28 December 2014

LIFE: The Catty Co-Mayor of Gravellona

CHIAVARI – It might seem strange to some that the co-mayor of Gravellona-Lomellina, a small ­town near Milan, is a cat, but for the town’s citizens it’s normal.

 Marina, Co-Mayor of Gravellona-Lomellina
The cat-mayor’s name is Marina, and during this holiday period she likes to spend her time hanging out in the nativity manger that was set up in City Hall. 
 The Town's Official Christmas Card wishing Everyone a Very Merry Christmas
It seems the citizens of Gravellona-Lomellina have a soft spot for animals, especially cats. After Pippi, the former cat-mayor died a few months ago, they didn’t waste any time finding a replacement. And even though Pippi wasn’t around to help train Marina, she seems to have taken an enthusiastic approach to the job.

 Studying Situations is all in a Day's Work for this Co-Mayor
But being co-mayor is more than just hanging around looking cute. When animal lovers Laura Trolese and Alessandro Barone got married earlier this year, Marina helped co-mayor Francesco Ratti officiate at the wedding.
 Laura and Alessandro After the Ceremony
The newlyweds also donated the money that would have been spent on wedding “favors” to a cat shelter in nearby Vigevano. They also asked their wedding guests to make a small donation to the cat shelter, which everyone did. 

Gravellona-Lomellina is a pretty little town.

 Tower Art in Gravellona
And you might say its citizens have a sense of humor. 
 Time for a Nap
But mostly they love Marina, the one and only cat-mayor in Italy, or maybe even the world.

25 December 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

 May your day be happy and bright!

21 December 2014

LIFE: 'Tis the Season

CHIAVARI, Italy – This is the week Chiavari hosts its annual Christmas party and everyone is invited. The party is held in Piazza Mazzini, behind the Palazzo di Giustizia right in the center of town.  There is music and dancing and free panettone and sparkling wine to toast the Christmas season.
 Welcome, Welcome, Welcome
The Red Cross, the local ambulance service, and other organizations that are always ready to help out when needed, set up tables in the hope that the spirit of the season will prompt you to reach into your pocket and offer a donation or two.   
Here's a look back at last year's festivities.

Good evening ladies, How about a little sparkling liquid spirit to add to the spirit of the season? 
 Shall We Dance?

Tis the Season to be Jolly - and Generous 

Too much celebrating? Not to worry. The man-powered ambulance is ready to go if you need a quick trip to the hospital.
 Sailing a boat is one thing, ice skating is something else. 
 Built in the 1200's and still standing
 Ohhhh, That looks good.

Merry Christmas one and all.

18 December 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Busiate with Pesto Trapanese

CHIAVARI, Italy - Every region has its own special pasta. In Sicily, in the region around Trappani, the special pasta is busiate, thin tubes of pasta, about 2 1/2 inches/7 cm long and ½ inch/4 mm in diameter.   Like other pastas popular in southern Italy, busiate are made with double processed hard wheat and water and no eggs.
 Busiate alla Trapanese
In Trapani busiate are served with a special type of pesto called pesto trapanese. Trapani and Genova are both port cities and it was the Genovese sailors who introduced the Trapanese to the concept of pesto. Then the Trapanese took the Genovese pesto, which is made from basil and pine nuts, and added tomatoes, and almonds and turned it into pesto trapanese.

While the Genovese have official pesto recipes, in Trapani official recipes for pesto trapanese do not really exist. In Sicily you will find a variety of versions, with and without pecorino (Sicilian pecorino), and British chef Nigella Lawson adds capers, raisins, anchovies and red hot pepper flakes. The recipe that follows is one that you will find in osterias and trattorias in and around Trapani. There are not a lot off ingredients but the flavor is superb.  


(2 large or 4 small portions)

 1 cup/250 grams ground hard wheat semola

1 cup/125 ml water


¼ lb plus 1 more/300 grams ripe tomatoes

a little under 2 ounces/50 grams peeled almonds

extra virgin olive oil

6-12 basil leaves, plus a few more for garnish

1 clove of garlic


Black pepper (optional)

To Make the Pasta
For the busiate. Put the flour in the mixer. At medium speed, slowly start to add the water.

Add enough water to make a compact dough. The actual amount of water you will need will depend on the level of humity of the flour, so it’s important to add the water a little at a time. If your dough is still too sticky, add a little more flour.  

Take out the mixing element and put in the dough kneading element and knead the dough for 5-10 minutes at medium speed – or until the dough is smooth and elastic. 

Wrap the dough in Saran Wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for about half an hour. 

When you are ready to make the busiate, take a piece of pasta dough and roll it out with your hands until it is long and round. It does not have to be perfect. Then cut the dough into pieces approximately 1.5” long/3.5 cm. If some pieces are thicker than others, cut them shorter.

Cut the dough into pieces. 

Take a wooden or metal skewer and put it on a piece off dough. 

Roll it back and forth with your hand until you have made a thin cylinder around the skewer. 

The cylinder should be about 3 inches long. If it comes out longer, roll it until it is just a little thinner and then cut it into shorter pieces. 

Repeat until you have used all the dough. Put the busiate on a floured tray in a single layer. Let them dry for about half an hour.

To Make Pesto Trapanese

To make pesto Trapanese start by toasting the peeled almonds in a pre-heated oven 350F/180C for about 10 minutes. 

While the almonds are toasting, peel the tomatoes, remove the seeds and chop into small pieces. 

When the almonds have been toasted and have cooled, chop them. When they are coarsely chopped take some out to garnish your dish, then continue until they are finely chopped. You can do this by hand or with a robot. 

For the next step, you can continue to use a robot or blender, starting with the basil and a pinch of salt. 

 Pulse (or pound if you are doing this by hand) until the basil is smooth. 

Add the chopped almonds and a little olive oil. Continue to pulse (or pound) until you have a coarse mix. 

Add the tomatoes and continue pulsing or pounding, thoroughly blending all of the ingredients. 

Pesto Trapanese is ready when it reaches a coarse consistency. You can make this a day ahead and store it in the refrigerator. You’ll find the flavors have mellowed over night. 

Boil the busiate for about 8 minutes (or less) in a large amount of salted water. Test the pasta after about 6 minutes. They may be ready. When they are cooked, drain them. Heat a deep frying pan over a low flame and add the busiate and the pesto alla Trapanese. Mix well. Serve on a warm dish with a sprinkle of almonds, a basil leaf and a grind or two of black pepper.  

 Today’s photos and recipes are from http://stefanobuongustaio.com/




14 December 2014

LIFE: Christmas in Italy 2014

CHIAVARI, Italy – Christmas in Italy is a very special time. Towns are full of sparkly lights, red poinsettia decorate shop windows and there is even a Christmas tree or two in the main piazza. This is a time of family, food, music and the wonder of miracles. 
Christmas Market in Alto Adige, Italy
But pretty as the sparkly lights and poinsettia are, they are not what Christmas in Italy is about. It is about celebrating the birth of Christ. Most holidays in Italy center on church designated holy days, and some of them re-worked versions of pagan holidays celebrated by the ancient Romans.  While Christmas isn’t a re-worked pagan holiday, back in the days of the Roman Empire the Romans did celebrate during the period we now think of as our Christmas season. Their holiday was called Saturnalia and it was celebrated from December 17th to the 24th.  It was a whoopee-doo time of feasting, drinking and dancing in the streets, which the Italians still do but only in the spring during Carnival.

We may have lost Saturnalia, but not all of the old ways are lost. One really old tradition that still survives in some parts of Italy is the burning of a tree stump on Christmas Eve. At one time burning a tree stump was a clever way to convert an even older pagan tradition that symbolized the final ending of the old year by burning away whatever evil it had had in it. Out with the old and in with the new.

 Sorrento, Italy
The head of the household would put a tree stump in the family fireplace, say a prayer, put a coin on the stump and set the whole business on fire. The youngest member of the family would then have to sing a song or recite a poem before being allowed to pick up the coin. The fire was usually left to burn while the family went to midnight mass, symbolically allowing the Virgin Mary to enter their home and warm the baby Jesus.

Another very old Christmas tradition is that of the zampognari (bagpipers).  It too dates back to the ancient Romans.  It is based on a legend of shepherds visiting the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, and after seeing the baby Jesus, they took out their bagpipes and played. Still today, in remembrance of that moment, if pipers see a public nativity scene they will stop in front of it for a few minutes of quiet contemplation before they move on.  

Zampognari in Rome, Italy

But perhaps the most famous of all Italian Christmas traditions is the nativity scene. The first manger, as we think of mangers today, was created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. He used real people and live animals so the illiterate in his congregation could understand the meaning of Christmas. The idea then morphed into using figurines.

During the holidays the Christian churches in Italy, as well as banks, post offices, train stations and other public buildings all have nativity scenes on display.  There is hardly a building in Italy that does not have a nativity scene in its public space. Even kids work together to recreate a manger in the main entrances of their schools, ready to greet visiting parents and relatives.   

The Manger at the Vatican, Rome, Italy
In Saronno, the town near Milan where I lived in before moving to Chiavari, the merchants would have a contest every year to see who could make the best nativity scene using only the materials they sold or made.  So if you were the owner of the local pasta shop, your nativity scene would be made of macaroni and sheets of lasagna dough and the baker may glue together some breadcrumbs to make a roof for his flour bag stable.

The mangers create a lot of excitement and in the days leading up to Christmas Italian families make it point to visit the churches in their town.  Grandparents babysitting little ones will take them to church and as they stand in front of the manger they will tell them the story of Mary and Jesus.  Even shoppers rushing around buying gifts for the holidays will often take a break and pop into the closest church to see its version of the baby Jesus and the stable in Bethlehem. 

 Creche Figures Handmade by Artisans in Naples, Italy
For Italians Christmas is a religious holiday much more than a gift giving holiday, for many gifts come later on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany.  I can still hear my father, who grew up in Italy, talking about how thrilled he used to be during the holidays to find an orange or some candies from the Befana – the good witch.  Like Santa Claus she also flies from roof top to roof top bringing gifts, but instead of riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she rides a broom, or sometimes a donkey. But however those oranges got to my father’s stocking, it must have been quite a trip getting up to that hill town of Piansano in northern Lazio in those early days of the 1900’s.

Many Italian Christmas traditions like gift bringing witches, bag-piping shepherds, mangers large and small and tree burning ceremonies are a mix of religious and popular customs that date back thousands of years. As the years have passed, each region has developed its own special way of celebrating Christmas that have a special meaning to the people who live there, but the focus is always on the importance of the holiday – the celebration of the birth of Christ.
 La Befana
It’s different in other parts of the world where a jolly old man, a guy with a simple one night mission, nine cute reindeer and a single catchy tune has just about wiped out the religious aspect of Christmas. The Italians don’t want it to happen here and complain about the foreign assault on their culture.  If you think about it, even a Christmas tree in the piazza is a big concession to non-Italian Christmas traditions.

But traditions evolve and who knows if at some point in the future we’ll see pictures of old Santa twirling a forkful of spaghetti or spooning into a bowl of minestrone soup.  Italians being Italians will certainly figure out some way to make him their own, part of the family – the most important element of Italian life, and I’m pretty sure that is one thing that will never change.  Buon Natale tutti.

11 December 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The Mighty Chestnut

CHIAVARI, Italy - As we inch closer and closer to Christmas street vendors in Italy have started selling roasted chestnuts in the piazzas of most Italian towns. Truthfully, the warm paper cones filled with hot off the fire chestnuts are pretty hard to resist, especially if the weather is nippy.
Chestnuts Roasting in the Piazza 
Up to now, what I knew about chestnuts was that I liked them. They have been part of my Christmas memories for as long as I can remember, and it’s only recently that I discovered that those little round bundles of nutty creaminess are much more than mere hand warmers and belly fillers.

These five facts were a complete surprise to me.

1. Chestnuts are true nuts unlike almonds and cashews, which technically are fruits.

2. Chestnuts are nutritious.  They are high in manganese, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and copper. The trace mineral copper found in chestnuts increases bone strength, helps form red blood cells, promotes nerve function and boosts your immune system. Eat them with dried prunes for a snack high in copper.
Sweet Treat
3. Chestnuts are packed with soluble B vitamins, which among other good things, enhances brain function.  Three ounces of chestnuts gives you the recommended daily value of B-6, 15 percent of folate, 14 percent of thiamine and 9 percent of riboflavin.  Eat them with a leafy green salad and lean meat for a vitamin and mineral packed meal.

4. Chestnuts are low in fat and high in fiber. In 3.5 ounces of chestnuts you’ll get 4 grams of fiber but only 2.2 grams of fat.

5. Chestnuts have a high content of the trace mineral manganese – an antioxidant. It soaks up free radicals in your system and reduces the risk o cancer and heart disease. Manganese helps with the production of connective tissues and blood clotting, and helps reduce the effects of the aging process. Try adding chopped chestnuts to a bowl of oatmeal for a healthy manganese-packed breakfast.
Picture Perfect
Cooking Chestnuts

While there are many ways to cook chestnuts, the most classic way is to roast them on top of the stove or in the oven.  It’s easy to do. The only equipment you need is a chestnut pan, which looks like a regular frying pan except there are holes on the bottom of it. No chestnut pan? That’s okay. A regular frying pan will do. For oven roasting, you’ll need a shallow oven proof pan.

Top of the Stove Chestnuts

Step number one is to wash your chestnuts under running water and dry them with a towel. Then, with a sharp knife, or a pair off sharp pointed scissors, cut an X on the round side of each chestnut. This is to insure that the chestnuts don’t explode while they are cooking.

If you are using a chestnut pan with holes in it, it will take about 15 minutes over medium heat for the chestnuts to cook. It’s important to stir or shake them often so they cook uniformly. At the end of the cooking process, when you see they are burned in just the right places, taste one to make sure it is thoroughly cooked before you take the entire pan off of the heat. Cooking time may vary depending on the size of the chestnuts.    

 Wrap Them in a Damp Tea Towel
When the chestnuts are cooked, wrap them with a damp tea towel and tuck the tea towel underneath the pan and leave them covered for about 10 minutes. This simple step will make your chestnuts a lot easier to peel.

Oven Roasted Chestnuts

To roast them in the oven will take about 40 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit/200 degrees Celsius. Cut an X in on the flat side of each washed and dried chestnut, and put them in an oven proof baking dish. It’s best not to overcrowd them, so one layer is best. Stir and turn them often while they are cooking so that they cook evenly. Before you take them out off the oven, taste one to make sure they are thoroughly cooked. When they are cooked, take them out of the oven and wrap them in a damp tea towel for ten minutes, as described above.

Boiled Chestnuts

To boil chestnuts, cut an X on the flat side of each one and place them in a pot of cold water.  Bring the water to a boil and let the chestnuts simmer for about 15 to 25 minutes. It’s a good idea to test one before you drain them to make sure they are thoroughly cooked. Then drain them, and peel them as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Boiled chestnuts are a little hard to peel when they are cold. Boiling them is an easy way to prepare chestnuts you are going to use in other dishes, like bread dressing for chicken or turkey or if you are going to pair them with Brussel sprouts.

 Easier to Peel When Warm
Microwave Chestnuts

Last but not least you can cook them in your microwave. After you have cleaned them, and cut an X in them, put them in a microwave dish and zap them uncovered for 2 or 3 minutes so on a high setting. Cooking time may vary because of size and the number of chestnuts you are cooking. A single layer of chestnuts works best.

07 December 2014

LIFE: Up in a Cloud

CHIAVARI, Italy – The city of Milan does a pretty good job of promoting itself. It’s easy to find information on what’s going on in the city whether its street fairs or trade fairs or even which restaurants and bars are the current “hot” spots. And then there is the Milan the Milanese kind of keep to themselves – it’s not that they are keeping secrets, it’s just that they don’t talk about some things as much as they talk about others. The Rite of the Nivola is a good example.
Rito della Nivola, Milan, Italy
In all the years I lived in Milan I never knew that one of Christianity’s most important relics – the Santo Chiodo - a nail from the True Cross – is in the Duomo of Milan.  It is kept in a reliquary in the apse near the main altar. You can’t see it when you are in the Duomo but you can see the little red light above the altar that shows where it is kept.

This relic is believed to have been discovered by Saint Helena in the Holy Land in 326 AD, and many experts believe it was brought to Milan in the 12th or 13th century during the Crusades. What we know for sure is it was in the Duomo in 1461. It was first brought to the attention of the public by the Bishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo, during a procession in 1577 when he was asking for Divine Intervention from the Black Plague. Divine intervention was definitely needed. Millions of Italians had already died from the plague and before they figured out a way to combat it, it had killed more than 20 million people, over 60 percent of the entire population of Europe.
Altar, Duomo of Milan
One of the reasons the Rito della Nivola isn’t better known is that even if people hear the name, it isn’t clear what the rite is all about. Unless you know the story, it is just about impossible to connect the Rito to the Holy Nail, or the plague or St. Charles Borromeo or even Milan for that matter. It does seem a bit odd that the rite isn’t named after the Holy Nail, instead of after the reliquary that holds it and the contraption that lifts it up to the apse.

That’s not to say the reliquary isn’t beautifully decorated with cherubs and angels and looks like large cloud when it is being raised or lowered in the Duomo. It does, and that cloud like appearance is where the rite gets its name as nivola is, or was at the time, Milanese dialect for cloud.
 St. Charles Boromeo 
As for Leonardo da Vinci’s involvement in the project, the best guess is that he designed, or at the least conceived of, the complicated pulley system that carries the Nivola up into the apse.  Da Vinci was working for Ludovico (il Moro), the Duke of Milan, at the time and records show he was called in as a consultant on a difficult construction problem the builders were having with the dome of the Duomo.  So it is entirely plausible that he could, and would, design a system that could carry a heavy basket-like structure 147 feet up on the air. It was just the kind off thing da Vinci did best. 

To raise and lower the basket which was 9 feet (3 meters) long and weighed 1,700 lbs (800 kilos), it took about two dozen men. They were positioned on the roof of the Duomo, no doubt hanging on to the ropes of the pulley system for dear life, charged with lowering the Nivola down to a spot in front of the altar. Two weeks later they were back for the more difficult task of raising it up again. Now the pulley system has been mechanized so the entire operation is much less stressful but the schedule is pretty much the same.
 Duomo of Milan
There are only two days a year that you can see the Nivola, the day the Holy Nail is taken from the case, usually on September 14th, and two weeks later when it is put back. The ceremony is open to the public but you have to make a reservation through the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo offices.  

Duomo di Milano Contact Info
Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo
Via Arcivescovado 1 – 20122 Milano 
tel +39 02 72022656
fax +39 02 72022419
Office Hours: dal lunedì al venerdì h. 9.30-13.00; 14.30-17.30, Closed Saturday and Sunday email: info@duomomilano.it  

Duomo Info Point
Via Arcivescovado  1 – 20122 Milano
tel +39 02 72023375 - fax +39 02 72022419
Hours Duomo Info Point: Monday-Saturday h. 9.30 -5.30.
Sundays 11.00 alle 3.00


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