I 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.
Favored 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.
Although Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday) is a few weeks away Carnevale in the seaside town of Viareggio begins February 16th. A spectacular parade of floats that delight and amaze promenade the Lungomare for 16 days of revelry along the Versilia Riviera.
Second only to Carnevale in Venice, Carnevale in Viareggio is known for elaborate floats with huge papier-mâché figures, often caricatures of political, show business and historical figures. Floats can take a whole year to build created by master craftsmen and artisans known as carristi. Internal animations move the towering characters making them come to life as they navigate through clouds of streamers and coriandoli (confetti) creating a surrealistic pageant of satire and whimsy where anything goes at least for now.
The ancient Italian custom of Carnevale has begun and the traditional Lenten fast that begins on Ash Wednesday is a few days away. The word “carne vale” in Latin means “meat farewell” and 40 days of meatless Fridays can be a challenge. So what’s a carnivore to do? Channel your inner Italian for dishes inspired by the culinary and cultural history of Northern Italy influenced by the food traditions of the SudTirol, a mere yodel away from Switzerland.
The southern half of the region (Trentino) is ethnically Italian, the northern half (Alto Adige, or SüdTirol) is ethnically Germanic and the entire region was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until Italy annexed it at the end of World War I. Although you are in Italy, the geographic boundaries and historical alliances of the region make the South Tyrol a melting pot with a distinctive mixture of flavors and food customs. One unique specialty of Tirol cuisine are canederli, large round dumplings (similar to gnocchi) that are found on just about every table in the Trentino-Alto Adige. With a cuisine influenced by neighboring Germany, Switzerland and Austria, where they are known as Knödel, these little bread balls are often flavored with speck (a regional aromatic cured meat, similar to prosciutto, flavored with juniper, laurel and rosemary). You can make them a meatless meal by using spinach, mushrooms, sauerkraut, cheese, herbs or beets (canederli di barbabietola served with a tangy horseradish sauce like they do in the Dolomites near Bolzano).
Another region of Italy a mere yodel away from Switzerland is the Aosta Valley in northwest Italy that borders Switzerland and France. For a memorable meatless Friday melt into a Valdostana fondue . A recipe from the Italian Alps that has its origins in the traditional Swiss fondue, but it differs in the presence of egg yolks, instead of wine or liquor. Should you need to make this alpine fondue even less penitential add a glass of Italian Sauvignon Blanc.
- 1 lb Fontina cheese or Italian Truffle Cheese from Trader Joe’s
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- 4 egg yolks
- 8 slices cubed toasted bread
Slice the cheese and place it in a container to rest overnight, covered with some milk.
When preparing fondue, melt the cheese soaked in milk in double boiler (not allowing the water to boil) with beaten egg yolks. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon until you have obtained a thick cream. Serve the fondue in terracotta bowls with slices of toasted bread. Alternatively, you can use the typical fondue pot with its heater at the table, and allow each diner to dip pieces of toasted bread into the pot using long stem forks. 30 minutes preparation + 20 minutes cooking.
One taste of a well-prepared tiramisu or pasta fatto a mano and you know that Italian food is heavenly. But did you know there is one Italian ingredient that assures you of “divine intervention”? You can bake with a little help from the angels to create a slice of heaven with Lievto Pane degli Angeli a special Italian yeast with a hint of vanilla. Made by a Paneangeli, a company who has 81 years of experience making yeast breads and cakes, gave birth to the legend of this heavenly ingredient. The company readily admits that as often happens “with things and events of magic taste” the reality may confuse fact with fiction.
The legend goes that in his first grocery store, Signore Ettore Riccardi, the founder of Panangeli, prepared and sold a loose powder to leaven cakes; a special formulation characterized by a vanilla aroma with a scent that perfumed the entire house and even the wardrobe. A customer after purchasing a sachet of his leavening powder was so impressed by the success of her cake she exclaimed that the cake was so light and fluffy that it was made by angels. The idea of being touched by an angel was used in one of the company’s early advertising campaigns when the 6-year-old son of the founder of the company devilishly breaks dishes with a hammer, but after eating a slice of cake made with the “Bread of Angels” becomes very good, even angelic.
Today the company makes a variety of products including flavorings and leavening agents for pizza obtained from fresh beer. They also have a prepared mix to help you create your own Torta degli Angeli and have authored several cookbooks including one for Carnevale and an annual calendar with recipes using their products that looks, dare I say, heavenly.
No I haven’t become a vegan. I’m following the ancient Italian custom of Carnevale, the traditional Lenten fast that begins on Ash Wednesday when all feasting is over and fasting begins for 40 days until the celebration of Easter. The word “carne vale” in Latin means “meat farewell” and so abstinence from things of the flesh is de rigeur during this time. But before abandoning meat there is much feasting and merriment with festivals, parties and celebrations with fun, family and food. And since Martedi Grasso is just around the corner, I haven’t got much time before I say farewell to meat. Here’s what I’m planning to do before Fat Tuesday ends.
Party Like a Venetian. Although Carnevale is celebrated all over the world it is at its best when celebrated in Venice. Viareggio, New Orleans and Rio di Janiero may disagree but the Venetian Carnevale has the history, romance and atmospheric feeling that make it an over the top experience. Carnevale in Venice transports you to another time and place where masks and twisted identities blur the lines between fantasy and reality and the excesses of the flesh are excused for the moment.
I unfortunately will be participating in none of the above but will indulge in the exquisite pastries and traditional foods of Carnevale in Venice such as fritelle, tiny doughnut like fritters often made with raisins, pine nuts or grappa and cenci, a bow-tie shaped confection also known as chiacchere, frappe or lattughe (lettuce leaves) because of their ragged appearance.
Experience a Venetian Carnevale in your own kitchen. In the kitchens of Cositutti there will be bigoli in salsa, a traditional Venetian pasta served with a sauce of olive oil with anchovies and fegato alla veneziana
, liver with onions. And to drink, a glass of prosecco as an aperitivo and a bottle of Valpolicella, a classic red wine from Verona, Venice’s not so distant cousin.