Italy’s Celtic Roots

Flag-Pins-Italy-IrelandItaly and Ireland share more than just a band of green in the colors of their flags. At one time Northern Italy was inhabited by Celts and Proto-Celtic tribes in the Lombard Valley. Celtic tribes from central Europe hearing of the well-laid tables of the Etruscans were attracted to the region around 350BC and began to invite themselves over for dinner. The lush valleys, rich copper and iron deposits and strategic location convinced the Celts that an Etruscan-Celtic alliance would be to their advantage. This resulted in a peaceful coexistence, intermarriage and the building of a settlement at Monte Bibele in the Bolognese hills. The Luigi Fantini Archeological Museum in Monterenzio (BO) has one of the most important Etruscan-Celtic collections in the world and the largest in Italy. There is a life-size reconstruction of a dwelling hut from the 4th-3rd century BC furnished with authentic objects or reproductions  from daily life  including crockery containing carbonized seeds, utensils, decorations, arms and coins.

It seemed that pork was the “other white meat” for the Celts who raised pigs for food and shared their taste for pork with the Etruscans. Ciauscolo (cha-USE-colo) may be one result of this Celtic-Italian fusion. Not your typical Italian sausage, ciauscolo   ciauscolo has the texture of a paté and is eaten spread on a piece of bread.  It is believed to come from the Gallic people who were living in the Marche region of Italy. Once conserved in terracotta terrines, today ciauscolo is an PDO specialty in and around the towns of Ancona, Macerata and Ascoli Piceno into the region of Umbria. This semi-soft salami is made with meat seasoned with garlic, pepper and salt, pounded in a mortar with a drop or two of vincotto (sweet cooked wine), put into a casing made from small intestine and smoked with juniper wood followed by a brief aging (10 days). The result is a soft buttery spread whose name comes from the Latin word cibusculum meaning a small food. A perfect addition for a St. Patrick’s day antipasti serenaded with Italian bagpipes.

Signore Pig

The Italian pig is revered. One of Italy’s most famous salumi comes in the form of cured hams known as prosciutto crudo. The celebrated hams of San Daniele, Parma and Toscana are so valued for their flavor, aroma and methods of preparation that they are given DOP aka PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) certification, the Italian government’s seal of approval that they are a product of a food tradition that can occur nowhere else. DOP certification sets out strict rules regarding the genetic make-up and breeding of pigs that will be wearing the ducal crown (the trademark of Prosciutto di Parma) or those whose hams are elegantly shaped like a Stradivarian violin (Prosciutto di San Daniele).

Porchetta, a suckling pig rolled up and spit roasted (girarosto) over a wood fire with salt, pepper, garlic and wild fennel has a gastronomic reputation that goes back to the time of the ancient Etruscans. Just about every sagra or street fair in Italy will have a porchetta on the spit with a line of Italians strung out waiting for packets of sliced pork (maiale) to eat on the spot or take home.

Signor Pig is treated very well in Italy. He was always respected as a symbol of plenty. The Cinta Senese or Sienese Belt Pig (named for a white belt around their chest) is pictured in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzentti (1338) in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall) titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo (the good/wise government). In the contra fresco il cattivo governo (the bad government), the pigs are missing and in the quarries of Michelangelo the cured lard of Colonnata (Lardo di Colonnata), with the intoxicating flavor of aromatic spices and herbs is an artisanal delicacy thinly sliced and served over warm Tuscan bread that can be described as nothing less than inscensual.

So when you’re seeing a savoring Italy make sure to arrange an introduction to Signore Pig at the local trattorie.  He’s dressed in many ways (sausage, salami, prosciutto, arista di maiale) and although he may be called Stinco in Bolzano he is most congenial and not to be missed.

*You can make any piece of meat in the porchetta style along as you have roasted it in a wood fire oven and stuffed or even marinated or cooked with fennel (preferably wild)

Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens

Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens? At first you might think these are names of Senators from the time of the Roman Empire but rather than conveying the power and prestige of the Roman Senate these names refer to an illustrious group of cheeses from Pienza, an ancient Renaissance city a few miles from the wines of Montepulciano. Pienza is the capital of Tuscan pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese (cacio di pecorino) that is one of the most prized and favored cheeses of the Val d’Orcia. Known for its inviting and mild flavor, even when aged, Pecorino Toscano is the Tuscan relative of the more well-known Romano which because of its stronger flavor is preferred for some pasta dishes with highly flavored sauces.

Both are sheep’s milk cheeses (pecora means sheep in Italian) and both have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status but the similarity stops there. Pecorino Toscano thrives under the Tuscan sun surrounded and influenced by vineyards, olive orchards and the clay soil of the Crete Senesi.  The characteristic flavors and aromas of the grass, herbs and wildflowers (wormwood, meadow salsify, juniper, broom, burnet) on which the sheep graze create a taste of Tuscany that is incomparable.

You can taste some of the best pecorino cheeses in Tuscany at Zazzeri, one of my favorite cheese shops in Pienza, where Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens debate the best wine and honey pairings and whether apples or pears are to be chosen as an accompaniment. Walnut leaf wrapped or anointed with Tuscan olive oil, seasoned on wooden tables and displayed like a still-life from the Renaissance, these cheeses of Pienza were favored by Lorenzo the Magnificent and remain an evocative taste of Tuscany.

Italians Are What They Eat

You’ve heard the expression “you are what you eat”. This slightly overused mantra has made its way into the vocabulary of food from proselytizing nutritionists to the voice over introduction on one of the Food Network’s most popular shows.  The Italians were eating healthy, nutritious regional food long before the term “locavore”, sustainability and week- end farmer’s markets became chic. So it follows that Italians are very concerned about the ingredients they use and most Italians I know would be the first to say that great ingredients make great recipes.

                                                                                                

Here are 7 ingredients that no self-respecting Italian would be without.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Italians know that being extra virgin is better. For flavor, taste, aroma and health benefits extra virgin olive oil is absolutely better. It is the freshest oil you can buy, high in polyphenols and protective antioxidants beneficial to heart health. A wide variety of medical studies also document the benefits of extra virgin olive oil in controlling blood glucose levels and strengthening the immune system.

 Oregano and Rosemary – Oregano is a source of natural antioxidants and has as many antioxidants as 3 cups of fresh spinach and rosemary is known as an anti-inflammatory.  Both carry loads of flavor. Whether fresh or dried, rosemary’s sweet pungent piney scent and the herbal spiciness of oregano are the herbs of choice in Italian cooking.

 Tomatoes – Eaten fresh or made into a sauce, tomatoes are an essential ingredient in the Italian pantry. In the summer they are layered between slices of buffalo mozzarella, anointed with extra virgin olive oil and scented with fresh basil or used to make a panzanella, Tuscany’s simple yet sublime bread salad.  At all times tomatoes are the base for the Italian red sauce giving depth to hundreds of regional Italian recipes that have made Italian food recognized all over the world.   

Garlic – Garlic is the godfather of Italian cooking. Chop it, crush it, then, let it sit to release the aroma, enzymatic and cardio-protective benefits found in fresh garlic. Respect this ingredient; use it well and it will never fail to add just what you need to perfect your dish.  

Pasta – Confused about pasta, don’t be. The most flavorful pasta is artisan pasta, roughly textured to allow the sauce to better adhere giving a more uniform and consistently delicious flavor to each bite. Quality pasta ia a “good carbohydrate” made from semolina flour, which is ground from durum wheat with a low glycemic index (41).  Italians eat pasta as a small introductory course (primo piatto) to the meal rather than in Mount Vesuvius proportions typical of American style dining.

Grapes and Wine – The pivotal role of grapes and red wine in the maintenance of health is well documented.  In Italy wine is considered to be a natural resource, a companion to food, a link to the past, a tradition to be preserved and a respected ingredient in cooking.

Cheese – The soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses of Italy are not easily translated in the US. Americanized versions of Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan), Mozzarella and Ricotta are not the same as what you will find in Italy.  Regional cheese making in Italy is government regulated with strict guidelines for manufacturing with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status under European Union law. Cheese in Italy is eaten as an accompaniment to a meal and enjoyed as an artisan product. It is often eaten as a dessert course with fruit.