The Complexities of Sugar in Italy

 

sugarOrdering coffee in Italy (un cafe’) means ordering an espresso and for most Italians definitely means adding sugar (zucchero), usually a lot of it, into the cup.  When sweetening your coffee in Italy, you may be confused by the labeling on your packet  of sugar and the selection and variety of sugar on the shelves at the Coop.

sugar caneWith your coffee you will see packets of zucchero di canna  a much darker sugar than the white (refined) or granulated sugar we typically use as an every-day table sugar here in the States. Zucchero di canna, literally translated as cane sugar, is made from the sugar cane rather than from the sugar beet.  It is partially refined and darker in color due to the presence of residual molasses.

In recipes for desserts and sweets Italians (as well as other EU countries) use a specific type of sugar called caster sugar. Caster or castor sugar is a white, granulated sugar with very fine crystals whose texture lends itself to baking because it dissolves well in cake batters, confections, meringue mixtures and such making them softer and lighter. Also called Baker’s sugar or Bartender’s sugar, it is favored by mixologists to make simple syrups used in cocktails and bar drinks.

Still life of various types of sugar in bowls

If the recipe calls for light brown sugar, the Italian substitution is demerara sugar, (zucchero grezzro di cana).  If the recipe calls for dark brown sugar that would be muscavado. Both are less refined so naturally have molasses in them. Zucchero al velo (a light ‘veil’ of sugar) is powdered sugar. In Italy it often is flavored and labeled vaniglato which means vanilla has been added to it.

There are also unrefined sugars, which in Italian are labeled as zuccheri integrali. The adjective integrale tends to be used  for everything that is not refined or processed, as in flours, bread, pasta, rice which in English would be called wholegrain or in this case wholecane.  This type of  sugar is made from the evaporation of sugar cane juice and the crystallization of this juice. Unlike regular brown sugar it is not refined, centrifuged or filtered. In Italy it can be found in artisan and specialty food shops and is called Panela.

A Romantic Remembrance of Italy

The terraces of Lake Como and Bellagio, the lagoons and calli of Venice, Juliet’s balcony and strolling along the Adige in Verona, castle turrets, beautiful and historic cities, romantic gardens, inspiring statutes and works of iconic art, breathtaking landscapes that can’t possibly be real. Italy is a country of allure and romance. Mysterious and adventurous; a country of special places where physical boundaries seems to meet the spiritual world. It is easy to develop a deep and often unexplainable emotional relationship with a country that promises so much. Travelers come to Italy with all sorts of expectations. The best leave with memories that last a lifetime and play over again to make you happy and smile and return for more.

I have many romantic remembrances of Italy like those described above but there is a scenic strand of coastline along the Brenta River that links Venice to Padua that I fantasize about with a longing.  It is known as the Brenta Riviera (Rivera del Brenta ).  Architects, such as Palladio, designed summer residences (villas) for wealthy Venetians who were looking for a diversion from the summer heat of Venice.  They would take “designer” barges known as a burchielli floating along the Brenta Canal (naviglio Brenta), stopping along the way to party. A floating version of a palazzo “schifanoia”  like the Renaissance palace in Ferrara built for the Este family for diversions (delizie), a sort of banqueting house whose only purpose was for fun and recreation.  The name “schifanoia” is thought to originate from “schivar la noia” meaning literally to “escape from boredom” and avoid the tedium of city life.

burchiello

The barges were able to navigate through the shallow river and were pushed by oars from St. Mark’s in Venice (Piazza San Marco) through the Venetian lagoon to Fusina then pulled by horses along the Brenta. It is possible to follow the historical route of the 18th century Venetian in historical replicas of burchielli and motor barges navigating the Brenta from Padua to Venice viewing the villas along the way including Villa Foscari (La Malcontenta) Villa Widmann in Mira and Villa Pisani in Stra. I have driven S11 that runs along most of the canal’s length. We did this with our Italian cousins and stopped at Trattoria Porto Menai dall’ Antonia along the canal in Mira for a spectacular feast of scampi giganti griglia (giant shrimp, grilled) and other assorted seafood with prosecco.  My drive and sightseeing along the canal was the beginning of an evocative romance with the Brenta.

burchiello Stra-Villa-Pisani

One can only imagine a trip along the Brenta in the burchielli of the noble Venetians,  entertaining their guests with comedians and musicians, slowly floating down the river in colorful, elegant barges decorated with mirrors and carvings traveling to their country villas as the life of the canal revealed itself with craftsmen’s workshops and fisherman along the banks.  The 18th century Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni describing the anticipation of the villa season wrote Tis time to set out for the villa. O’ longed for moment come at last. What anguish we’ve endured fearing we should never go”.     A romantic notion of Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

Panettone – An Anticipated Holiday Tradition in Italy

 

panetton ingredient 2

Panettone is an anticipated holiday tradition that places it at the center of Christmas celebrations. It is also one of the most involved and difficult Italian cakes.

Derived from  panetto, the size of a small loaf, it later rose to dome-like proportions as panettone “big bread”. A native Italian panettone is made over several days by artisanal bakers who hand-shape the finicky dough made with natural yeast that takes at least 36 hours to rise, then fold candied fruit into the dome-shaped cake.

There are competing stories about the varied history of panettone. From an ancient Roman bread sweetened with honey, to a luxury loaf prepared by personal chefs of popes and emperors, to a fanciful legend about a Milanese baker named Toni during the reign of Ludovico Sforza (1450-1520). Panettone as a modern Christmas dessert was introduced in 1919 by Angelo Motta, a Milanese confectioner and businessman. Motta adapted the mold for panettone, using a ring of paper to give the dough the vertical, puffed-top shape that we see today. Due to his efforts, panettone became the popularized icon of Milan and Christmas.

There is something innately festive about panettone. The puffed dome, the sweet bread dough studded with jewel-like candied fruits and plump raisons. Dramatically wrapped the Italian way with flowing bows in sparkling glossy boxes in the rich colors of the Renaissance. Italian bakers and pastry chefs continue the historical making of panettone every year during the Christmas season and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of their efforts.

Panic about Panettone

However many panettone purists are concerned about the integrity of today’s panettone. Representatives from the Italian consortium of bakers and confectioners state that  7 out of 10 Americans buying an ‘Italian-style’ panettone are getting a fake, an inferior knock-off that does not represent the true version. Commercially produced panettone further confuse the consumer with lesser quality ingredients, instant yeast and added preservatives.

Imitators share shelf space with large displays in supermarkets, big box stores and outlet shops sold at mass produced price points that a native panettone could not compete with. Often too sweet, too dry or without substance industrial produced panettone felt (and tasted) artificial relegating it to a cabinet of curiosities covered in dust.

Beyond the Industrial Dome

Artisan producers look at panettone as more than the ubiquitous dome-shaped cake of an Italian Christmas. It is a protected food tradition, a symbol of hospitality and conviviality that celebrates this special season. Reaching back artisan makers using quality local ingredients, innovate and  seek to preserve the scents and softness, color, texture and unique flavor of the traditional dome cake-like bread of Christmas.

Panettone now as then is a symbol of tradition and technique. Artisan producers manage the ingredients to create the characteristic elements of the panettone – the soft, elastic dough that makes it unique and the time it takes for the perfect rising. Believing that the wait too becomes a marker of quality and a symbol of the coming of Christmas.

panetone ingredients
The Magic of the Mix

430 of the Most Fantastic Cars on the Planet

 

mille-miglia-

The 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 is about to begin. Labeled “the greatest spectacle in racing” it is one of the iconic races of the world. This year Mario Andretti, an Italian-born American racer who over a five decade long career, contested the Indy 500 an astonishing 29 times and won in 1969 will be celebrating that 50th anniversary win at the brickyard.

Italians are no strangers to speed . The past and current history of Italian auto racing from Monza’s Grand Prix to Italy’s Mille Miglia, a thousand mile open endurance race notorious for fast cars and fatal crashes, may have began with the fast and furious chariot races of Rome. But the allure of Italian motor racing goes beyond the sound of carburetors and the endurance and courage of its drivers. There is a beauty in Italian racing that extends from the exquisite design of Italian coach builders (carrozziere) to the course itself.  The Mille Miglia, known as the most beautiful race in the world, begins today on a figure-eight route from Brescia to Rome passing through some of the most beautiful cities and scenery in Italy including Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Siena and Mantua. Known as la corsa piu bella del mondo the race was first run in 1927 winding, climbing and driving through the classic countryside of Medieval and Renaissance Italy.

mille-miglia-3
“This is a big celebration of Italian culture, the Italian landscape, the scenery, the architecture, the beauty that characterizes our country.” Gianfranco Gentile.

Citizens, fans, well-wishers and sightseers crowd along the route in amazement as 430* of the most fantastic cars on the planet drive by. Picnics and lunch breaks are a very Italian part of the race that began on Monday with a Holy Mass and blessing of the cars at the Duomo Vecchio in Brescia. But before the end of the race drivers will endure long (13 to 14 hours) days of driving in all kinds of weather navigating en route with a 3 volume analog logbook trying to stay on course and avoid ending up on an old Roman rocky dirt road. Arriving  on Saturday’s Night of the Mille Miglia for the prize giving ceremony and a hero’s welcome as cars and drivers return from their epic journey.

*to be eligible for the race the cars need to have been created before 1957 and must have attended or be registered to the original race.

Ciao Patrizio

st patrick crown

Ciao Patrick! Although Italy cannot claim St. Patrick as their favorite son, Patrick’s parents were citizens of Rome so it’s easy for Italians to translate the green in their flag to the “wearin of the green” on St. Patrick’s Day. There are many Irish pubs in Italy and you can be sure they will be serving Guinness on draught and Irish whiskey on March 17th along with pasta and pizza and Irish Espresso.  Take a St. Patrick’s Day tour of Italy beginning with Italy’s Celtic roots and then travel to Rome to visit its Irish churches.  St.  Isidore, San Clemente near the Roman Colosseum (known for its frescoes and twelfth-century mosaics), San Silvestro and St. Patrick with its Celtic design cathedral windows. A burial plaque commemorating Brian Boru’s son, King Donnchadh of Munster, can be found among the Roman columns of the 4th century basilica of St. Stefano Rotondo .  He died during a pilgrimage to Rome and was buried here in 1064.

bagpipeAnd if you listen closely you might hear the sound of bagpipes. Italy has a small but rich bagpipe tradition. The zampogna (Italian bagpipe) is part of a vibrant folk tradition in  Abruzzo, Molise and Southern Italy where the zampognari (bagpipe players) appear in open air markets and in the streets during the Christmas season as shepherds that came down from the hills to celebrate and entertain the people.

In an Italian Weaver’s Cooperative Lives the Spirit of Festa della Donna

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global initiative that celebrates the social, economic and political achievements of women past, present and future. On this day the world joins hands together to support, raise, inspire and motivate women across all fields of work. In Italy the day is celebrated as Festa della Donna and fragrant bouquets of bright yellow mimosa are found everywhere as a symbol of support and appreciation for women and all they do.

Giuditta_Brozzetti_1Over the centuries there have been many notable Italian women who have served as inspiring examples to all. Women dedicated to their families, their parents, husbands and children with talents that have extended within and beyond their communities and enriched the common culture of our world. One such woman was Giuditta Brozzetti whose name remains attached to the weaving cooperative she founded in the Northern Italian city of Perugia.

Her story begins in the middle of the First World War. As director of elementary schools for the city of Perugia she traveled the region visiting the village schools and passing farmhouses where women working in the fields tended to the animals and harvested crops to provide for themselves and their families as their husbands, brothers and fathers were at war. Brozzetti also noted that women in the villages were skilled weavers working on antique wooden looms hand-weaving textiles in the traditional way producing fabrics and ancient patterns of great beauty. Impressed by what she saw and recognizing the value in the quality and craftsmanship of their work, Brozzetti began bringing the textiles to markets in Perugia, helping to create another form of income for the rural women.

textile 2

In 1921 Brozetti founded a workshop and school in Perugia to showcase the handwork of the village women and teach the traditional hand-weaving ways and heritage patterns that dated back to Umbria’s Medieval and Renaissance textile traditions.

textile church

Today in Perugia’s San Francesco delle Donne, a deconsecrated 13th-century church, the entrepreneurial spirit of Giuditta Brozzetti lives on as a community based women’s cooperative continuing the tradition of hand-weaving following the same intricate patterns as the originals, many created on antique pedal looms. Kept alive by generations of talented, committed, entrepreneurial women creating brilliant textiles that connect modern Perugia to its rich and invaluable heritage and past.

The Way to a Man’s Heart May Be as Simple as a Tomato

 

tomatoplant

According to the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being the way to a man’s heart was apparently through a tomato.  Advice given in the Tacuinum was based on an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise, the Taqwīm as‑siḥḥahتقويم الصحة (“Maintenance of Health”), and describes detailed accounts of the beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants including a veiled reference to the tomato.

During the 14th century manuscripts of the handbook were commissioned by northern Italian nobility during the 14th century as a practical guide for improving health.  Lavishly decorated manuscripts illustrate nobles engaged in work, play and romance and the cultivation of all manner of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Directions for the use, preparation and experience of the plant is explained through an elaborate iconography of meaning.  Feudal lords, ladies and laborers engage in the work of the estate in a world where horticulture, health and personal relationships are intertwined.

Medieval gardens with wattled fences are carefully tended to bring out the best attributes of  the fruits, vegetables and those who ate and tended them. In one scene a couple embraces in a garden of eggplants implicating their aphrodisiac properties.  In another carrots are harvested and described in the Latin text to stimulate sexual relations but slow down digestion, and that the purple type, ripe in winter, are the best. Other scenes depict harvesting dill, picking chestnuts, the usefulness and dangers of cabbage, tending marjoram and making soup.

A mixture of medicine and myth where tomatoes become botanically related to the mandrake or “love plant”,  believed to inflame a man’s amorous intentions and said to be able to “lead a man like a dog”. As dogs were often used to pull out the root of the believed-to-be-bewitched mandrake with a man standing in wait to see if the dog survived the mandrake’s deathly curse, it may have seemed like the mandrake and related tomato had powers to lead a man.

tomatoes

When the Spanish brought the first tomato seeds to Southern Europe in the early 16th century, a large percentage of Europeans feared the perceived properties of the fruit.  But around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato’s popularity grew. The Italian pomodoro (pom d’or) apple of gold was becoming a sought after ingredient, juicy, full of flavor, both tangy and sweet.  Italian cooks embraced it’s use in sauces that would eventually catch the eye (and taste buds) of a Queen named Margherita.  Every Italian Nonna has her favorite recipe for a tomato ragu’ or marinara that keep her sons and grandsons close to home.  So it may not be so far fetched to think that the tomato has powers both in and out of the kitchen.