26 June 2014

LIFE: Do You Speak Italian?

CHIAVARI, Italy -  If you are one of those who stays up nights studying Italian before embarking on your trip to Italy and you still didn’t understand anything when you get here, all I can say is join the club. It happens to everyone. What Italian teachers don’t tell you is that Italians don’t really speak Italian, I mean they do speak Italian of course, but not all the time. Let me explain: what they actually speak is Italian with a sprinkling of local dialect.  
Venice's Grand Canal
Venice is a good example. It’s everybody’s favorite city, but also one of the most challenging when it comes to language. Let’s start with the basics – streets. You probably know that in Venice the streets are called ‘calle’. However, if a ‘calle’ is smaller than a regular ‘calle, its  called a ‘calletta’. But the ‘calle’ becomes a ‘lista’ if several other ‘calle’ lead into them, for example, the Lista Vechia dei Bari in Cannaregio

And then there’s ‘ramo’. Ramo literally means small branch and it is a subdivision of a ‘calle’. According to the degree of ‘ramification’ there can be a primary ramo,  ‘ramo primo’ and a secondary ramo,  ‘ramo secondo’. There may even be more. This does not mean, however, that the ‘ramo’  is narrower than the ‘calle’, it can be exactly the same width, or it may be longer, or then again it may be shorter and there is no rule saying it can’t end in a dead end, which apparently many do.
Oh sigh, it's the Bridge of Sighs
Now, if the street has a lot of boutiques and cafes on it, it is neither a ‘calle’ or a ‘ramo’, but a ‘ruga’, from the French word for street, ‘rue’. And let us not forget the ‘calle stretta’, ‘calle larga’ and ‘calle lunga’, the calle narrow, wide and long, just in case none of the other names are descriptive enough. 

And, less you think it ends there, it doesn’t, for there are also the salizzada, or salizada with only one z, which means “street selciata”: the streets that were the first to be paved with cobblestones. Why they think it is important to know this is completely beyond me.  And what ever happened to plain, old, reliable strada? It’s here too – but in Venetian it means ‘a broad street’ and there is only one of those in Venice: the Strada Nova in Cannaregio. 
 A Quiet Stroll Along a Fondamenta
While we are on the subject of walking around Venice, there are more than ‘calli’, ‘rami’. ‘ruge’ and ‘salizzada’ to walk on, you can also walk along the ‘fondamenta’. While ‘fondamenta’ means foundation, like the foundation for a building in standard Italian, here it means a walkway along a canal. That is unless the ‘fondamenta’ is in front of a wide expanse of water, like the ‘bacino’ di San Marco, then it beomes a ‘riva’. Are you still with me?

Okay then. A ‘fondamenta’ runs along a ‘rio or rii (in the plural), which are what the many small canals are called. A ‘rio’ is seldom straight and most likely edged with houses and is not a canal. The word ‘canal’ is reserved for the three large canals of Venice, the Grand Canal, the Canal of Cannaregio and the Canal of Giudecca. 
 The Pigeons Prefer San Marco

So if a ‘rio’ is a small canal, what, you might ask, is a ‘rio terrĂ ?  Easy peasy. A ‘rio terra’ is a ‘rio’ that has been filled in with terra (dirt) to create a street, but of course it can’t be called a street because …… I have absolutely no idea.

Anyway, as you make your way through the maze of pedestrian walkways, call them what you will, crossing many of the 460 bridges that connect the sixty separate islands that make up the city of Venice, you will at some point cross Piazza San Marco. It is the only piazza in Venice, and it connects to the only ‘piazzetta’. The ‘piazzetta’ goes from the Dodge’s Palace to the ‘bacino’ of San Marco, where in other times, prisoners were hung, right out there between the two columns that are just standing there like nothing ever happened.  And while the locals waited for the executions to begin, they would shop or have a cup of coffee and visit with neighbors. Today, it’s where all the tourists feed the pigeons and then take photos of themselves feeding the pigeons.

All the other squares that would normally be called piazza in almost any other Italian town, are called ‘campi’ here, or, if they are small, a ‘campiello’. But hold on, Venice wouldn’t be Venice if there were only four names for the same thing. We can’t just have ‘piazza’ and ‘piazzetta’ and ‘campo’ and ‘campiello’, there must be more. What about the open spaces that are in-between? Ahh yes, the spaces in between. The ‘piazzale’. Fortunately for us there is only one, and you’ve already crossed it if you arrived in Venice by train for the station is in Piazzale Roma.
 Look Mom, I've Got a Pigeon on My Head
But don't despair. All those hours spent trying to figure out why every Italian verb has to have six different forms, and trying to wrap your head around tenses that don't exist in English, really will pay off in the long run. There are other towns to visit, charming towns, lovely towns. Just be aware that in Milan a room is sometimes called a locale and in Genova it's called a vano, while in ....... well never mind, you'll figure it out.

AUNTIE PASTA: The Color of Summer

CHIAVARI, Italy - Here’s a bit of early summer madness I picked up the other day. The word sorbet comes from the Arab word sharbet, which means sweet snow, which in turn comes from the Arabic verb sherber, meaning to sip. This interest in sorbet stems from a super easy recipe I found for lemon sorbet, my favorite, that I'd like to share with you today.

 The Appian Way to Rome

Sorbet, as you probably already know, is made from sugar, water and flavoring. It is easy to make so it is not surprising that it has been around much longer than ice cream. In the 1st century A.D. it’s said that the Roman Emperor Nero positioned his slaves along Rome's Appian Way  and they would pass  buckets of snow hand over hand from the mountains to his banquet hall where it was then mixed with honey and wine. 

That sounds a little farfetched to me as it’s a long way from the mountains to the center of Rome, which is very hot in the summer, and unless they could pass those buckets faster than the speed of sound, it's highly unlikely the snow would have arrived in any condition to be used for anything edible. But they do mention putting snow and ice in storage rooms below ground so that they could use it in the warmer months of the year, so maybe I'm wrong about that. 

Watermelon Granita

The Italians also came up with granita, which is sort of like sorbet but different. The difference is in how it is frozen and in the texture you end up with. In the recipe below it says to stir the sorbet with a hand whisk every 10 minutes or so if you are not using an ice cream machine, in order to avoid ice crystals from forming.  If you want to make granita instead of sorbet, stir the same mixture with a fork in order to get a more coarse texture – which for granita is the desired consistency.

Fluorescent Colored Water Ice

And then there is water ice or Italian ice which is basically the same thing but with a higher water content which results in a texture somewhere between sorbet and granita. If Italians spoke English instead of Italian they would all be called snow cones or shaved ices, which are basically cups of crushed ice topped with a flavored syrup, but since they don’t, every little change, no matter how inconsequential, in the texture of frozen water with added flavoring gets its own name.

 Lemon Sorbet



Serves 8

•    2 lb lemons (1 kilo)

•    2 cups water (1/2 liter)

•    ½ lb sugar (250 grams)

•    2 egg whites (optional)

Prepare a simple syrup with the water, sugar and thinly-sliced lemon peel, taking care to avoid the white part of the peel as it is very bitter.  Boil the water, sugar and lemon peel for 5-6 minutes, then cool completely. Strain the syrup into a bowl, using a thin mesh strainer. Squeeze the lemons, strain the juice and add the strained juice to the simple syrup.

If you have a ice cream maker, add the sorbet base to the machine and run the machine until the sorbet has reached the desired consistency.

If not, put the mixture into a bowl and place it in the freezer for 10 minutes. Then remove the bowl, and use a whisk to break apart the ice crystals. Return to the freezer for 10 minutes and repeat the whisking process every ten minutes to avoid ice crystals forming, until you reach the desired consistency.

If you want a fluffier sorbet, you can add two egg whites, whipped to form stiff peaks, when the mixture begins to solidify. Fold in the egg whites carefully using the whisk from the bottom up.

I don’t know why but lemon sorbet makes me think of long, lazy lunches under leafy chestnut trees somewhere in the hills of Tuscany, sitting around the table, talking about the this and that of daily life, and enjoying a beautiful day in the country. Sigh.

22 June 2014

LIFE: Cremona, Stradivarius and the Music Trees

CREMONA, Italy - When the Duke of Milan’s daughter Bianca Maria was about to get married, her father gave her the town of Cremona as part of her dowry. He could do that you see, for 1441 was a time when Italian cities were the personal property of the rich and powerful.

 Cremona, Italy

Bianca Maria didn’t do much with Cremona, and for more than a hundred years the town didn’t do much with itself either. That is until the 16th century when Andrea Amati came along and developed the first modern violin. Through Armati, his sons and their students, Antonio Stradivarius and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, Cremona made history and secured its place as the violin capital of the world.

It is hard to talk about Cremona without talking about violin making, although there are other things to talk about. The origins of the town go back more than 3,000 years making Cremona one of the oldest towns in northern Italy. And while the Venetians, the French, the Spanish and the Austrians all conquered Cremona at one time or another, all of that history is completely over-shadowed by the music.

 Historic Center of Cremona

It hits you right away. Walking from the train station, down the Via Palestro on my way to the center of town, the honeyed strains of Vivaldi and Paganini, Tartini and Boccherini floated out from the buildings. It was like being in a movie with the sound track running. 

The music was coming from the privately operated violin workshops that are the commercial backbone of the city. It was in a workshop just like the ones I was passing that Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu worked.

Celebrating Cremona's Past

What those old Masters accomplished was nothing short of a musical miracle, and for centuries scholars and scientists have been trying figure out just how they managed to build such magnificent instruments. Now researchers say the secret lies in the remarkable even density of the wood the violin masters used.

It really wasn’t a secret. Any of the violin artisans working in Cremona today could have told them that. The real trick would have been to figure out how the old masters knew what wood to choose, and where to find it.

Maestro Stefano Conia

Talking to Maestro Stefano Conia, founder of the Italian Association of Violin Makers, he tells me that the method he uses to select the wood for his violins is exactly the same method Stradivarius and the other Cremonese violin masters used hundreds of years ago.

Like those old masters, Maestro Conia uses a special wood found in the Paneveggio Forest, high on the slopes of the craggy Dolomite Mountains in Italy’s northern region of Trentino. The unique honeycomb structure of the forest's red spruce trees make it the ideal wood for violins and other string instrument. It is the reason why Paneveggio is called the Forest of the Music Trees.

Slow and Painstaking Work
The red spruce trees that grow there have been scientifically proven to have special characteristics, a certain elasticity and particular honeycomb like structure that mimics small pipe organs. It is this unusual structure which allows the efficient transmission of sound waves and amplifies sound, making it the ideal wood for violins and other string instruments.  But not all trees in the forest are music trees.

The best trees are straight and round with few leaves. When a woodcutter finds such a tree, he first strips away part of the bark and examines the tree trunk. If he sees small longitudinal grooves in the wood it is most likely a good candidate. Then he’ll hit the tree with a heavy hammer and listen to its vibrations. If the vibrations are strong, the tree is cut down and transported to one of the several saw mills on the lower slopes of the mountain. There the trunk is cut into rounds and the growth rings are examined. 

Maestro Conia's Workshop
 “If the growth rings are grainy and evenly spaced,” says Master Conia, “it’s good sign. It means the tree has experienced intense cold while growing. That greatly improves the transmission of sound and influences the timbre of the musical instrument.”

But there is more to making a musical masterpiece than just choosing the right wood. Making a violin was, and still is, slow and painstaking work and the superstitious violin masters of old didn’t tempt fate. 

An Original Stradivarius on Display at the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain

Stradivarius, for example, would only use wood male red Spruce trees from the Panneveggio Forest. He also insisted that the trees only be cut during the winter under a waning moon when their sap was not running. And before he applied the final coat of varnish to the instrument he was making, he would take it home and put it on the table next to his bed for a couple of weeks. By keeping the violin close to him, he believed a spiritual transaction took place between him and the instrument, and that the violin would inherit a soul. 

There may have been more to Stradivarius’ quirkiness than meets the eye. Even today, when many believe violin craftsmanship is at its highest peak, the truth is the instruments being produced can’t match the old in expressiveness and projection. Just what made those old Cremonese violins so special still remains a mystery.

70 Separate Pieces of Wood in Each Violin
The craftsmen working in Cremona today may not be quite as superstitious as the old Masters but they do follow the same methods and patterns. You can see how it’s done by visiting an artisan’s workshop. Just stop in at the Cremona Tourist Information Office and ask for their list of Botteghe Liutarie.  

In the Palazzo del Comune you'll find a collection of classical Cremonese School violins, including a 1566 violin made by Andrea Amati for King Charles IX of France and the 1658 Hammerle violin created by Nicolò Amati. In the Museo Stradivariano on Via Palestro 17, there are more than 700 objects from the Master’s workshop.

There is a replica of a violin artisan’s workshop during the time of Antonio Stradivari. It is located in the Tower il Torrazzo in the Piazza del Comune. Museum hours Tues-Sat 10-12:30 - and 3-6, Sundays 9:30-12-30.

Cremona Tourist Information Office (APT)
Piazza del Comune
26100 Cremona
Tel: +39 0382 22156/27238

Paneveggio Forest Information
San Martino di Castrozza
Via Passa Rolle 165
38058 TN
Tel: +39 0439 768867
Fax: +39 0439 768814

Maestro Stefano Conia
Corso Garibaldi 95 (in the historic center)
Cremona, LO
His violins can also be found at Sothebys, Philips, Bongards and Christies.