air raid sirens would go off and my mother would pull us out of bed and rush down us into the basement of our building.  Everyone would be down there and we would huddle around a short-wave radio listening to Radio London and the Voice of America, praying for the news that the Americans had landed. When that finally happened, we moved out here to Saronno because my mother knew they would be fighting in the streets of Milan, and she was right.”

After that conversation I began looking at my neighbors a little differently. I even started to feel more kindly toward Father Franco and his cackling chickens and feeling a little guilty about reporting him to the Mayor’s office for harboring a public nuisance. I had nothing against Father Franco but those damn chickens, and especially the rooster who woke me up every morning at 4 AM, had to go. Then I realized that I hadn’t heard them for a couple of days.  

I asked my neighbor if he thought my letter had provoked the eviction of the entire chicken population over at Father Franco’s, even though all I had asked for was that they get rid of the rooster.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It wasn’t you. There’s a town ordinance that doesn’t allow farm animals to be kept in residential areas. It just takes a while for things to happen here.”

Maybe it’s just as well. It sounds to me like enough has happened there already.