The Unlikely Occurrences of February 3rd

Sheep pen (Luttrell_Psalter)In Italy the beginning of February has nothing to do with groundhogs and shadows but rather with a cake-like bread, the blessing of throats and celebrating woolen blankets. These disparate, seemly unlike, items and events do have a common denominator in Italy and his name is San Biago.

San Biago or St. Blaise, like St. Nicholas, was one of those saints who accumulated the legends and lore of folk customs for a variety of reasons.  Best known as the saint protector of the throat since he once saved a child from choking, San Biago is  also the patron saint of shepherds and the woolen industry because he was allegedly martyred on a prickly stone table used for combing out wool. His feast day, February 3rd, is especially celebrated in Italian towns and European villages where wool was worked. saint-blaise

Coincidentally February 3rd is also the last “best buy date” for a Milanese panettone baked over the Christmas holidays. The citizens of Milan ( where a statue of the Saint sits atop a spire of their Duomo) save their last piece of panettone to eat that day to commemorate San Biago and a legend.  Just before Christmas a woman went to have her panettone blessed by the village priest who could not bless the bread at the time. Leaving the bread, the priest thought that the woman had forgotten about it so he ate it himself. However she returned on the feast of San Biagio. To the priest’s great surprise, San Biago had interceded and the relieved priest found a whole panettone twice the size of the one left by the woman.

Today I’ll be eating my last slice of panettone under a warm woolen  blanket invoking San Biago to protect me from the illnesses of winter. I never  seem to have the willpower to save my panettone so this year I bought two, one to eat and one to use in place of the flu shot I never got. Grazie San Biago.

A Picture is Worth a 360 Degree View

San Gimignano

It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A moment in time, an idea that becomes an unspoken memory.  Whether a sepia toned picture of the past or a digital image of the present each picture brings with it a reality faded or vivid. Smart phone photography with fotos on demand means that you can create and share those memories in a nano second with unprecedented picture quality and detail so that you almost feel like you were there.

The website 360 Cities takes this experience once step further with extraordinary panoramic fotos that give a 360 degree view with an incredible level of detail so that visually you are there. You literally step into the photograph by moving your cursor up, down, sideways, 360 degrees to get a virtual tour of over 90 countries from  photographers all over the world. Whether your researching archival fotos, curious about a sight or want to re-live a travel moment you can so with extraordinary detail.  I like to use this website for pre-trip planning to take a virtual full-screen 360 degree walk-about of what I plan to see. It’s like a virtual guidebook and with 360 Cities mobile app you can view hundreds of thousands of the world’s finest panoramas on the go.

Here are a few of my favorite 360 Cities Italian panoramas that make make me feel like I’m there.

Risotto alla Milanese alla Nonna e Marian

Seeing and Savoring Lombardia in Northern Italy would not be complete without a plate of risotto alla Milanese. In this part of Italy rice, prepared as riso or risotto, is favored over  pasta with notably French influences in the cooking  and butter often used as a cooking fat. This recipe is from my mother in law, Marian by way of her mother in law, Epifania. Epifania, our Nonna  (grandmother in Italian) was from a town in Northern Italy on the border between Lombardia and the Veneto with her extended family living in Milano. 

Nonna and many of the  women in her generation though not thought of as gourmet chefs now find the  food they prepared as casalinga (homestyle cooking) served in upscale restaurants . When Nonna passed away she was 84 years old.  She had no inheritance to speak of, no treasure chest full of stocks and bonds, no vacation homes or lavish jewelry.  What I received was a small yellow box, a gastronomic treasure chest of Milanese recipes. It included a recipe that has been described in Waverly Root’s book  The Food of Italy as a “preparation which seems to be made of grains of gold”.  Here is our family recipe for risotto alla Milanese alla Nonna e Marian.

Saute1 large onion finely chopped in about  5 T of  melted unsalted butter in a large heavy based saucepan ( I prefer non- stick).After the onion is softened and has taken on a golden color add 2 cups of risotto rice (Arborio, Carnaroli or semifino Vialone Nano).  Nonna used arborio rice but also carnaroli when she could get it. Stir rice into butter, onion mixture until thoroughly coated but not brown. Slightly increase the heat and add 1 glass of white wine (Nonna never measured anything but most recipes take this to mean about ¾ cup to 1 cup), stirring the risotto as the wine is being absorbed. 

A pinch of saffron can be added at this time or it can be infused in 6 cups of chicken broth that has been simmering on the stove in another pan.  The saffron will give the risotto milanese its classic golden color. Some cooks add the saffron just before the end of the cooking process in order to maintain its delicate flavor.

At this point you will begin to slowly add the simmering chicken broth to the risotto, a ladleful at a time and cook the risotto over medium heat stirring constantly until it has absorbed the added broth.  When the broth has been absorbed, add another ladleful and repeat the process.  Continue like this until the rice can absorb no more.When is the risotto done? When the rice is of a creamy consistency yet the grains remain separate and al dente to the taste.  Different types of rice vary in the way they absorb the liquid so Nonna would say “just keep stirring it until it is done”! Every risotto will be slightly different.  But remember, you will be adding a handful of grated cheese and a pat of butter at the very end.  The cheese will thicken up the risotto  so do not allow all the moisture to be absorbed or you will have a paste.

Cheese should be a grated grana cheese such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano