27 February 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Capitano Basilico

CHIAVARI, Italy – No doubt you’ve all heard of the war on drugs and the war on women, well there was another war being waged in Italy just last year. The Italian war was all about basil. Not just any old basil, but Ligurian basil – and the reprobate? The Italian Minister of the Environment Corrado Clini. 

 Capitano Basilico - Defender of Basil and All Things Green
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.

A much offended and indignant President of the Consortium of Genovese Basil DOP, Mario Anfossi, issued a statement refuting the Minister’s claim and even went 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. 

 The Green Goddess of Liguria - 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. 

Ready, Set, 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. 

One hundred participants from around the world were pounding their little hearts out, trying to win the coveted Wooden Pestle Award. 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. 

 The Real Deal
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. 

Among the magnificent 100 finalists there was a naturalized Italian 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 is  . . . . . Sergio Muto
 And the winner of the Campionato Mondiale del Pesto al Mortaio (World Championship of Mortar-Made Pesto) was 54 year old Sergio Muto, an Italian who lives in Germany.

You know, all this pesto talk has inspired me. I’ve already missed the preliminary competition for this year so I’ll have to wait until 2016 to give it try. That gives me a couple of years to master my pesto making techniques, and even if I’m not the best it doesn’t matter. After all, as the Italians say, it’s not about winning, it’s about being there. Anyone care to join me?

23 February 2014

LIFE: Parma the Beautiful

CHIAVARI, 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, because if you are tired of just seeing other tourists in your travels around Italy, get on a train and come to Parma. 
 Pretty Parma
The train station isn’t far from the center of town and you can walk there in less than ten minutes. The only problem is the street you have to walk down, Strada Giuseppe Garibaldi, is lined with food shops, and it is very, but very easy to be totally distracted by glowing wheels of Parmesan cheese and mounds of home-made tortellini, not to mention the prosciutto and salami. But if you are strong and resist, you will be rewarded. 

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

Parma’s Cathedral was one of the buildings damaged by the earthquake in 1106.The Gothic belfry was added in 1284 and both the Cathedral and the belfry have been in pretty good shape since then.  As I pushed open the heavy door I looked up and saw an organ tuner running his fingers over the keyboard of the old church organ. He would randomly hit keys, stop, step back, and wait. Slowly the ancient pipes would push out the musical notes which then floated upward toward the dome and, as they reached Correggio's fresco of the Assumption that is painted there, they would fade away like a whisper. I walked around and then sat for a bit, thoroughly enjoying the fact that I had the church to myself. But then when a young couple came in and broke my reverie, 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 master 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 twelve signs of the zodiac, animals and fabulous beasts, creatures from Hell, sea monsters, centaurs, mermaids and unicorns, all in all an unprecedented menagerie in pink marble. On the outside of the building he crowned each portal with scenes from the old and new Testament.
 The Baptistry and Cathedral Bell Tower in the Late Afternoon
Parma is a city that has been dominated by Spain, France, Austria and the Catholic Church, and ultimately the Dukes of Farnese. 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 and its territory under the control of the Farnese family.

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. 
Giulia Farnese, painted by Raphaele
At their 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 and its territories were 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. 

But the Parmigiani don’t focus on their Farnese heritage too much, they have other things to think about. For example, one of Italy’s leading composers of opera, Giuseppe Verdi, was born in nearby Roncole, and the resourceful Parmigiani have 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. 
 Parma's Opera House
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 that restaurant. They devour many gastronomical delights Parma and Emilia Romagna is known for, and drink down glasses of sparkling Lambrusco wine while they discuss and argue the finer points of the opera and the cast performing it. This tradition did not originated in Parma but the Teatro Regio Parma is the only opera house in the world where it is still practiced.

So you see it really does all go back to what I said before, the biggest problem with Parma is it’s much too easy to be distracted by the food.  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 panettone  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
So if you ever get the urge to wander off the beaten path and see another side of Italy, Parma might be a good place to start for this is only part of the story, but I’ll leave that for you to explore.


20 February 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: I'll Have Some of Those

Chiaviari, Italy - You can call them chiacchiere, or you can call them frappe or bugie or even guanti, but in reality they are all basically the same confectioner sugar dusted fried cookie that signal the start of Carnival in Italy.

My Aunt Louise had a little business in Schenectady, New York called the Old Country Bakery, and guanti were the specialty of the house. But the cookies my Aunt Louise made were a little different than the ones I see here in Italy. Hers were bigger and looked like bow ties. Here they simply cut the dough into strips and fry it. It’s certainly easier and faster but there are fewer nooks and crannies for the powdered sugar to hide, and that’s what makes them so lip smacking good.

Carnival as we know it today started out as a Pagan Roman festival called the Saturnalia. It was the only time of the year when slaves and their masters, with their faces hidden behind masks, could eat, drink, dance and make merry together. And then along came Christianity with a whole new set of rules, none of which included eating, drinking or dancing in the streets.
 Chiacchiere Pugliese
But Saturnalia was so much fun no one wanted to give it up, so the eat, drink and make merry part was incorporated into the Christian religious, but with a slight twist.

The Christians started the transformation by giving the festival a new name: Carnivale. While it sounds festive to us now, the word comes from the Latin “caro” meat and “vale”, farewell, which, when you put them together really means say bye bye to meat and hello to those 40 days of abstinence known as Lent. And so that's where we are.

 Ceni Toscani
Sometimes I wonder what kind of Italy I would be living in if the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus, aka Constantine the Great, hadn't supported Christianity. Would I be out dancing in the streets of Chiavari this week throwing confetti in the air? Probably.

Before I get too carried away, here’s a recipe for those, ahh, whatever you want to call them cookies.
 Ready to Fry Bow Ties

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

1- ½ cups all purpose flour (plus ½ cup for kneading and rolling)
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teasp Kosher salt (or 1/8 teasp table salt)
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons water* (see note below)
5 tablespoons butter melted and cooled (has to be cool so it doesn’t cook the eggs)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract or 2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 egg white for forming the bows

*You can also use rum, grappa, anisette or whiskey in place of all or part of the water


1 – Make the dough: Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl whisk the eggs and water until thoroughly mixed. Add the cooled melted butter and whisk again. Finally whisk in the vanilla extract and lemon extract. (The lemon extract may curdle the mix a bit but just blend it smooth). Stir in flour mixture a little at a time until a dough forms.

 2 – Knead the dough:  The dough will be wet and sticky at this point so using your hands, knead in the remaining ½ cup of flour, a little at a time until the dough is soft, smooth and relatively dry. Be careful not to over knead or the cookies won’t be tender.

Let the dough rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

3 – Roll out ½ of the dough: On a well floured surface, with a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to a thin layer – the thinner your dough the crispier the cookies will be. You can use a pasta rolling machine for this step if you want.

4 – Slice dough into ribbons. After the dough is rolled flat slice the dough into long strips 1-1/2 inches wide. Slice these strips to get ribbons of about 4 inches long. You can use a pizza cutter to get a nice edge on the cookies, but a sharp knife works just as well. At this point you can roll out the rest of the dough or you can wrap it in plastic wrap for another day.

5 -  Form ribbons into bows: Place a bit of beaten egg white in the center of each strip – do this with your finger – this will hold the dough together. Pinch the centers together to form a bow. To secure it, fold that pinch over one more time otherwise it may come apart during frying.

6 -  Fry the bows in hot oil, 1 ½ to 2 inches of oil, in a deep frying pan.  Using a slotted spoon, scoop them out when they are golden brown and drain on paper towels. Dust the cookies with confectioners’ sugar or warmed honey while they are still warm.

 Bow Ties
Test that your oil is hot enough before you begin frying by testing it with a drop of cookie dough. If the dough doesn’t puff up and rise to the top of the oil, the oil isn’t hot enough. Continue heating or turn the heat up a little.

Thanks to:
http://www.mysteryloverskitchen.com for the recipe