ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
The greatest culinary period in Roman history was at their point of decline. With the Goths hammering on the door, scrambled eggs were coming back into fashion, and omelettes were out. Especially the fishy ones. It’s taken c. fifteen hundred years for the Italians to regain their composure, and their culinary skills. It’s not been easy. Catherine de Medici, married off by her father, Lorenzo, to the French king, Henry II, took all the recipes with her, and set the French on the road to Michelin stardom, as well as teaching them how to set a table. Sadly, it still didn’t stop them eating their sausages, whole, on the end of the new fangled forks. Obviously, the great lady still had some work to do.
In later times, travellers to Italy had mixed blessings, besides beds crawling with bugs, and sundry microscopic creatures. Dickens, a mass of itchy bumps, still managed to describe a gourmand’s paradise in Stradella, where their evening meal consisted of five courses: Cabbage boiled with rice and flavoured with cheese; bits of pork fried with pigs’ kidneys; little red fowls; little red Turkeys, and finally, a stew of garlic and truffles. No mention of a pud! Meanwhile, the intrepid and audacious Mrs Piozzi, in the seventeen eighties, fared well among the nobles of Florence, and eulogized over their good manners and fine dinners. They were probably discreetly eyeing up her fortune. Meanwhile, down in Naples, those on ‘the tour’, were wondering if they dare try ‘sausage stuffed squid’, which apparently is definitely not a salami stuffed with a cephalopod mollusc. Sounds a fishy story to me. In retrospection, Italy, at this point, didn’t seem to be laying the foundations for a modern gastronomes paradise.
Naturally, things have moved on. Nowadays, fruit from the Amalfi, along with vegetables and tomatoes from the Campania felix, are said not to be equalled anywhere. Fame can bring mixed fortunes. I read, not so long ago, there was a shortage of Naples tomatoes due to the Japanese purchasing the whole crop. Some wag suggested that the undertakers should go on strike, and refuse to bury the agronomes! See Naples they say - but not before next years crop of tomatoes! Tuscany, meanwhile, had got over Catherine’s misfortunes, and embraced the new gastronomic world of ‘Plating Art’, or lacing the plate with sundry dribbles on which a nice beef fillet cowered in disgust. Hopefully it was an anomaly. The region as a whole; however, took seriously to Slow Food, and if you were in the know, could find yourself at one of the societies special dinners. No fancy art work there, splattered all over the china. Not likely. Filetti di maiale con pomodoro pisanello, aglio a buccia rossa, dragoncello e fagioli, was the order of the day, rounding off three other esoteric courses, and in its proper place, Terrina tre cioccolati, still to come. Elsewhere, they took it a stage further, and amalgamated a boar with chocolate sauce, and called it Cinghiale in agrodolce. Not to everyone’s taste, and probably in very bad taste. Proper chefs blame it on the Medici, and probably a culinary failure that Catherine sensibly left behind. As in all good things, popularity like familiarity, breeds contempt, and one nowadays gets the feeling of an overworked, corrupted concept.
The makings are still there if you know where to look. But it’s not easy. Country markets are not what they used to be, and that might be a good thing. Seeing a little old lady in black, sizing up a squawking chicken held up by the vendor for her to give it a knowledgeable squeeze, wasn’t for the squeamish. A quick twist, and a pull, and its corpse was rapidly stuffed into her oversized shopping bag. The good old days. Not for the chicken it wasn’t! One also has the inkling that most of the fruit and veg’ stalls would fail a culinary audition, not that it stops the punters waiting at the stage door hoping to pick up a bargain. Where have all the local traders gone, those who only came out once a week in the season? Seemingly ‘far, far away’ with their three wheeled Piaggio Ape laden with two dozen strings of onions, a small chest of tomatoes, a few peppers, some not quite ripe apricots, and sundry plastic bags full of fresh Tuscan black cabbage and bunches of chard, straight from their vegetable plots, and fruit trees. Everything was weighed with an ancient hand held scale, cash on the nail, and no questions asked. You just kept an eye on their fingers under the fulcrum! There always used to be a stall where you could purchase hexagonal chambers of honeycomb covered in wax, displaying its geographical and botanical environment on a card, neatly printed in felt-tip. Aficionados could plump for the pollen, if they had it in mind. Mass produced competition, or age, seems to have seen off all the old costermongers. And the bees as well!
Needless to say, things could be worse, and in fact they’re probably a little better. There’s always the Coop, with its newfound philosophy. If you imagine the English style original that never recovered after the Second World War, then you’re not with me. Instead, bring to mind a clean, bright and highly efficient Grocery Store, even if it is technically owned by its Soci, who invest a tiny twenty Euros to become a member – nothing like the UK Coop of old. The Annual General Meeting is very polite, featuring opera singers to brighten up all the dull moments, with a slap up dinner at good Florentine restaurants round the town, afterwards. The audited accounts of this highly successful business, must bring a smile to the Exchequers face. Perhaps someone should suggest they run the EU, so they can balance their books! In season, the produce, especially fruit, is so inexpensive they apply a limit on how much you can purchase of an item, in case it ends up in a high street retail business. Offers are like confetti. Forty or Fifty per cent reduction, or ‘two for one’, even appear on popular items that sell themselves. If it still has shades of its Communist roots, never mind. You can pick up from its wine department some Krug champagne; that Rip van Winkle of wine in the shape of a a nicely aged Barolo, or a bottle or two of Laphroaig malt whisky, the same as Charles puts away in the evening. ‘By Appointment’ must mean something. ‘Weetabix’ and ‘Lea & Perrins’ have been on their shelves for years. ‘Follow the money’ the economists say. It’s primary virtue is based on the promotion of biological products, and good old fashioned localism. This is creeping in everywhere in Italy, but it’s a sad fact that only in those nations where small scale rural husbandry still takes place do you have the social dynamics for the true local domestic market. In this environment, Lidl just can’t get its head above the third division. The Tuscan Coop encourages and promotes a tiny push for individualism in a world that’s being rapidly cloned. How many grocery stores do you know that have banned products using palm oil? It’s not just ‘Made in Italy’, (well, not the brilliant film of that name, even if it’s only available in Italian) but Tuscany as well. Petti, a local brand, pump Passata out of Florence, and a whole lot of polenta and rice comes from the Maremma; real Emmer wheat is grown and harvested in the Garfagnana above Lucca, and Siena goes the whole hog with its Cinta Senese free roaming pigs, the same as you find in Hampshire's New Forest. Free range, and no OGM rule the roost here. So much Pasta seems to be made all over the Tuscan region using natural products, that it’s almost ubiquitous. The Olive Oil is a must, and don’t mention wine. Whole walls are given over to the stuff, with only a few shelves left for the ‘foreigners’ – albeit, somewhere else in Italy! Dignity, self respect, and a belief in itself, is returning to the Nation's culinary world. Let’s hope it’s catching.
And perhaps it is. Local restaurants have caught the bug, with one offering an audacious menu entitled ‘Kilometre Zero’, meaning all the ingredients are sourced locally. A large wooden paddle indicates the arrival of the pizza, already cut to a handy size, and its Calzone al forno are best left to a very hungry devotee. Both are made from flour sourced from a 'next door' field, and its taste is very different. Indulgent, and interesting; the mark of a good cuisine. One can only dream of their Basil Ice cream at this time of year. Try for that in Wycombe high street, even if you’re let off sourcing a local red wine!
If this is commercialism with a heart, it’s sadly, not so often true. The Greek philosophers established thousands of years ago, that societies progress is developed by opposites, and every step of progress breeds another that ultimately destroys it. I am reminded of this ‘two sides to a coin’ philosophy by a Siena Palio Contrada dinner. In mediaeval times the larger cities were formed into divisions within the walls, and no matter where the resident was in times of attack, this was the position they hurried back to defend. Out of this camaraderie the Contrade were formed; continuing today among much exciting pomp and ceremony. One of its many aspects is the Contrada dinner that takes place on the occasion of the Palio. For a stranger to attend was a mark of great indulgence, and normally arranged by a friend, and member of a Contrada. Having been twice to such an event in the same Contrada, twenty years apart, I can provide an instance, which fairly represents ‘two sides of a coin’. The first took place in the private Contrada clubhouse garden, attended by a few hundred members, served by its young members, very nimble and fleet of foot. It was an all-enclosing warm, affectionate and amicable occasion. The second can only be called a commercial event, open to all. Well over two thousand people at tables close to the Porta Camollia, with a modern professional kitchen, for the ladies of the Contrada to produce a substantial meal. The old ambiance had evaporated into a mass of isolated parties making a lot of discordant noise, with no sense of intimate fraternity. The contrast demonstrated that big is sometimes not so beautiful. Believe me, ‘Kilometre Zero’ is it, despite what my old friend Krista would say.
However, given ‘we are what we eat’, I should just touch on a small aspect that you can still come across in Tuscany, and that is, sourcing your kitchen from the hedgerows. Turn up your nose you may, but its devotees, if not numerous, are devout. I do not have a liking for snails, but they are everywhere after a little rain, and the sight of a large human derrière sticking out from a hedge is sure to follow. If you try hard you can also find wild asparagus at the same time. For those of a blander taste I will touch on three I have come across and find useful: two that enhance salads, and one that I rate as one of the finest herbs for the kitchen. I don’t remember seeing Arugula (Rucola) growing wild in the UK, but in Tuscany it is prolific, and have managed to civilize it somewhat in the garden. It is smaller leaved, having a slightly hotter taste than the domestic variety, and like Horseradish, very wayward and unruly in its behaviour. If you manage to find a patch for it in your garden, leave the yellow flowers to scatter there seeds round a large area. Strigolo (Bladder Campion), on the other hand, is very conservative, milder, and an excellent salad companion. Despite its diminutive form, it has an expansive personality if given the chance. Nepitella (Calamint) has to be treated with discretion, as it is somewhat like a strong cross between Oregano and Marjoram. In appearance it is like a giant form of the latter. In meat sauces it is an ideal accompaniment. Out of cussedness I found an example growing in the Temple of Apollo at Cumae, and transported it home, rather like ‘coals to Newcastle’, wrapped in a wet tissue and polythene. It survived, so a good method if you need to bring a sample any distance. Anyway, to finish, here is a sauce recipe I concocted for cold meats, chops, sausages etc. using Nepitella.
Prepare the following:
Garlic - 3 cloves chopped finely.
Ginger - 3 fresh thumb sized fleshy rhizomes, cleaned and chopped finely.
Nepitella - 5 long sprigs – leaves chopped finely. (Substitute: oregano and, or, marjoram)
Combine in a shallow pan with the following:
Olive Oil - 6 Tablespoons.
Worcester Sauce - 3 Tablespoons.
Tomato Passata - 6 Tablesoons.
Brown cane sugar - 1 Tablespoon.
Bring gently to the boil whilst stirring. Reduce heat to a simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Allow to cool. Can be stored, bottled, in the refrigerator for two weeks. It may last longer if stored under olive oil.
Optional - If you like it a little hotter, add one small crushed chilli pepper.