16 August 2015

LIFE: August in Italy

I love this photo I took this morning of two old friends walking together on the sea walk in Chiavari. It was sunny and warm and they stopped for a minute under the umbrella to catch a bit of shade. I got the feeling they have been meeting like this since they were kids. It’s August in Italy. Everyone is on vacation, young, old and in-between. And even though I'm on vacation too, I couldn't resist posting this photo. 

See you in September. Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Photo: Chiavari, 16 August 2015

13 August 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: The Big Vay Kay Starts Now

Thursday, August 13, 2015

I think the vendors at the daily market here in Chiavari take vacations, but I don’t know when. They seem to always be on the job. 

As for me, I'm taking a little time off starting today.
Hope you all have a great rest of the summer, see you in September. 

 Daily Fruit and Vegetable Market in Chiavari, Italy

09 August 2015

LIFE: Sweet Smelling Grasse

GRASSE, France   If you leave the Mediterranean Sea behind you at Cannes and head north toward the Maritime Alps, the road winds upward passing lush vineyards and fields of lavender. There are castles and monasteries hiding in the verdant hills, and knock you to your knees panoramas appear around every bend in the road.
Grasse, France
It isn’t long before you arrive in Grasse, a city that clings like a lover’s fragrance to the steep hills high above the French Riviera. It’s a city of flowers and perfume, a city you won’t soon forget.  

The narrow cobblestone streets wind past well kept 17th and 18th century buildings, sometimes going through handcrafted stone tunnels that open onto large treed squares. The slight patina that covers the buildings is from the centuries of fragrance-laden clouds that once floated in from the flower fields.

 Lavender Fields Near Grasse
Today large pots of fragrant blooming plants and colorful flowers hang from every lamppost. Blood red geraniums, pink carnations and white Sweet William cascade from ancient wrought iron balconies. The air smells sweet in Grasse, as well it should, for Grasse is the birthplace of the perfume industry.

The Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon, is one of the town’s main thoroughfares. This is where you’ll find shops selling tasseled and beribboned flacons of delicious smelling perfumes as well as cologne, sprays, fragrant soaps, lotions, candles and essential oils. Perfume and scents have been a part of life in this small town since before the French Revolution. But it wasn’t always that way.

 A Pleasant Stroll 
In the 1500s Italian leather artisans from the nearby Italian Riviera immigrated to Grasse and set up workshops. The town quickly became the center of a small tanning industry. The Italians produced gloves and other small leather products; often perfuming them with the flowers they found growing steps from their door.

Perfumes had long been popular in Italy, so much so that when 14 year old Catherine de' Medici of Florence, married the soon to be King of France, Henry II and moved to Paris in 1533, she brought her private perfumer with her. To prevent his much coveted formulas from being stolen, she kept him, and his formulas, locked away in a hidden laboratory. The only way in or out was through a secret passageway, which was connected to her apartment. 

 Place aux Aires 
As Queen of France, when Catherine started wearing perfumed gloves, they became very fashionable. But fashion aside, anyone who could afford them wanted perfumed gloves, or at the least a scented handkerchief to hold up to their nose, for in the mid 1500’s the cities of Europe were not as we see them today. Even two hundred years after Catherine’s death, the situation hadn’t changed much.

In his book Perfume, author Patrick Suskind describes the cities of France during the eighteenth century like this:  "there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us. . . the streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat. There was the stench of sulfur, the stench of caustic lyes and the stench of congealed blood from the slaughterhouses. People stank of rotting teeth, sweat and unwashed clothes . .
A Lovely Place to Relax
It was during this period that Suskind describes that Grasse prospered. The town became the largest production center for raw materials, specializing in jasmine and rose petals. Paris became the commercial counterpart to Grasse and the world center of perfume. Perfume houses such as Houbigant (which still produces Quelques Fleurs), Lubin, RogeR & Gallet, and Guerlain, which were in Paris, based their industries on the flowers they bought from Grasse. 

In those days, an early morning walk around town would bring you face to face with mountains of freshly picked rose petals, vats of mimosa or baskets of violets and orange blossoms, harvested in the cool hours just before dawn when the oil in the flowers is the most concentrated.

 Grasse Flower Market
But there are few mountains of flowers waiting to be processed these days, and no one talks about the price of jasmine or rose petals anymore. Today it’s the price of guaiacolo, ionone, chinolina, and the other chemicals used in the production of perfume that is discussed over lunch.

Changing tastes and the development of modern chemistry laid the foundations for perfumery as we know it today. Alchemy gave way to chemistry and new fragrances were created.
 The One and Only Chanel 5
Today both old and new perfume making techniques are followed in Grasse. This is where Chanel No. 5 was created, and is still produced, as are many other perfumes and scents for top Parisian couturier houses like Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. The scents are produced in small, private laboratories scattered throughout the town in low concrete buildings   hidden away behind tall fences and large trees.

Their perfume secrets are jealously guarded, much like a king’s ransom. The unfamiliar company names on the brass nameplates above the doorbells belie the contribution they make to the thirty-six billion dollar a year business called perfume.
 Fragonard Museum
Perfume is so seductive there was a time when young ladies were warned against smelling the scent of tuberose in the evening for fear it would make them overly susceptible to amorous advances. Even Father Lorenzo Quart, the hero in Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel The Seville Communion, falls under its spell.

"Macarena," he said softly, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. As he did so, he smelled her perfume: gentle, like jasmine." 
 Fragonard Perfume Museum
You can see how scents are created by visiting one of the town’s three large perfume houses: Fragonard, Galimard or Molinard. I chose to visit Galimard simply because it is the oldest. The original Monsieur Galimard supplied pomades and perfumes to the Perfume Court of Louis XV, and the company has been making perfume and scents ever since.  

At the Galimard factory I met Monsieur Jacques Maurel, the Galimard “Nose” or Master Parfumeur. Monsieur Maurel is one of fifty Noses in the world certified to make perfume. Noses, or ‘le nez’ as they are known in French, work at a desk called a perfume organ because of its similarities to a musical organ. But instead of musical pipes, perfumers are surrounded by hundreds of dark brown bottles filled with scents. As part of their training, Noses must be able to recognize and identify two to four thousand odors, and be familiar with the classical Renaissance techniques of perfume making.

 M. Maurel, Madame Galiard
Just across the street from the Perfume Museum is the Fragonard museum, the family home of the artist Jean-Honore Fragonard, Grasse’s most famous artist. His large religious painting, Washing of the Feet, hangs in the 12th century Cathedral of Grasse, Notre-Dame du Puy, in Place du Petit Puy. 

From the Cathedral it is just a short walk to Place aux Herbes, and from there to the town’s principal square Place aux Aires where you can relax and enjoy lunch under the shade of large chestnut trees. 

The daily flower mart arranged around the three tiered fountain in the center of the square is reminiscent of the by-gone days when local perfumers came here to buy wheelbarrows full of rose petals and jasmine to take back to their workshops and process into perfume.

Grasse is an easy day trip from Canne or Nice, and a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. And the best part is there are no long lists of must see sites to make you feel guilty about sitting around, sipping a cup of French roasted coffee, and watching as coiffured white poodles pull chic matrons around the square. Viva la France.

This article also appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Al Buraq Magazine

06 August 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Going Nudi in the Summertime

CHIAVARI, Italy – With the temperatures in the 90’s and not looking to drop any time soon, this is a good time to take a little vacation. The goal this summer is to try and stay cool, finish up some writing projects that have been hanging around far too long and kick back and enjoy the company of friends and family.  
 Hanging Out on the Passeggiata in Chiavari 

If you were all here in Chiavari with me, I would invite you to pull up a chair and share the ravioli nudi I’m making for lunch today. But since you are not, the least I can do is leave you with the recipe. Italy has such wonderful summer food, and this is one of my favorites. I hope you’ll try it.

Ravioli nudi is a Tuscan dish from the provinces of Siena and Grosseto. Nudi or gnudi, as they say in Tuscany, means something naked or bare, and in fact these ravioli are exposed in all their glory.   

This isn’t the type of dish that you’ll find in a restaurant or even a trattoria in Italy. Ravioli nudi are part of the rural food tradition of Tuscany, a home cooked dish, easy to make and delicious. Each family has its own recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation. The traditional recipe calls for a butter and sage sauce, but you can also use butter and extra virgin oil in equal measure, and sage of course, and also get good results.
 Ravioli Nudi with Spinach and Big Shards of Parmesan Cheese 

(Naked Ravioli with Spinach)

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

2kg/4lbs fresh spinach
500g/1lb ricotta
2 eggs
150g/1 1/3 cups Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp flour
Pinch of nutmeg

Dried sage

Before you start this recipe, put your ricotta in a strainer (over a bowl of course) and put it in the refrigerator for several hours, or overnight to remove the excess liquid.

Clean and wash the spinach. Cook for ten minutes in a saucepan with just a small amount of boiling, salted water. When the spinach is cool enough   to handle, squeeze out all of the excess water and finely chop.

Place the chopped spinach in a large bowl with the ricotta, eggs, grated Parmesan, flour and a pinch of nutmeg. Mix until all the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Form the mixture into small balls, smaller than a meatball, or small croquette-shaped cylinders.  

In a large pot, bring enough water to a boil to adequately cook the nudi.   Add the salt and drop in the "naked" ravioli. They are cooked when they rise to the surface. Remove with a strainer and sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese. Melt the butter in small saucepan, add dried sage. Pour over the ravioli nudi, sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and serve.

Small nudi are best and less likely to fall apart during cooking.  

You can create another version of nudi using just ricotta and cheese. It’s probably better to use sheep’s milk ricotta if you can find it, as it has a sharper taste and will make your nudi more flavorful.

Hope you all have a great summer. See you in September.