ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Before we start, this has no intention of having anything to do with ‘feminine’ post-holiday rehabilitation. Misogynists have never had any place in the kitchen.
There is a saying in Tuscany – and elsewhere perhaps - “Buon fuoco fa buon cuoco.” That is, “A good fire makes a good cook.” But the rustic cook, like the rustic cuisine, did not depend on the fire alone, and simple, or scarce ingredients did not always make a gastronomes idea of epicurean delights. In this lies a useful story.
Having probably overindulged the taste buds on your seasonal trip away from home, you may not look forward to a little touch of belt tightening as you survey the debit column of your bank account. In which case it may be beneficial to cast an eye back to an age at the turn of the 20th century, the late period which most of you may remember, with nostalgia along with fond memories of Elvis Presley, Adam Faith, and those anthropoid misfits, The Monkees!
Not surprisingly, at this time the harsh reality of poverty after the Second World War was still clinging on in Italy. But leaving no stone unturned in our culinary pursuit, we find it did have one beneficial aspect in that a good housewife, more than ever in sole charge of the family sustenance, was well aware of the value provided by nutritious ingredients, so the search for quality would be of more importance to her, than that splendidly discriminating tome, “Cuisine Minceur” might be to us. Only of late are we returning to the particular ethos that is represented by simplicity. Historically, there was only an empirical method in the fashioning of such culinary activity. It was as much about burnt buns, as burnt fingers! There were few, if any, recipe books for a country cook to consult, but given that the role of cook was her raison d’etre in the household, she had to be an enterprising manipulator of the methods learnt from her mother. It was a lonely occupation. You’ll remember that old saying: “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Well, social historians have decided that the secretive nature of a family recipe was only passed on to the daughters who would soon leave the home, and never to the daughters-in-law, who would stay to usurp the mother’s position. Therefore, they were summarily banished from the kitchen! In this manner we arrived at the marvellous variation in recipes, as a frantic ‘new’ cook replaced a missing ingredient with something available locally. If successful, it became the norm.
This should be a small crumb of comfort as you look for ways to ease the strain on your purse, and keep the home fires burning, remembering, that at this time of the year, food, though apparently still bountiful, its quality is definitely on the wane.
The fire had, from earliest times, been the responsibility of women, and in Italy you may still come across brick igloos built into the fabric of buildings. They are much valued as an architectural appendage as well as an oven, and can be run up to a temperature approaching 700F. They did not replace the ubiquitous open range, but were set apart in an annexe where they could be close to the stacked timber. Primarily, they were a bread oven, given over when they were available, to the roasting of numerous small birds, rabbits, and other domestic animals. In the south of Italy these ovens were always used for Testaroli, a sort of pancake, and the ubiquitous Pizza. In Tuscany, when peas were available, Cenci, or the flat bread, Ciabatta, and of course, Ligurian Genoa has always been famous for its olive oil laden Focaccia.
From this you can gather that bread and all its variants was an important item on the culinary agenda, sometimes providing the only substantial part of the meal to fill very empty stomachs. Hopefully you’re not in such dire straights, but if you’re feeling the pinch, read on.
Those who have spent a little time in Italy have probably come across a most appetising stimulant to the taste buds, Fetunta, the ingredients of which are toasted bread, garlic, olive oil and a little salt. The garlic is lavishly rubbed on to the hot toast, laced very generously with olive oil, and a sprinkling of salt. Try it, remembering that in the Tuscan countryside such was a whole dinner when times were hard. Even in the city, only a mere ten years ago, where bread ovens in an apartment weren’t possible, domestic cooks would fashion their dough and take it to the local panificio to be baked. However, in an effort to sustain all those lost calories, and missing lucre in the bank, we need to cut our cloth to suit, so along with the gas or electricity bill we’re going to reduce ourselves to bread and water. At least, to begin with.
I can’t remember ever coming across Panzanella on a restaurant menu, and I can only put this down to the fact that it sounds an impossible and unappetising concoction. Believe me, never has an opinion been so misplaced. If you’re going to try this, and you should, you really do have to have faith. At this point I must confess the recipe has wandered a little off course, and has been slightly elaborated from the original. Such is progress, but it honours the method in its basic formula, and harks back to that frantic cook who used the ingredients she had to hand. We have merely built on her example.
The word Panzanella (not to be confused with Panzarotto – a type of large ravioli) is not readily explained, but many Italian words prefixed with ‘pan’ are associated with bread – pane, so that’s a beginning. Zanella is a little more difficult, but one of its meanings is a baby’s cot. Between the two you can just about allude to the idea of bread sops – a sort of bread soup suitable for a baby. The Italians would call that ‘pancotto’. But, be assured, it isn’t a Panzanella! This version for four is courtesy of a neighbour. All ingredients must be chopped finely.
Bread: 3 good size stale slices. Crusts, included.
Fresh Herbs: Basil, Oregano or Marjoram.
Cucumber: half medium size, chopped into small pieces.
Tomato: 1 large or 2 medium size chopped.
Onion: 1 red medium size chopped.
Garlic: 1 or 2 chopped.
Tuna Fish: in olive oil. 160 gm. tin.
Apple Cider Vinegar: capful.
Lettuce: 1 small, washed, and chopped.
Olive Oil: 3 tablespoons.
Salt and pepper: to taste.
Break the bread loosely by hand and place in a bowl along with a cupful of water and leave for c. 45 minutes. Sqeeze out any excess water. If it is a little too dry at this point, add a small amount of extra water, then work into a sort of dough. Add all the other ingredients, including the olive oil from the tuna fish. Mix together very well, place in the refrigerator if not being used at once, but remove for at least 30 minutes before serving. Grated Parmesan would be a sophisticated addition – why not?
(It’s best to admit at this point, a 50% increase in ingredients from the original, which was the prepared bread mixed with olive oil, salt, vinegar, tomatoes, basil and onion according to taste.)
You can reduce the vegetable ingredients to suit your own requirements, and your larder, but this version is suitable for luncheon guests, while the original might accompany a supper, or used to replace what the Italians call I Primi – or first course, normally a pasta.