What About the Food, everyone asks

Have you ever heard anyone not rave about the food in Italy? Rare, indeed. My last trip had the bonus points plugged in. Norma’s hometown was in the Veneto, along with relatives and friends that coming out of every door. Then, too, because it was a Sister City visit to Crespano del Grappa near Mt. Grappa, the Military Corps of the Alps, “the Alpini”, saw to it our celebratory evening was filled with delectables of every sort.

But one of the most memorable dinners was in Lucca, with my cousin Roberto and family. He refused my invitation but did allow me to participate in a sumptuous meal featuring Branzini. The local supermarket had a never-ending case of this sea bass and other fish of every description. Seafood is so prevalent throughout Italy and its freshness makes for a delicious selection on any menu. Roberto stuffed the fish and baked it in the oven, deftly removing its skeleton. To accompany this prize entree, there was Betty’s pasta con pesto, Christina’s special green peas, a remarkable Insalata fresca and strawberries for dessert lovingly cut by Francesca. It was a wonderful family dinner memory.

Nights in Canareggio and Lyrical, Charming Italia

 

One earplug had popped out and I woke up, luxuriating and stretching in the large comfortable hotel bed my friend Lisette found for me upon my arrival in Venice not 24 hours before.  It wasn’t time to get up.  Street noise from below had gone on making it difficult to fall asleep and now voices and laughter continued. My travel clock glowed 1:17a.m.   I needed more than a couple hours sleep, but the other voice that kept me awake was in my own head. I wanted to get up and write about how lyrical the Italian language was, tonight’s annoyances notwithstanding.

And it certainly could not be compared to the noontime noise and hubub of the tourist crowds and packs of students everywhere.

I believe Italy should be viewed overall as a grand experience, good, bad or indifferent, whatever the perspective of the traveler.  Of all that I know of my Italian heritage and now my 4th trip in my elder years, it is that everything about the country and its people fills your senses in every way. My other earplug had popped out and further demanded I get up and get busy despite the morning chill. Why they didn’t make earplugs in sizes like everything else is beyond me. I pulled pants over my pajamas, put on a heavy sweater, scarf and bath towel over my shoulders and made a big lap desk from the hotel pillows and climbed back into bed with my laptop. But not before I checked out the small now almost empty courtyard below. Only one couple stood huddled together in the dim light, her head on his shoulder, their fingers working over a cell phone glowing in their hands.  The canal glistened nearby, its waters forever twinkling nervously, ready for the next day’s action. A few voices still came through the walls, and/or the neighborhood, but not quite like it was during the night, when earplugs demanded deep immersion.

Warmed up, I threw off the towel and scarf. Though more quiet outside now, I could still hear the voices from below in my head. They twinkled, too, like music spilling off the keyboard of a piano played by fingers that could not express their notes fast enough, their passion strong enough, their pleasure delightful enough. The Italian language is nothing if not musical, and yesterday was a reminder of its complexity, the words spoken so fast, lilting like a delightful tune. More actual voices piped in now with the earplugs out. Laughter, twinkling like the canal, lilting in delight, lots of words and musical giggles. What are those people doing out there, or in there, wherever they are they were enjoying themselves and all was good with the world.

Lisette, and Fabio at the hotel all spoke similarly. Fast, furious and copious. There was much to explain, as Lisette occupied her cell phone during much of our meeting with long talks and explanations, Fabio and Diego doing the same when we met, explaining, making sure that all was being made correct, comfortable, and pleasing. It was more than just hospitality from inn keepers. It was heartfelt and sincere.

I thought Americans could use more of this kind of charm, if only it could be taught.  But then, this is the heritage of an ancient land and complex society, born slowly over time and tribulation, steeped in traditions, customs, passions, deep family values and more. Americans just don’t seem to have that kind of history, tradition or time, not yesterday, today or tomorrow.

A Secret Discovery About Tiramisù

The Italian Classic Dessert

It was close to my last day in Lucca while visiting my cousin Roberto, that one of the secrets of an Italian classic dessert was revealed to me. One of the family’s favorite gelato shops was on the other side of town, and Roberto was determined I was not to leave without sampling their artisan gelato. Of course we all know that not all gelato is the same. This recipe was from the artisan book all right and it was hard to choose among their myriad of flavors. Rich with egg custard as the base, the gelato was just the ticket at the end of this warm and wonderful sightseeing day.

With my two selected flavors in hand, I strolled around the pasticceria to have a look see at the dozens and dozens of decorated pastries and other delicacies in the mirrored showcases. Chocolates galore, and candles made to look like cameras and telephones!

But I digress, I need to tell the tiramisù secret.

 

At the end of a long aisle of cakes decorated with unbelievable confections, sat the king of desserts with all of its sumptuous layers vividly showcased. Who could resist? I looked more closely. There it was, as vividly as the cakes were beautiful, the layers in the tiramisù were made of the largest ladyfingers I’d ever seen. For years I had made my tiramisù with sponge cake so that we could have some cake in the mix, not just melted small ladyfingers and a lot of whipped cream. I honestly had never seen large biscottoni like this in our local stores.

 

This was the secret, to use larger ladyfingers called “Savoiardi” (no I can’t pronounce it).

I did find them in the couple of days I had left when I returned to Florence, at the elegant Rinascente Department Store in their gourmet grocery section. Chocolate and Vanilla Biscottoni they were called. They made it home without a crumble and the tiramisù I made using them was raved over by all. I agree the homemade biscuits made all the difference.

 

When I went to find the biscuits via Google, I was surprised at the number of recipes, not stores that came up, and used the recipe below with a couple alterations. And as though by magical ESP, the next time I went shopping, the larger “Savoiardi” were in the local grocery store!

 

Savoiardi

Ingredients

            3 large organic eggs (room temperature and separated)

½ c granulated sugar (divided)

pinch of salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 tsp. lemon juice (divided)

2 tsp. grated lemon or orange zest

½ c cake flour (sifted)

2 T potato starch

powdered sugar for dusting

Directions

Preheat oven to 350º. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Prepare pastry bag  (1/2” tip) or heavy plastic bag for piping.

 

  • In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites, 1/4 c of sugar and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice until stiff peaks form.
  • In another bowl, beat the egg yolks with the remaining sugar, citrus zest, vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and salt until thick and light yellow.
  • Sift the flour and potato starch over the egg mixture and gently fold it in with a rubber spatula until smooth and well combined.
  • Gently fold in the egg whites.
  • Transfer half of the batter to the prepared piping bag. Pipe the batter into lines about4”  long, keeping distance between them. Don’t  worry if the ladyfingers are not shaped perfectly.
  • Repeat with the rest of the batter.
  • Sprinkle the cookies lightly with powdered sugar. Let them rest for about 5 minutes and sprinkle again with powdered sugar
  • Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes until lightly golden.

Let the ladyfingers cool for a few minutes then release them from the parchment paper, with a flat spatula

Shopping in Italy, Scent and Seduction at its Best

What does one buy on an Italian vacation in Florence? Are you a souvenir junky, an antique addict, clothes monger, an art advocate for all those handcrafted watercolors on the street, or do you just go for that giant hunk of Florentine steak to share with your party? No, I know, it’s the gold. Shining in ultra bright lights on purpose, there is enough gold jewelry and Murano glass to melt the heart of the thriftiest miser. Then I saw an article about the making of perfumes by alchemists during the Renaissance and I knew I was onto to something. (See prior post.)

Strolling down Via dei Cimatore I caught a fresh floral breeze wafting by, or was it a grassy spring-like scent? I turned, and there it was, a store so inviting, I was magnetized to enter. It was a world of mirrors and bottles dressed in Florentine finery standing to be revered. And then, there was handsomely dressed Ilario.  Thankfully, he spoke English. He pronounced his name “Ill-ahhh-dio” with the appropriate pause in the middle, like a romantic sigh.  He greeted me with a slight bow and a dazzling smile and reached for my hand.   I was afraid he was actually going to kiss it. Instead he started with the sales promotion, so courteously I felt revered myself.

Ilario was most charming in his delivery and Italian accent, and began offering one scent stick at a time, slowly and with purpose all the while speaking softly about the perfume history, and manufacturer, but more importantly how to make it your best friend. “You must have a scent of your own, Madame,” he purred with his Italian accent sounding like the intonation of a priest. Iladio presented one miraculous flavor to the nose after another. “This one has in it the rose,” he went on. “For you.” With a slight bow, he offered the scent stick. It was scent and seduction at its best.

 

“And for you, I have included a discount,” he murmured as he carefully wrapped the jewel-capped bottle of “Bacio” I had chosen. I wondered if there was an extra charge for the gorgeous blue box carefully and purposefully tied with gold satin ribbon. I accepted my package, thanked Iladio graciously for his service and climbed the stairs out of the store. My knees were a bit wobbly and I balked at the glaring sunlit street. I almost didn’t want to leave the store’s comfortable sanctuary, and Ilario’s attention. The perfume’s name Bacio means kiss and I know I will enjoy the kiss of Firenze before, during and after my trip home.

 

How Italians Helped Make Perfume History

 

Turns out the Florentine Medicis did more than maneuver themselves into banking, trading, art and money making. But before we give them all the credit, let’s back-track to note that ancients used olive oil as a base for plants, herbs, and botanical extracts—tons of them, such as frankincense and myrrh and used the potions liberally on their bodies for wellbeing. Alchemists and more centuries of historical magic brought Venetian oils, resins, and spices into the picture before, during and after the Italian Renaissance.

Catherine de Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 set the trend of fragrance aloft with her scented leather opera gloves and in all manner of scented garments for that matter, even scenting leather shoes because she did not like the scent of leather. She was to marry Henri II of France and left Florence in 1553, but not without her own personal perfumer, René de Florentin.

Italian perfumery was making history. Next on stage was Giovanni Paolo Feminis, known as Giampaolo, born in the Italian Alps in 1666, emigrated to Germany, opened a perfumery shop creating innovative fragrances using herbs and recipes from monks. It was his alcohol-based distillation process and not oil-based that produced a light, fresh, herbal and citrus scent that became known as Aqua Mirabilis. It was his fundamental production methods that led the way to worldwide perfume manufacture.

Giovanni Maria Farina, Giampaolo’s nephew, took over Feminis’ business to update the perfume name to Jean-Marie Farina Eau de Cologne, now at home with other top fragrances worldwide.

More on fragrance (and seduction) in the next post.