Bread on My Mind

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Yes, yes I know … these are strawberries, not bread.  (Also not in the picture was a very good Torta Caprese too.)  Bear with me.

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And this is a main course of grilled lamb chops and beef short ribs.  (Roast potatoes were served along with them.)

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These, instead, are’nibbles’ that are so typical in and around Rome at this time of year: fresh broadbeans (fava beans) that pair so well with Roman pecorino cheese.  As well as a most enticing spice-topped Robbiola cheese to be spread over home-made bread.

As you might have surmised, I am doing a meal ‘backwards’.  The meal in question was only less than a week ago, on May 1st, “primo maggio” or Labour Day, a bank holiday in many countries.   We were invited to lunch by Wendy Holloway and her husband Maurizio, who live near Riano, north of Rome.  Wendy and I met via a Girl Scout course (a long long time ago and that’s another story) and we share a passion for food and cooking.  She has been running Italian cooking classes and tours for over twenty years now (her website is https://flavorofitaly.com/).   

Also invited were Phyllis Knudsen and her husband Joe from Vancouver, who were visiting Rome.  Phyllis is a retired chef and her blog is http://oracibo.com/.  Joe is a photographer and Wendy is totally into photography at the moment, so they were able to indulge in some detail over the subject as we ate our way through the ‘very simple lunch’, as she put it, that she had prepared for us.  There is genius and delight in ‘simple food’ when presented this way.

And now for getting to the point of this post.

You might have noticed that the back-to-front menu I presented skipped a rather important course in a typical Italian meal, i.e. the ‘primo’ – the pasta or risotto or soup course.  And indeed Wendy had prepared a very nice pasta for us that got wolfed down pretty quickly by all of us (I won’t snitch and tell you who asked for extra helpings).

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There it is, the pasta (in a guanciale, peas and courgettes sauce) in the plates about to be eaten.  Do notice, also, that there are two loaves of bread, prominently placed at the head of the table.  Wendy, once she sat down, began slicing the (delicious) bread she had made to serve to her guests, but mostly her husband.  She confided to us that ‘Mo’ as she calls him is very Italian and can’t eat a meal without bread.  I had to smile.  It is a peculiar Italian eating habit that has ancient roots.

In article she wrote last November entitled “Where and How to Eat in Venice”, the Venice Food Guide Monica Cesarato warns:

  • Don’t ever eat bread with your pasta. Bread is only eaten with the second course or to do la scarpetta (literally “make a little shoe”) and mop up the leftover sauce on the plate of your first course.

Well, I’ll have to disagree with her … for those who like their bread in Italy, they think that bread can be eaten from start to finish.  If anything, it is bread that kicks off the meal, accompanying the antipasto, no?

Fast forward a few days and I am in Venice, about to meet up for the second time in my life with a very ‘interesting’ almost 90 year-old man – I don’t know how else to describe him, so many other adjectives come to mind – the Italian born Victor Hazan, of whom I have grown very fond.  He has been living in Florida for the last decades but he and his late wife Marcella had lived in Venice for twenty years previously, running a very successful cooking school.   He had written to me to say that this was his last trip to Italy and I could not resist the opportunity of seeing him again.  The day I arrived, he invited me and two men for lunch, one of whom is from Bolzano.  His name is Andrea Tosolini and he is an importer of Italian foods; also lives in Florida (his wife is from Florida) and he and Victor are friends.  Anyway, just as we met outside Victor’s hotel, Andrea presented Victor some some edible presents.  See for yourselves.

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He was waxing lyrical over the good quality and incredible variety of breads to be found in his home town of Bolzano.  And, again, I just had to smile.  Only in Italy, I thought to myself, could someone bring bread as an offering, only in Italy is bread taken to be magical and not just ‘good to eat’.

I was reminded of an article I wrote for a magazine called “In Search of Taste” in 2014, which I want to repost today, with the odd edit here and there.

I wrote the original article thanks to, and at the request of, my late friend Gareth Jones from London.  We became friends via Facebook, coincidentally on Marcella Hazan’s page, commenting a post she had written regarding salt. And then we became friends in ‘real life’ and met in London, where he invited me to lunch at Joy King Lau’s (http://www.garethjonesfood.com/?p=6615). 

And then again, coincidentally, or was it serendipity really? it was through Facebook and Gareth’s page that I got to meet Phyllis Knudsen.   She regrets never having had the chance to physically meet Gareth.  We both adored him, his outlook, his naughtiness, his refreshing outspokenness, his warmth and sense of humour, his incredible wealthh of culinary knowledge, and continue to miss him (he died in 2015).  Do look up his blog, if you like fine writing and unusual and knowledgeable insights on food, you will easily become engrossed. 

And now for my article on bread in Italy, I hope you enjoy it.

A SLICE OF BREAD, A SLICE OF LIFE

Sacrosanct.  A word more usually associated with the liturgical is indissolubly linked to bread in Italy, and of inestimable value is the place that bread holds deep in the soul of the Italians.

The story is a long one and — “O Tempora, O Mores!”  — times do change but, despite the insidious infiltration of an aesthetic equating thinness with beauty, the encroachment of protein-biased diets and the faddish battle waged against the umbrella term ‘carbohydrates’, bread continues to be the first thing that is brought to the client in every restaurant or trattoria all over the country.  All menus will state the restaurant’s service price which is called  “pane e coperto”, meaning “bread and cover charge”.  It is taken for granted that you shall eat bread, there is no need for the client to ask for it.  People working in restaurants may now be getting somewhat inured to the vexation that is a tourist ordering a cappuccino at the end of a meal (to an Italian, that would be the equivalent of someone ordering a bowl of cereal at the end of a copious meal) but will understand if a client is inclined to ask for some olive oil to accompany the bread on the table.  Though not an Italian custom as such, it makes sense.  And a waiter will of course understand if you want to order more bread.  Bread accompanies the whole meal, from start to finish until dessert, and is not served only at the beginning as in bread-and-butter eating countries.

Apart from those idiosyncratic individuals who like to concoct their own nutrition régimes, in Italy there can be no weight watching diet without the daily inclusion of at least some morsel of bread.  The déluge of allergy driven syndromes is most likely as statistically significant among Italians as it is elsewhere and Italy has become a leading country in the sale of gluten-free foods, with an ever increasing number of shops and supermarkets reserving a shelf for those poor unfortunates who cannot eat their daily bread the normal way.

“Give us this day our daily bread” quoth the Lord’s prayer.  The Italian language quoths heavily when it comes to metaphors and bread.  In Italy one does not earn one’s bacon, one earns one’s bread: “guadagnarsi il pane” and, if you’re really not earning very much at all, then you are earning just enough to get by on a little piece of crust: “guadagnarsi la stozza”.  The Italian equivalent of Murphy’s law states that God gives teeth to those who don’t have bread, and gives bread to those who don’t have teeth with which to eat it. If you are blessed with a good nature, then you are as “good as bread”, what can be saintlier than bread?.  If you are not cut out for a particular job, on the other hand, then that job is just “not the kind of bread suitable for your teeth.”  If you tend to be tight-fisted, then you will most certainly be known to “measure your bread”.  Shall I carry on?  If you “eat bread by betrayal” it means that you are earning money without having worked to earn it.  But again, if you “remove the bread from your mouth”, it means that you are a self-sacrificing person who would do anything for a loved one (i.e. including giving a loved one your share of bread).

Bread is taken very seriously in Italy.  It is eaten daily.  It is eaten fresh — ergo it has to be bought every day (these days less so because some breads using specific floursand last longer), a concept that can unnerve the more northern European or American expats who come and live in Italy and are used to buying their bread as part of their weekly supermarket shop.  Bread eating may be part of their culture, but buying fresh bread every day is not.  In Italy, bread is literally, and not metaphorically, the bread of life — and life is, by definition, “fresh”.  It’s like mother’s milk.  It is ingrained in the depths of the social unconscious and part and parcel of the DNA survival instinct.  And nowhere is this truer than in the average household, where no table is ever considered properly “set” until the bread basket makes its appearance.

Coming from an Italian family whose one member, my mother, decided she wasn’t very Italian at all in this respect and found herself eschewing the whole bread-eating ethos, I grew up as a child in peripatetic circumstances that did not impose bread at the dinner table, it was more of a choice.  Later, when I first invited my very Italian in-laws to dinner, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why my father-in-law looked so shifty and … well … pained almost as I went about serving the first course (a big bowl of steaming pasta of which I was rather proud).  He didn’t say anything but his body language spoke of unease and of a reluctance to tuck in.  For a minute, I thought it might be that he didn’t like the pasta on his plate but luckily just then, almost as an afterthought although of course it was not, my husband brought the bread basket to the table.  As if by magic, my father-in-law’s face underwent a visible metamorphosis; his features relaxed, he gave a small sigh of relief, reached for a slice of bread, and was finally able to enjoy his meal.

There exists a word in Italian that is virtually untranslatable: “companatico”.  It stands for food or a meal that is to be eaten accompanied by bread — and I can tell you that that would encompass all foods, basically, save for fruit! Walnuts and bread … yes, that was considered a snack a few decades ago.  A slice of bread and butter with plenty of sugar sprinkled on top: that was considered a tea-time treat when I was growing up (late 1950s/early 1960s).

My mother sometimes makes her own bread, and very good it is too, but she can’t be trusted to serve bread whenever she invites us over for dinner.  She has the good grace, thankfully, to warn me in advance and telephones to say, “I am making duck à la bla bla, and three kinds of vegetable this, that and the other, and rice à la bla bla.  But bring bread if you want any.”  She has learned that “optional” is not a term I now associate with bread.  Yet she too considers bread sacrosanct and accords it the respect it is due in that peculiarly Italian kind of way.  She is almost incapable of throwing stale bread away, for instance, and if by any chance she has to, she will kiss it first.  Like all of her generation, who underwent the appalling trials and physical tribulations of the Second World War, she well remembers the ravages that food scarcity brought about during the last year especially.  Bombed out of their home in Frascati, they were lucky to find rough lodging in the countryside close to the town which they shared with an extended family.  Rationing imposed its draconian law but the law of Nature, the law of survival, is even fiercer.  My wise grandmother placed whatever bread was available inside the safety of a pillow case, which she would sew tight every evening, Penelope-like, before going to bed and hide in a safe place, knowing full well that someone might be “tempted” to sneak in and avail themselves of a piece of bread.

The history of Italy is also the history of its population’s hunger and the mass emigration that it occasioned over the course of roughly 100 years.  And it was bread, always bread, that signified plenty.  In a bid to make Italy self-sufficient over imports, Mussolini imposed a policy in the 1920s to reduce the volume of imported wheat, which would then be used to make bread, consumed in Italy. It was his “Battle for Grain” of 1925 and he even wrote an essay entitled “In Praise of Bread” in 1928.

With the benefit of distance, Mussolini’s rhetoric can be analysed from many a critical point of view (not to mention the fact that his policy was a shambles and drove the cost of bread up to unaffordable levels) but it cannot be denied that his overly sentimental “Hymn to Bread” would have struck a chord in the hearts of the Italians he was rousing at the time, using it as part of his propaganda … and who knows, even perhaps falling for the ploy himself?, since he was no big eater and suffered from an ulcer.

“Italians !

Love bread –

Heart of the home

Perfume of the table

Joy of the hearth.

Respect bread –

Sweat of the brow

Pride of labour

Poem of sacrifice

Honour bread –

Glory of the fields

Fragrance of the land

Festival of life.

Do not waste bread –

Wealth of your country

The sweetest gift of God

The most blessed reward of human toil.”

Artisanal bread-making is enjoying a come-back in Italy but there was a time when it was mainly home-made and/or artisanal.  Wealthy and aristocratic families might have their own kitchens and ovens but poorer people had to rely on the communal ovens to bake their home-made bread.  This engendered the creation of family crests to “mark” each loaf and make it distinguishable from the rest.  Larger towns and cities would of course have bakeries where bread could be bought.  Home-made bread, however, continued to maintain its hallowed status in many parts of the country.

In an article published in the daily “Il Resto del Carlino” in February 1965, the Italian author Ignazio Silone recalled how great was his grandmother’s sadness upon parting from him those many years ago, when he had to flee Italy for political reasons. It was his grandmother who had raised him and his brothers when his mother had been killed in a terrible earthquake in the Abbruzzo Region of Italy.  When he tried to re-assure his grandmother that he would be able to find bread to eat no problem where he was going, her infinitely tragic response was “Yes.  Bought bread.  My poor child, having to eat bought bread!”  Silone’s article coincided with heavy snows that year isolating several small villages in the Abbruzzo, making it necessary for helicopters to drop food for the inhabitants – including bread, because by then, by 1965, no one used communal ovens any longer and thus the art of baking bread at home was lost.

It is estimated that there are about 250 different kinds of breads throughout Italy, some of them still baked in a wood-fired oven.  Each Region will have its specialty and some breads have achieved formal status, be it PGI – whose Italian acronym equivalent is IGP (which is awarded by the European Union – indicating protected geographical denomination ) or DOP (Protected Designation of Origin).  The most notable examples are the breads from: Altamura DOP, the Casereccio di Genzano Igp, the Matera Igp and the Coppia Ferrarese Igp. The bread of Altopascio near Lucca has been famous since the Middle Ages when it was meted out to pilgrims walking their way to Rome on the Via Francigena. The bread Bozza Pratese, from Prato near Florence, also ranks very highly in longevity and popularity.  Tuscany, so far as bread goes, is especially famous for scorning any inclusion of salt whatsoever, a practice that has several historical explanations including making virtue out of necessity, in that the tax levied on salt was so high that people learned to make do without it. Whatever the reason, however, the Tuscans soon got used to this canon and have revered it ever since.  Dante even refers to it in his Divine Comedy.

“Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale”(Il Paradiso, Canto XVII, lines 58-60.

 It is from this canto that Dante learns of his imminent exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties and desolation awaiting him. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and climbing another’s stairs,” he is told.  Talk about rubbing salt in the wound …

It is interesting to note, too, that the bread of Terni in southern Umbria is also “sciapo” (without salt) as is that from other parts of northern Lazio just across the border.  Tuscany and this central area, known as Etruria, which includes the southern Marches, were the lands of the Etruscans and one may suppose that the disdain for salt might have been Etruscan in origin.  By contrast, the bread of Naples is very savoury indeed, the salt lavishly included.

The flours for bread making may vary too, from wheat to rice to corn flour (to make “pan giallo” – yellow bread – in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy), bread using millet in Milan (pan de mej), from durum wheat in southern Italy to the use of rye wheat in the north (Valle D’Aosta, Piedmont, Trentino Aldo Adige and the Valtellin in Lombardy).  Oil will be used in some breads, lard in others.  Nuts can be added, or seeds, or dried fruits and raisins.  Special breads are prepared for occasions such as Easter, as for example in Umbria and Basilicata, or for saint’s days, parties and weddings, as for example in Sardinia and Sicily.  In these two islands, bread is used for decorative purposes too, as an art form, in celebration of saints’ days and religious occasions.

An old custom, now virtually vanished, was to bring a slice of bread and some salt when visiting a friend’s house for the first time, as a token of well wishing. I was surprised to see the same gesture acted in the 1937, black-and-white film “Conquest”, starring Charles Boyer as Napoleon.  When Napoleon enters the house of Marie Waleska (acted by Greta Garbo), the married woman he wants to seduce, he dips a bit of bread in a bowl of salt before rushing to embrace her.

Bread is called into question even when it comes to polite behaviour at the table in Italy.  When there is a delicious sauce left on the plate, it is normal for some to use a bit of bread to mop up this sauce with the bread.  It is called “fare la scarpetta”, making a little shoe out of the bread to clean up the plate.  This behaviour is heavily frowned upon in polite society, however, and no one in their right mind would dream of “fare la scarpetta” in a formal setting.  But …furtively … most people will enjoy such an atavistic pleasure and think nothing of it.  In public, you can get away by apologising for what you are about to do, knowing you will be forgiven.

In terms of superstition, the Italians are not as worried about spilling salt these days as they are about spilling olive oil.  In the past, superstition ruled that breadcrumbs must never be thrown away, they must be burned.  When making bread at home, a cross marked the loaf before allowing it to prove, in order to invoke God’s blessing and in sign of gratitude.  When cooked, the bread must always be cut on the flat side down.  Doing it otherwise would have meant turning your back to God.  If ever there was any leftover bread, it would be used to add to soups (“pancotto” – literally cooked bread, or “pappa al pomodoro” for instance).  Slices of day-old bread would be toasted to make bruschetta or fettunta or crostini.  Breadcrumbs are still toasted in a little olive oil to scatter over pasta dishes, to add a crunch factor.  When no parmesan cheese was available to sprinkle over pasta, the breadcrumbs became the cheese of the poor.  Meatless meatballs are still made with bread, to which some cheese or anchovy or vegetables can be added.  Certain breads are even fried – coccoli in Tuscany are fried balls of bread.  And if the bread goes stale to the point that it is really hard – no problem! revive it in water, then squeeze the bread, place it in a bowl, add tomatoes, spring onions, cucumber and lots of basil and olive oil and voilà -you have the perfect summer dish, the “panzanella”.  Older, toothless people would sup over chunks of bread dunked in hot milk. If the bread were stale, no matter, the hot milk would soften it.

For a nation that values bread to the point that it will include reference to it even in Christmas cakes (“panettone” – which means big bread, “pandoro” which means golden bread and is similar to a panettone but without any raisins, or “Panpepato” – peppery bread, made with spices and nuts), it is perhaps surprising that Italy has no equivalent of bread and butter pudding or pain perdu.  It was bog standard , instead, for Italians to eat bread in the mornings, dunked in milk or caffellatte.  Butter and jam to grace the bread were also normal.  If it is usual for English speakers to describe the usefulness or desirability of something as “the best thing since sliced bread”, the same would not be true of Italy where industrial sliced bread is truly atrocious and cloying and tasteless (not to mention that it contains “alcol etilico”, i.e. ethanol).  Good, soft white bread slices do exist when properly made , however, and are referred to with foreign words: pan carré, pan brioche – perhaps because only the upper classes would have had access to this sort of bread in the past, and these people spoke French and were genteel.

The triangular sandwich with the crusts cut off is called “tramezzino”, roughly translatable as “in-between”.  It originated in the very French-influenced and refined Turin in 1925 at the Caffé Mulassano in the Piazza Castello, as an alternative to English tea sandwiches.  The term “tramezzino” is said to have been coined by the author Gabriele D’Annunzio, a colourful figure if ever there was one.  This was during the early fascist era when Italians were being told to eschew foreign terms and words in favour of Italian ones and hence this neologism would have fitted in perfectly with the climate of the times.  Tramezzini are still very popular today and to be found all over Italy.  They take the edge off hunger as opposed to replacing a meal, and are often served with an aperitivo too or at parties.

Soft bread rolls, made with very white flour, are called “panino all’olio”; they are usually rather small and dainty and are also popular, for obvious reasons, with people who have trouble with chewing harder or crustier breads.  If, instead of a tramezzino, you want something more substantial, you will ask for a “panino”, which means “small bread”, linguistically akin to France’s “petit pain”.  It is a bread roll that can be stuffed with cured meats and/or cheeses of various kinds and will be a lot more filling than a tramezzino.  The roll will be called a “michetta” in Milan and a “rosetta” or a “schiacciata” in Rome.  The “ciriola” was famously Rome’s typical bread roll.  Another roll goes by the name of “turtle”, because the grooves on the top of the bread roll are indeed reminiscent of a turtle’s back (“la tartaruga”).  The panino can be either round or oblong.

panino bar

These days there are kiosks dotted about on certain main streets of Rome and its suburbs, catering to young people who have been out on the town and are absolutely starving by 4 a.m.  These kiosks go by the name of “paninari”.  In the early 1980s, however, “paninari” referred to the cohorts of a youth scene that was besotted with a consumerist and ‘fast’ lifestyle, in opposition to what Slowfood would propose.  The fact that this wealthy youth scene liked to identify itself by its designer clothes says a lot.  It started out in Milan, always the trendy and ahead-of-the-times city in Italy, but spread out to other cities in the north as well as to Rome.  They were called “paninari” because their preferred food of choice was a hamburger bun … they started out at Milan’s café called “Al Panino” in Piazza Liberty and then moved on to Italy’s now defunct hamburger and fast food chain called “Burghy” in Piazza San Babila.  In1986, the group Pet Shop Boys even wrote a song entitled “Paninaro”.  They have not been heard of since then, the paninari that is, and do not appear to be at all missed.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation is headquartered in Rome.  Any Italian would see the logic of its logo, a sheaf of wheat, and of its motto — the Latin “Fiat Panis” … meaning, “let there be bread”.  The reverential attitude of Italians towards bread goes all the way back to the Romans who gave us the name for friendship: companionship.  The word derives from the Latin “cum pane” meaning “with bread”.  If you could break bread with someone, you could be his or her friend.  A “compagno” in Italian is a comrade, a friend, a partner.

Rather like the Martini television ad of a few years ago (“No Martini? No party!”), it seems fitting to conclude with: No bread? no company!  Being breadless is a lonely business in Italy …

P.S. If you have the time and inclination, take a look at this link for images of bread sculptures in Sardinia: https://it.pinterest.com/xperiensardinia/sardinia-best-bread-il-meglio-della-sardegna-pane/?lp=true, and …

At this video about how they (still) make a ‘decorative’ bread in Sicily to celebrate Saint Joseph (since my name is Josephine I think it’s only proper that I should quote him).  Incidentally, the bread thus produced used to be given to the poor as an act of charity and good will.

Buying Olive Oil the Maritime Way

I have become somewhat addicted to the olive oil produced by Quattrociocchi, in the countryside near Alatri, about 40 minutes away by car from Frascati.

IMG_6008My mother has too.  One of my sisters in the UK has too and every time my mother goes over to visit, she takes three to four 3-litre cans of their Olivastro oil with her.  It’s that good.  It is organic. It was won prizes all over the world, indeed I daresay it might even be the olive oil that has won the most prizes globally?.

I did an introduction-to-olive-oil course last year with Marco Oreggia, he of Flos Olei fame.  It was very interesting and I will eventually get around to writing a post about it. Anyway, Quattrociocchi gets 98 out of 100 points in their 2016 Guide (which is the Flos Olei guide I have at the moment).  Just to give you an idea, another olive oil which I love and is very well known and highly thought of,  Marfuga, from Umbria, gets ‘only’ 95 out of 100 points.  The Quattrociocchi olive oils contain phenolic antioxidant levels that are off the charts – which means it is incredibly good for boosting our health.  And at Eu12 per litre I would say that it is also very reasonably priced.  Whatever, we get through their oil as if there were no tomorrow.

Going to fetch the olive oil has frequently turned into a little jaunt for  my mother and me, with lunch being thrown in for good measure.  When my friend Sally came to visit for an all too brief stay last September, it coincided with my having completely run out and needing to go, otherwise I would have postponed, naturally.  The three of us (Sally, my mother and I) got there later than we had hoped for and when reached the restaurant we normally go to, we found out it was its weekly closing day.  The long and the short of it is that we ended up having lunch in one of these ‘Autogrill’ stopover places on the Autostrada (the Motorway). We could have done worse I suppose, and Sally is never one to comnplain anyway, but still …

Which is why, just the other day, the weather being so sunny and promising, I thought I’d surprise my mother as to the location of our post-Quattrociocchi shopping.  She insisted it was her treat, and I insisted I would choose where.  And that’s how we ended up having lunch overlooking the sea at Sperlonga.  Just to make up for our Autogrill lunch of six months ago.

Sperlonga is a very sleepy town in Winter and is not even wide awake now, as it readies itself for the Summer tourist season.  And that made it even more special an atmosphere to  be sauntering about in.  We ended up having lunch at “Il Portico”, very civilised and pleasant.  And all in all, we had a very special mother-daughter outing.  Now, it’s not every day that I take this long and go so far just to  buy some olive oil! But since life can indeed be so busy, and hard or disappointing, or just plain tiring a lot of the time, I try my best to imbue my ‘to-do’ list with ‘to-enjoy’ moments.  I hope you enjoy looking at the photos too.  I just love the sea! I just love the blue skies!

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Sperlonga sits atop two stretches of beach: this one is on its left.  There are the remains of the ancient Roman villa of Tiberius on this beach.  If you look closely on the horizon, on the other hand, you can just about make out the island of Ischia.

1Here, the island of Ischia is much easier to spot – almost floating on the horizon.  This beach is going to be very busy in a few weeks’ time but right now it was just dreamy to behold.  Some intrepid people were even bathing in the sea!

21And this is the stretch of coastline to the right of Sperlonga.  What looks like an island, there on the horizon, is actually the promontory of San Felice Circeo.  It is said that Odysseus/Ulysses was drawn there by the sorceress Circe.  She turned his men into pigs but he was so clever and so damn macho and sexy, I suppose?, that he managed not to be outwitted by Circe and have his men turned back into men again.  They/He enjoyed staying with her for a year before resuming their journey to Ithaca, and he back to his wife Penelope (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circe).

20All of Sperlonga is white-washed. Perched on top of a scraggy promontory to keep safely out of reach of marauding and pillaging Saracens, its streets are very narrow.

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It looks a little ‘Greek’, doesn’ it.  Adore this hue of blue.

18One has to be fit to live here … Can’t imagine people doing a weekly shop here.  More likely a half-day shop!

1716May is the month of roses …

121115My mother enjoyed her fried anchovies.

14I was a little greedier.

10896Love the bougainvillea.

7A huge ficus!

5An olive tree.

Time to go home.  An espresso and off we go.

13The weather is grey and it’s drizzling and the sky is a murky pale grey as I write this post, sigh.  Nothing like the blue of the sky and sea and the dazzle of a sunny day to make life come more ‘alive’.

The poet Ungaretti is famous for his one-liner “Mi illumino d’immenso”, which rolls off the tongue in a very Nabokovian sound-pleasing way in Italian.  Its title is “Mattina”, meaning morning.  It was printed in 1918 for the first time within an anthology entitled “Cielo e mare”, i.e. The Sky and The Sea.  Sometimes it takes a poet to know how to be pithy about the beauty and wonder of life.

Mi illumino
d’immenso.

Quoting from an article in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/may/31/featuresreviews.guardianreview6)

“To Italians, it’s perhaps the most famous poem of modern times: a tiny piece just seven syllables long, four shorter than a single line of Dante. The title is “Mattino” (Morning), and you don’t need to know Italian to catch the beauty of its sound:

M’illumino
d’immenso

A rough translation would be “I flood myself with the light of the immense”, though the vagueness of that is alien to the poem’s terse musicality. The open vowels and the repeated ms and ns create a mood of wonder, evoking the light of a new day starting to flood the sky. The two lines capture something deep in consciousness that responds to this great but commonplace event out there in the external world.

Breathe in, Breathe out: Inspirational Cooking

Life happens in the kitchen.  Life may beget life in the bedroom but it is nourished, literally and metaphysically, in the kitchen. When there is communion engaging the cook with the food being cooked, the anticipation of a good-enough meal  (it isn’t always ‘fantastic’ or ‘superb’)  transforms the experience into an inward journey of reflection.  The kitchen is a place ‘to be’, then, and cooking should not just be a chore.  And there are definitely days when having to cook degenerates into an unwanted chore to add to an already busy or chaotic day. But there’s life for you, ‘stuff’ – not to mention shit –  happens.  In the kitchen as elsewhere.

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Cooking is a love affair. Most people, I presume, cook for other people more so than for themselves and that means they cook for spouses/partners, friends, children, neighbours – which is to say that they cook to bring pleasure (as well as health) to those they care for.   My dear friend Clarissa, who lived in India and ended up dying there (too soon! Too soon!) told me of how many Indians she had got to know regarded eating out with a raised eyebrow of suspicion.  It wasn’t so much about the hygiene or the quality of the food being presented to them in whatever eatery but , rather, the ‘energy’ that went into the cooking process.   Mothers/wives/sisters cook with love – cooks in restaurants or on the street will prepare meals to make money.  With food being regarded as the prime source of energy, it has to be as ‘pure’ and as fresh as possible (which is why, in Indian cuisine, reheating is frowned upon).  The bottom line is that we have to be ‘conscious’ while we are cooking, aware of our feelings.  And when the feelings are not of the best kind … well, then, it is best to take a wee break.  Go to the loo. Throw away the rubbish.  Make that quick phone call you were putting off.  And then return to the kitchen, restored, and drink a nice glass of wine or other soothing drink of your choice.  Even a slight improvement in one’s mood works wonders.  So yes, one should wash one’s hands before starting in the kitchen.  But one should also take a look at one’s soul and ‘wash’ that too, if need be.

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I don’t know whether any of you have seen the 1992 film ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ set in Mexico? Well, the protagonist is Tita, and Tita doesn’t get to have the easiest of lives (I won’t divulge more because I don’t want to ruin the film for you).  Anyway, one of the most engaging scenes in this surreal film is when Tita is preparing the food for her sister’s wedding with Nacha, the family nanny. As they prepare the food some of Tita’s tears get mixed in with the batter. This results in an emotional riot that happens after the family eats the cake. Everyone feels smitten and is pining for their one true love. This happens again after Pedro presents Tita with some flowers. She uses the roses to prepare a sauce. As they are eating dinner everyone feels an intense passion. Her sister even sets the shower on fire with all of her passion.  And in another scene, when Tita is feeling sad as she cooks, the food, though delicious, has disastrous consequences on the bowel movements of the diners.  Well, I am not saying that we should all be like Tita or that we are even capable of such prodigious gastronomic magic but a little bit of that secret ingredient, love, never hurts.  Which is why I keep a postcard on my kitchen backsplash.

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Obviously, I wish I knew what I now know when I first started to cook on a daily basis – but I have also learned so much from kitchen disasters.  Making artichokes is a memorable one.  I didn’t peel enough leaves off the carciofi and though I cooked them for what seemed like an interminable hour, they were so tough I had to throw them away.  Adding wine to a beautiful sauce only to have it turn quite unpalatable:  yes! That’s because the alcohol content of the wine is bitter, so that’s why you have to turn up the heat to encourage the bitterness to evaporate or, alternatively, why it’s not a bad idea to cook the wine before adding it to a recipe.  I was making fish stock, once … taking time to crush the carapace of the shellfish for a better finish, and adding all the ingredients required for a bisque-type result.  I tasted it and pronounced it yummy.  And then I went to drain the fish bones and shells and shallot and parsley and black pepper corns etc … but instead of draining the precious liquid into another pot, I drained the stock straight into the kitchen sink and down the drain pipe.  Oh the dismay!  You can imagine.   Another time, my husband’s cousin visiting from Turin asked me to make the very Roman carbonara pasta for him, as a treat.  He did make the supreme effort of eating it, bless him, but he laughed as he said to me: “Jo, I love your food but … carbonara is just not for you!”.  And that naturally prompted me to keep at the recipe until I got it down pat..  Practice makes perfect, so I suppose we have to encourage mistakes.

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Accidents in the kitchen are a reminder of the resilience we need to build in other areas life, I suppose?

The film ‘Zorba the Greek’ has a beautiful message for us all, to encourage us.  Towards the very end of the film, the investment of Zorba and Basil, the man he calls ‘Boss’, results in utter financial ruin for both of them but especially for Basil.  Zorba, however, is drawn to resorting to laughter, calling this event a magnificent ‘catastrophe’, a ‘splendiferous crash’.  The pair of them end up dancing, in that memorable scene which is a choreography to life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlLChcOlLK0).  We all need a little madness, as Zorba recommends, in order to be free.  I very often cook barefoot in the kitchen.  And I’m not one for aprons, don’t ask me why, and don one only when I am giving cooking classes.  I assume aprons reassure the client … and I wouldn’t want to disappoint.

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The above is a photo of me, dancing … towards the end of a cooking class.

Speaking of practice makes perfect.  Conversely, it is also true that there are many pitfalls in striving for perfection at all costs.  I was reminded of this in recent blog post by Dwight Furrow from whom I would like to directly quote:In modern culture we are too easily seduced by perfection. We want the perfect job, seek the perfect look, strive for the best life we can achieve. We try to eliminate all the rough edges and imperfections until in the end we achieve—uniformity, everyone pursuing the same ideal. We strive for that ideal because we fear being different or showing weakness.

That’s boring. There is beauty in the imperfect and incomplete.

Asymmetry, simplicity, raw, unadorned austerity have their own attractions. Drinking from an old, cracked coffee cup, a face marked by an unusual line, a chilly, fog shrouded shoreline, or parched forbidding desert—when something is not quite right we not only experience a sense of  profundity but witness the source of vital creativity in life. A system that is too perfect lacks the diversity to cope with uncertainty. Only systems that allow for imperfection can evolve. There is no growth without adversity.” (https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2017/03/13/in-praise-of-imperfection/)

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We think we need the perfect kitchen to cook the perfect meal.  True, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with a big, fully equipped, modern kitchen.  I can’t tell you how many times I have caught myself moaning and groaning about the size of my kitchen.  “Why?”, I have wailed out aloud, more than I care to remember, “Why is it that I who love to cook and make meals for a nice crowd find myself having to cook in such cramped conditions?”   So much pining on my part.  And yet I have cooked countless meals in our galley kitchen, for up to 16 people no problem. I am glad that the last 30 years have seen a marked shift in the way houses are now conceived, with the kitchen being seen as the hub of the home and being allotted more and more space compared with our mothers’ generation. And yet statistics would show that people cook less now that they have better, modern,  fully equipped, larger and sexy kitchens!  What does that say about people’s attitude to cooking? The  meaning of cooking?  We all watch TV programmes with celebrity chefs and cooking shows, and salivate over the recipes being prepared but … but … spend less time actually cooking.  Why do we prefer the vicarious experience of watching food being prepared as opposed to the real-life experience of actually making the meal?  I think that maybe we have lost a little of our childlike propensity for playfulness.  Cooking has to be about playing, not just delivering.  The gadgets and the utensils should be regarded as toys, not just tools.  And if we can’t afford the more expensive tools, there are ways to make do with what we already have.  I used kitchen scissors for years before investing in a proper chef’s knife.  Lack of said knife didn’t stop me from cooking.  And I often still do cut the parsley in a big cup with the scissors, what’s wrong with that?

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When my husband and I first started living together, we were bequeathed a pretty good sized kitchen in terms of apartment space.  Four people could eat comfortably in the kitchen, six required cosy quarters. I remember when the oven temperature dial went crazy.  There was no way to fix it, the man said, so I ended up having to gauge the temperature on a hunch!  I would turn the oven on at full blast, put whatever roast in it, and then turn the oven on and off, as I saw fit, until the dish got cooked.  The stove top had only four burners.  I learned how to cook dishes in a particular succession, because four burners weren’t enough with the bigger saucepans taking up all the room, and not allowing me to use the four burners at the same time.  It was like playing musical chairs with the pots and pans, and I had to have a clear idea of how the menu would fit in.  I indulged in a stove with six burners as soon as we could afford it: ah, bliss! Also, I never seemed to have enough countertop space for the preparations or the food.  So I invested in trays.  I would place the food and utensils on trays, resting on the floor.  More musical chairs. Mark, my daughter’s guitar teacher, who came once a week for the lesson used to laugh his head off when he saw trays lying around the kitchen floor or on top of other non-kitchen surfaces.  But he conceded that it did solve the problem of lack of space.  You gotta laugh!

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A few years ago, I was asked to run a few cooking lessons for American students doing a summer session at an international school in Rome.  The person employing me warned me that the school’s kitchen was being refurbished so I had better check with the chef before starting. What she failed to inform me was that there was going to be no kitchen whatsoever during the time I would be teaching, and all I would be supplied with would be a fridge and an electric oven!  Now, there’s a challenge.  We used the school’s desks as countertops. Thank goodness I had been on a few girl scout camping trips, and had some experience of cooking outside.  I had a few propane gas cookers and managed to pull off the cooking classes by filling up my car with all the pots and pans and cutting boards and utensils etc that were needed.  Now that I think about it, it was just crazy, and think I should have been awarded a medal of sorts.

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6The pupils were fantastic, however, and I do hope they will retain fond memories of their experience.

Another great source of joy was cooking for events at our kids’ school – a sports day, for instance – together with other parents.  Sharing food is always inspiring, seeing the expressions of satisfaction and enjoyment on people’s faces.

So, yes, joy can be transported from our home to another space.  Just as a taste of ‘something’ can transport us back to our homes, our sense of security, our sense of self, our sense of rootedness, our community, even our purpose in life.

My husband happens to become addicted, let’s say, to the cantucci biscuits I make.

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The recipe calls for quite a big batch, so I get to make them about twice a month.  It’s what he has for breakfast.  It’s what neighbours and a visiting friend will have to accompany a cup of coffee or tea.  It’s what my daughter will take with her, to nibble at the office with her colleagues, when she comes to visit.  They are not particularly sweet and are full of almonds, and are light and filling at the same time.  I suppose that’s what their pull is, I don’t eat them.

Anyway.  Towards the end of January, a good friend who was going to be celebrating an important birthday chez other friends in France, wondered whether my husband and I would be coming along too, she needed numbers (naturally) in order to organize this weekend.  There were a number of reasons that were making this trip uncertain but fortunately, almost at the last minute, we were able to confirm our attendance.  And we also decided to drive there, it was not very far from Nimes, and we turned this into a little road trip for us to enjoy as a couple.

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We were to sleep in Genoa for the first night on our way up there, and in Sanremo on our way back.  It turned out to be a very enjoyable trip, the birthday celebrations superb and unforgettable(!), and the six-hour drive in two stages not bad at all.  As we had left our confirmation so late, our friend managed to find room for us to stay only in a small ‘gite’, some sort of holiday inn, because the hotels had already all been booked.  I didn’t know what to expect and so got to work.

I brought along a duvet (you never know, the place might be cold).  I also brought along our coffee maker, coffee, sugar, tea, mugs, honey and … some of my blessed cantucci for favourite husband. He thrives on good coffee, and he feels ‘restored’ by the cantucci.  When we got to the gite, it turns out they had a kitchenette so the propane gas stove I had brought along was not necessary.

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The duvet did help, however.  And my husband got to have his favourite coffee, in bed, together with the cantucci.  Home from home.

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I had also packed a rucksack with goodies for a picnic lunch after Genoa.  Wine too, bottle opener, fruit, the works.  We had dinner in lovely restaurants in both Genoa and Sanremo.  But the enjoyment of the picnic lunch was, well, somehow a thrill.  You get to feel alive, eating out. Eating outdoors. Two for the road.  A trip is all about adventure and novelty.  Bringing along some biscuits is all about finding comfort in the known. Somehow, you feel as if you have no cares in the world.

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Have rucksack, picnic rucksack, will travel.

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Have food, will cook.

Jules Blaine Davis’s mother chided her for relying too much on take away/take-out meals in the course of a week.  She told her “We need to make the kitchen a place where you can BE, not a place where there are things you have to DO.”

So many of us do sports, go to the gym, do yoga, or simply walk the dog.  And we all know how important breathing is for our well being, both physical and emotional.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Slowly does it.  Breathe in through the nose, not through the mouth. Breathe in gently, as if you were taking in the scent of your favourite flower: and that will make your sternum open and the diagphram allow more oxygen to be drawn in.  In and out, like the waves of the sea.  The sea I love so much to swim in.

The word inspiration comes from the Latin for ‘breathing in’.  When things come to an end, they ‘expire’ … from the Latin for ‘breathing out’.  I hope my food blog brings you some inspiration in the kitchen, or encourages you to want to BE there more often.  The recipes I make are not that hard, do not necessarily involve expensive ingredients (although I quite understand that some ingredients like extra virgin olive oil are more expensive outside of Italy), and are meant to encourage you to create your own recipes, your way, coloured by a bit of fun and games, the odd giggle and  yes, even the odd tear. We are only human after all.

In Chapter six of Zorba The Greek, he says to Basil: “Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.  Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humour, and others, I’m told, into God.”

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I don’t know about this turning into God business, but I think we can make do with celebrating life, no?

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P.S.  The photos of statues, frescoes and paintings are from the Palazzo Corsini in Rome.