A Rite of Passage for the Taste Traveler in Italy

cow chianinaThe white cattle Vacca Chianina (kya-NEE-na) of the Val di Chiana may be one of the oldest breeds of cattle. They were used as models for Roman sculptures. I have  seen them grazing in pastures outside the town of Citta’ di Castello in Umbria and the hillsides of Tuscany near Abazzia San’Antimo. They are very impressive for their stature (over 6 feet tall) and light pale color. The young animals can weigh up to 1540 pounds and provide the large cuts of meat needed for the legendary bistecca alla fiorentina. 

Italy’s bistecca may be one of the truest interpretations of wood-grilled meats and the rustic cuisine of the region. The notoriety of the Florentine steak dates back to the 1200’s, when the appetites of  English merchants visiting Florence were whetted by the meat being cooked in the town squares. Anointed with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and coarsely ground pepper and grilled rare, it is a rite of passage for the taste traveler in Italy and should not be missed.bistecca Fondly referred to as the Tuscan T-bone, a bistecca fiorentina will be cut 1-3 inches thick (3 fingers wide) so when grilled a nice crust forms on the outside of the steak while the inside remains succulently rare or as they say in Italy sanguinoso. The meat is then thinly sliced, tagliata style, and as the steak is large (over 2 lbs.) and costly, meant to be shared.

chianina pasture

 

 

The strength, size and prized meat of the Vacca Chianina had me wondering how they are raised and cared for. As I mentioned I have seen the porcelain white cattle grazing in the fields of Italy and their visual presence is astonishing. Formerly a draught breed their growth rate can exceed 4 lbs. a day.  So how are Italy’s animal version of Japan’s Sumo wrestlers nurtured and cared for to produce such memorable meat?  Meat that is was so valued that the Etruscans sacrificed the Chianina’s ancestors to their gods and the Romans immortalized the breed in monumental sculptures. Like much of what Italians eat and drink the explanation for the goodness and flavor of the Chianina relates to local history and culture. Generational producers and a pastured landscape allows the cattle to graze and create the great muscles needed to produce this quality of meat. The philosophies that hold true to the Italian way of valuing the food they eat are translated into the way they raise and source their food.  For no country is more perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of food than Italy.

Carnevale Colored Sweets

alkermesI bought my first bottle of alkermes in Florence at Santa Maria Novella Farmacia on Via della Scala 16 down the street from the Santa Maria Novella train station. A fragrant universe filled with terra-cotta jars and gilded urns that was already well-known in Dante’s time. It was established in the 13th century by the Dominican friars of Florence who began to cultivate and prepare medicinal plants and herbs used in the treatment of the sick. Many of the products available for purchase today are based on the ancient recipes of the friars.

The ancient recipe of alkermes has a colorful history. Originally formulated by a 9th century Persian physician in the court of the caliph of Bagdad as a medicinal elixir for the  elite, the incensual ingredients used in the Persian recipe read like a formula for an exotic perfume; aloes, ambergris, apple juice, cinnamon, gold leaf, honey, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, and rosewater. Kermes, a type of small insect found on Mediterranean oak trees, provided an intoxicating scarlet color.

The scarlet elixir of Arabic origin made its way to the formulary of the monks of Santa Maria Novella. Cochineal, another insect based powdered red colorant, replaced the exotic kermes in the Renaissance recipe refined by infusing neutral spirits with herbs and spices such as garofano (clove oil), orange, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and coriander.

carnevaleFavored by Caterina de’ Medici, alkermes became an essential ingredient in many Italian pastries including zuppa inglese and traditional Carnevale sweets like castagnole, sweet fritters rolled in sugar & drizzled with alkermes.

carnevale-2

Bravo Brodo

brodoThis post is all about the pleasures of a well-made brodo. In Italy brodo means broth and in its most basic form is an icon of Italian cooking. A foundational stock that is made from bones of beef, veal or chicken or the shells/ bony skeletons of seafood infused with fresh vegetables and aromatics. The most favored being cappeletti in brodo, a classic Northern Italian comfort food traditionally served around Christmas or New Year made with caps of fresh pasta swimming in a homemade chicken broth.

Recipes for a basic broth are culinary landmarks on the Mother Road of world cuisine. Anthony Bourdain calls it a blank culinary canvas, an enchanted liquid. He refers to meat brodo as the “dark universal stock”, a broth of bones that can be magically manipulated into soups (yes there is a difference between brodo and zuppa), stews, sauces and the hydrating medium for an Italian risotto.

Brodo di manzo (beef broth) starts with the roasting of  beef bones. Slightly rub beef bones with  a little olive oil, place them in a heavy roasting pan. Roast the bones for about 20 minutes; adding in a chopped onion and continuing to roast for 30 minutes more, or until bones brown. Roasting bones vs not roasting bones is a preference although most cooks/chefs believe that the initial roasting of bones caramelizes them and deepens the flavor.

Concerns about the fat content of roasted bone marrow? It’s been noted that marrow is 69% unsaturated fat. It’s also very nutritious, containing iron, phosphorus, vitamin A, trace amounts of thiamin and niacin and contains substances that boost and maintain our body’s immune system and helps our body stay healthy.

If you are bothered by all the fatty bits found in your brodo you can skim off the fat or let the stock pot cool and remove the fat on top. Or you can serve it alla stracciatella by quickly whisking an egg into the stock. Stracciatella is Italian for “little strands” and  whisking the egg forms little tail-like strands that attract all the fatty bits and other solids, drawing them out of the liquid, “clarifying” it, and making even the cloudiest stock clear to the bottom of the bowl.

As “bone broth” is in the news today, being beneficial for improving your skin, joints, immunity, digestion etc, having a stock pot of Italian brodo brewing in your kitchen is an old world tradition for a nourishing  and restorative winter.

 

The Rovigo Ermine Turkey – An Italian Inspired Thanksgiving

turkey-featherPart of our Italian family is from the Veneto and although Thanksgiving is not an Italian holiday I can imagine that, if it was, the Rovigno Ermine turkey would be at the center of the table. Tacchino, turkey in Italian, is eaten in Italy but it’s not prepared nor sold the same as in the US. I did have an excellent turkey dish in Emilia at a cooking lesson with my friend Rita made with a rolled turkey breast but a traditional Thanksgivingesque turkey is most likely only to be found on an American expat November holiday table.

rovigoThe Rovigo Ermine turkey (Ermellinato di Rovigo) came into being in 1958, a result of a cross of local birds to the American Narraganset. It differs from the Italian Common Bronze turkey (Comune Bronzato) by its flesh-colored legs, white skin, and ermine color. Although very rustic, the color and design of the bird make it more stately and unique. Well-imagined as stuffed, displayed, feathers and all at a a medieval banquet. Our intention would be little less dramatic and our presentation more in keeping with the traditional Thanksgiving bird. Trussed, stuffed, dressed and served with the usual side dishes but with a decidedly Italian twist.

Sweet potatoes and pumpkin replaced with Marina di Chioggia, chioggia-sea-pumpkinthe sea pumpkin of Chioggia near Venice, a bumpy, misshapen Italian heritage cultivare of pumpkin with yellow orange flesh and a fantastic taste that lends itself to many preparations. Cranberry sauce morphed into an Italian mostarda (recipe below) and brussel sprouts roasted with prosciutto and balsamic. Parmigiano Reggiano mashed potatoes piped Duchesse style, in homage to Caterina de’Medici, the great granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent whose marriage to King Henry ll brought Tuscan food customs to the tables of France.

All brought together with family and friends and the belief that preparing a well-laid table to share and enjoy with your family and friends in a relaxed and tranquil manner is a lost pleasure that must be found again and a reason to be thankful.

Amarena Cranberry Mostarda (Serves 6-8)

12 ounces fresh cranberries
1/4 cup yellow onion, minced
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup Morello Austera Wild Cherry Jam
1/2 cup Maletti aged balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup dried sour cherries
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely minced
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram, finely minced

Add all the ingredients, with the exception of the fresh thyme, to a heavy bottomed pan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to bring the mix to a simmer, and cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring occassionally, until thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in the fresh marjoram and let cool slightly before serving.

from CosituttiMarketPlace

Six 10 Second Decisions That Can Change the Course of How You See and Savor Italy

The endless possibilities of the day ahead. Travel is exciting, invigorating and in the best possible way unpredictable. Here are six 10 split-second decisions that I would not hesitate to make on your next trip to Italy.

Should I Stay or Should I Go  . . . Off the Tourist Flow?

If your destination is one of Italy’s Big Three (Rome, Florence or Venice) and you have an opportunity to travel outside the tourist flow – go. As spectacular as these cities are, the personal charm of Italy lies just beyond. Here is where the real magic begins.

Should I Visit an Italian Terme?

Terme is the Italian word for thermal waters. Popes, pilgrims, princes and everyday Italians have traveled to these natural hot springs seeking the beneficial virtues of the waters to regenerate the body and mind since ancient times. Bagno Vignoni, a small medieval town south of Siena is a perfect place to “get your feet wet” when it comes to the terme experience. You can check in to the local term or just walk down to a trickling hot spring to sooth your tried feet. Popular termes in the same region include Montecatini and Saturnia. I prefer Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme which is very accessible and family oriented.

Should I Do Some Outlet Shopping?

There are many outlet malls within driving distance from most major Italian cities with high end designs at outlet prices. Why would you not go?

Should I Forgo One Large Museum to Visit a Small Lesser Known One?

When you think of Italy you think of world class museums with an archival wealth of art and history. The Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice,
Pinacoteca di Brera and Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Italy is an open air museum. But don’t forget to seek out some of the small, lesser known museums. A good local museum will add to your understanding of the region and as you won’t have to queue to view exhibits, you can be in and out in less than an hour.

Should I Include a UNESCO Italian World Heritage Site in My Travel Itinerary?

These have been identified by UNESCO as cultural and national heritage sites of significant importance and value to humanity that deserve the protection of our world community. A cultural endangered species that should not be missed.

Should I Order the Region’s Signature Dish?

There is nothing more evocative than eating the food or drinking the wine in its place of origin. Food immersion is the best way to experience the true Italian lifestyle. Eat locally to eat like an Italian. Be a little adventurous and try the speciality of the house, the advice of the chef consiglo dello chef.

Pappardelle con Lepre or a Ragu’ con cinghiale. Truffles in Tuscany or Piemonte. Sugo all’amatriciana in Rome. Spaghetti Bolgnese in Bologna and gelato everywhere.

From Cesena to Rimini

map

The driving distance between the town of Cesena and the town of Rimini is insignificant, about 27 kilometers or 17 miles. But as far as the making of piadina, Emilia Romagna’s iconic unleavened flat bread, there is a significant measurable difference between the  making of this Italian flatbread sandwich between the two. Although Cesena piadina and Rimini piadina both share the same ingredients (O or OO wheat flour, lard (sometimes olive oil), a pinch of salt, baking soda or mother yeast and water) and both are cooked on a traditional testo (teglia), or griddle, the thickness of the piadina between Cesena and Rimini becomes thinner. 5 mm thick in Cesena to 3 mm (1/8″ thick) in Rimini.

This unique creation filled with local greens, salumi and cheeses layered onto a simple flatbread of freshly cooked dough is served at family tables and from small carts throughout the towns and villages of Romagna and neighboring cities (I have had it in Ferrara). The thickness and size is a function of the locale – softer, thicker and smaller inland, thinner and larger toward the coast. Extra virgin olive oil makes a lighter and crispier piadina. Lard from rendered pork fat or strutto makes a richer and softer piadina. The piadina is a staple of Italian street food and its regional variations are one of many that make seeing and savoring Italy such a gastronomic delight.

At Montetiffi, a village near Sogliano, 90 kilometres (56 mi) southeast of Bologna , original clay pots are still made to cook piadina. This craft dates back to 1527 when the pot makers of Montetiffi are mentioned in historical documents.

An Italian Sponge – Simplicity that is Sublime

cake-venetianClean lines and high level function have been a hallmark of Italian design. In cooking simple ingredients well-prepared define Italian cuisine. The Italian aesthetic for simplicity in form and function combined with tradition is never better demonstrated than by the Italian sponge cake (Pan di Spagna), a simple, airy cake made with only 3 ingredients: eggs, sugar and flour…no baking powder, no butter and no oil!

The Italian sponge is used as a base for fillings and candied fruits and is key ingredient in hundreds of classic Italian desserts like zuccoto and Sicilian cassata. Pan di Spagna‘s light airy texture absorbs “like a sponge” (once cooked, it can absorb almost up to twice its weight) so it is often layered and soaked with a flavored syrups or spirits or used to soak up the juices from fresh fruit. It stacks wonderfully. Layered with a cream filling it is an impressive dessert but just as enjoyable eaten on its own sprinkled with powdered sugar.You will find its simple, delicious flavor and spongy texture a perfect base for your Italian layered or rolled cakes and desserts.

I was introduced to the Italian Sponge by my mother-in-law Marion who used it to make Italian Rum Cake, a family tradition for celebrating birthdays and many special occasions. I have never made it as well as she or my Aunt Margaret who Americanized it as the chiffon but I have learned a few secrets to perfecting a successful Pan di Spagna.

  • Use extra large eggs at room temperature
  • Use cake flour if possible
  • Beat the egg whites until tripled in volume but not dry
  • Beat the egg yolks and sugar for no less than 15 minutes; it is during this stage that air is incorporated
  • The dry ingredients must be sifted together and added on top of the egg mixture, a little at a time and deliberately folded gently together with a spatula or wooden spoon. If you pour too much flour in too fast it will sink to the bottom of the bowl
  • While the cake is baking don’t be tempted to open the oven door or the cake will deflate quicker than a Patriot’s football
  • When the cake is done, turn off the oven but leave the cake inside with the oven door slightly ajar for about 10 minutes
  • Cut the cake only when it has cooled
  • If you plan on layering the sponge, soaking the layers with a flavored syrup or liquor, do so and then wrap the layers in cling film and leave in the refrigerator overnight before spreading each layer with filling for the final assembly

There are many versions of Pan di Spagna. I have a version made with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling that I use in place of pastry cream or custard. It also eliminates the need to soak the layers in a flavored syrup or liquor as the creme is made with Piemonte DOCG Moscato.

Pan di Spagna with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling

Ingredients for the Pan di Spagna:

5 large Eggs
1 1/2 cup Sugar
1 1/2 cup Flour
(you can add 1 teaspoon Vanilla or  1/2 teaspoon Lemon Zest) as a flavoring

Directions:

Let eggs come to room temperature before starting. Butter and flour a 9″ (23 cm) cake pan. Set aside.  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift the flour into a bowl; set aside. Separate the eggs yolks in one bowl; whites in another. Add the sugar to the egg yolks, and whip with an electric mixer until thick. Stir in the lemon zest and vanilla. Rinse the beaters off well,  whip the egg whites to a stiff peak. Then fold the beaten egg white into the yolk mixture. Add the flour a bit at a time to the egg mixture, and fold it carefully in. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, place in oven, and bake for about 20 minutes. When done, a toothpick will come out clean, and the top will be golden. Turn upside down on a wire cake rack to cool.

Assemble the Layers:

Slice sponge cake in half with a thin bladed serrated knife to form two layers.Combine stabilized whipped cream with the Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream (according to taste)   to make a filing for the layers. Retain some of the whipped cream to be used as a frosting. Place bottom sponge layer on platter cut side up, generously spread layer with filling. Top the cream layer with another layer of sponge cake. Frost the top sponge cake layer (and sides of cake) with remaining stabilized whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour before serving. Refrigerate any leftovers.

You may have noticed that the Italian Sponge has a Spanish name. Pan di Spagna means Bread of Spain. For nearly half a century, Spanish monarchs ruled Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. Gastro-historians credit the introduction of a Spanish influenced “sponge-like” cake to the Northern Italian table because the learned cities of the North like Parma in Emilia Romagna embraced a cosmopolitan cuisine and were influenced by the marriage of the Parmese Duchess Elisabetta Farnese to the Spanish King Philip V (1714).

Others attribute the Italian sponge to Giovanni Battista Cabona from Genoa. Cabona went to Spain in the mid 1700’s as part of the domestic entourage of the ambassador of Genoa. The inventive young baker was asked to create a new and original cake for a royal Spanish banquet. Working with basic and simple ingredients, Cabona was able to create an incredibly light and airy cake, and gave it the name Pan di Spagna, in honor of the hosting country. The cake so pleased the Court of Spain that it was renamed Génoise, in honor of the Genoese creator. Throughout Europe it is still known as Génoise, while in Italy it has maintained its original name, Pan di Spagna.