Archive for the ‘Italian food history’ Category

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Cruising for some codfish

October 25, 2016

Creamed salt cod is one of those dishes that can take me somewhere else.

Known as ‘baccalà mantecato’ in Italian, it’s a specialty of Venice and although complex in flavour, uses minimal ingredients: salt cod, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and (sometimes) milk. The success lies in adding olive oil slowly as if making mayonnaise while beating the hell out of the cooked fish. A codswallop of sorts.

A recent look through my shoebox of vintage family photos transported me back to a mid 1960s’ shipboard romance.

A family trip back to Italy by boat promised all the fun a gal could dream of if the brochures were to be believed. However, as a kid, my dating prospects were limited so I settled for a relationship with a reconstituted fish.

I was an adventurous eater and looked forward to the daily buffets aboard the Marconi, looking for favourite dishes among butter sculptures guaranteed to make Michelangelo weep. Dinners were dressy affairs and waiters served antipasto selections at our dining tables from oversized stainless steel trays.

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I switched between salami, mortadella and prosciutto, but the one constant was creamed salt cod. From Sydney to Genoa – over 23 days and 10 ports of call in southeast Asia, the middle East and finally Italy – I ate creamed salt cod. I then took a break for a few years, but every time I was downwind of it, our sea voyages came to mind.

The liners SS Guglielmo Marconi and SS Galileo Galilei were purpose-built in 1962 in my hometown Trieste to bring immigrants to Australia. The sister ships were furnished with elegant interiors and collected awards for their innovative design. Shipboard games were simple and included shuffleboard, quoits and horse races with 2-D timber animals that moved along a track on the throw of the dice. Crossing the equator was a big poolside occasion featuring egg and flour initiations of Equator-crossing virgins and wily old King Neptune looking on. Children were encouraged to learn folkdances of the countries visited during stopovers. Our teacher, a heavily accented Eastern European woman, drummed into us an Indian dance routine, because “tomorrow is Bombatom”. I asked my parents if Bombay was a war zone.

Not that I realised it at the time, but what better way is there than enjoying salt cod on a ship, celebrating the important trade of Basque fishermen 500 years ago.

The award-winning Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (Mark Kurlansky, 1999) is next in line on my bedside table.

This baccalà mantecato recipe by Emiko Davies is great … try it with polenta or eat it as I did on the ship – on nice toasted bread. Piled high.


Image from ‘The Sea Herald’ – Marconi 1965

 

 

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The Spaghetti Test: a short story

May 15, 2016

It was never going to be a happy marriage: an Italian in strange surroundings, with no knowledge of the local language, dependent on an unknown woman whose cooking probably didn’t measure up to mamma’s.

When I started primary school as a five-year-old, I had about 11 words of English. It was 1960 and we had arrived as Italian migrants a few years earlier, my parents settling in Sydney’s inner-west and mixing with other non-Australians. We spoke Italian at home and we hadn’t yet bought a television, so there were no English distractions.

The first school day was traumatic. My mother cried when she dropped me off at the local public school after the two-kilometre walk from our house, hand-in-hand. She also cried on her way home and again when she collected me in the afternoon.

I can’t remember if I was anxious during those first weeks at school, but if I was, I put all my energies into grappling with the lunches my mother prepared. Mum’s sandwiches were stuffed with either salami or mortadella. If it was dad’s handiwork, it more than likely involved a sharp, smelly Italian cheese partnered with two or three black olives, de-pipped and halved.

There weren’t many other migrant children in my class, but kids being kids, they made rude noises when I reached for my lunch. I soon realised that if I wanted to fit in, the pathway to assimilation would be food. I’d tried to work out what was in my classmates’ sandwiches and learned the pale pink sliced meat was called devon and the dark brown, salty-smelling gloop was Vegemite. But I was more interested in the stubby noodles in the orange-coloured sauce that one girl brought in most days. It was a strange thing to put in a sandwich but I figured if an Australian kid at school could eat what an Italian kid ate at home, we could become soul mates.

SpaghettiEaters

Spaghetti eaters (Naples) by Giorgio Sommer circa 1886.

After a few months, I convinced my mother that I wanted to try something different for lunch and needed to place an order for the spaghetti sandwich. This was my first attempt at befriending the woman behind the tuck shop counter who I assumed cooked the pasta at home. She was very kind and only too pleased to let me try something familiar.

I could hardly wait for the sandwich to arrive. I salivated. I was finally going to be ‘one of them’. Bag opened, wax paper off, first bite completed.

“This can’t be right.” I tried again. “That woman has made a mistake. I ordered spaghetti.” I took a third, smaller bite of the overcooked pasta in the sickly, sweet, gluggy sauce and almost gagged. Should I be rude and spit it out? I hadn’t swallowed the other two pieces, so there was now a hefty ball of unwanted sandwich in my mouth soon to be deposited in the paper lunch bag.

My Australian classmates looked on and nodded when I asked if this really was spaghetti. Some corrected me and said it really was “psghetti”.

If I’d watched the tuck shop woman make my sandwich I’d have realised the pasta had come out of a tin and was scooped onto the buttered bread with a spoon. ‘Spaghetti’ and ‘spoon’ were never used in the same sentence in our Italian world. Years later I discovered that US miners introduced tinned spaghetti to Australia during the late 19th century gold rush and the nation had been enjoying it ever since, even daring to tip it onto a slice of toast for special occasions.

My mother asked about my new sandwich filling. I had to think fast: if I admitted it was inedible, it would be back to the smelly sandwiches; if I said I liked it, I’d have to keep ordering it.

I can’t remember how we reached a compromise. Maybe I convinced dad my schoolmates thought the black olives looked like cockroaches and it would reflect badly on mum’s housekeeping. Or that the mortadella would fester in a hot school case in the sun and upset my stomach. Either way, they relented and both these offending fillings were omitted from my lunchbox for a long while.

As my English improved, I gained confidence and learned to order sandwiches with egg, salad, raspberry jam and peanut butter.

But not before I was tempted by something called a ‘sausage roll’. I had visions of a crusty Italian roll with German mustard and a genuine continental frankfurter – just like my northern Italian parents, whose cooking was influenced by Austro-Hungarian heritage – served at home.

If testing the spaghetti sandwich had been a disappointment, this second experiment almost sent me running back to mum and dad’s problematic lunches. But soon after, our first television delivered me another challenge in the form of the 1960s’ American sitcom children’s specialty: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was a glutton for punishment.

(The Spaghetti Test was short-listed and commended in the 2015 Life Writing competition held annually by Melaleuca Blue Publishing. It’s included in an anthology of short stories titled Do Nuns Wear Knickers published in print and ebook form).

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The Moka: a classic until the end

February 28, 2016

Two weeks ago, the son of the man who invented the Moka coffee pot died in Switzerland aged 93 and received a fitting send-off.

As a tribute to his gift to coffee lovers, Renato Bialetti’s ashes were placed in an over-sized replica of the famous coffee pot at his funeral near Milan. His father Alfonso invented the aluminium, eight-faceted stovetop coffee pot in 1933 and Renato took over the business in 1946. Soon afterwards, he mounted a marketing campaign so successful it took the Moka from the markets in Piedmont to kitchens throughout Italy.

The result? Nine out of ten Italian households own a Moka and over 300 million have been sold worldwide.

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Up until then, coffee drinking in Italy took place in cafes or other public places before the Napoletana (drip) stovetop coffee pot was invented in the late 19th century for home use. I love the Napoletana (see my previous blog post for an explosive memoir) and it does a fine job but for those who like their coffee espresso-strong, nothing beats the Moka.

I applaud the use of ashes contained in something special associated with the deceased. I wonder if the Italian inventor of Nutella, Pietro Ferrero ended up in a large, branded jar of the chocolate hazelnut spread when he died in 1949, but it would have been a fitting send-off too.

This is so much more creative than a cardboard shoebox. Except possibly in the case of the late Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo.

I’m not sure if Renato Bialetti requested the funeral-sized coffee pot or if it was his children’s idea, but for the record, I’m liking the idea of a large marmalade jar for my remains. The label should read ‘Ambrajambra’ Mandarin Marmalade Queen.

But back to coffee. I’m raising a cup to signor Bialetti with my current drink of choice – a Caffe Shakerato (iced, strong, sweet black coffee) – to beat this hot humid Sydney summer weather.

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Borlotti. Pretty, good beans

November 24, 2015

As a child, you were most likely told to not play with your food. As an adult, I can’t think of a better excuse to procrastinate.

Fresh borlotti beans are wondrous things. They not only taste good, they are gorgeous to look at. As if their magenta-streaked pods aren’t attractive enough, the beans inside give you a double dose of colour. Pity then that they turn light, muddy brown when cooked. But before they changed to drab, I wanted to capture them and test my rusty watercolour skills. The result is not a Caravaggio, but I’ve got plenty of time …

borlotti beans in shells

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This season – like all good Italians – I’ve made the most of them in salads, stews, dips and the popular soup pasta e fagioli – or as Dean Martin called it in the song That’s Amore: ‘pasta fazool’. They’re usually late summer to late autumn eating but I found some last week and I wasn’t going to query where they came from – they looked fresh so I snapped them up. 

Trawling online sites for borlotti bean inspiration, I found a new way with them. If you don’t like anchovies, look away now! The recipe is called Fagioli alla veneta and is a tasty cold salad from the Veneto region in north-eastern Italy. (It’s translated into wonky English but still understandable.)

I love shelling fresh borlotti beans, but if you prefer to buy them ready to use, they are available at selected greengrocers in containers and marketed as ‘edible gems’. That name was a good enough reason for me to play around with them post-shelling. Here’s the result: no strings attached!

 

borlotti bean necklace

 

Sydney-based restaurateur Steve Manfredi also does a nice dish of braised borlotti with tomato, celery hearts and oregano.

 

 

 

 

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NUTELLA: World’s favourite bread spread

June 2, 2015

I’m not a big consumer of the world’s most popular chocolate and hazelnut spread – preferring solid goodness like Baci or Ritter Sport, but I’m concerned about the future of NUTELLA and its devotees.

Baci chocolatesRitter Sport chocolate

This timeline shows recent disturbing facts. Perhaps the beginning of No-tella?

1946 – Italian pastry maker Pietro Ferrero creates a solid chocolate loaf, adding locally grown hazelnuts as an extender due to the short supply of cocoa post World War 11. Children decide it’s a great breakfast treat with bread.

1951 – Now a cream consistency, Supercrema Gianduja is a big hit with children when shopkeepers encourage them to visit their stores bearing slices of bread to be topped with the spread. This becomes known as ‘The Smearing’.

1964 – Re-branded as ‘Nutella’ (pronounced ‘Nootella’) by the founder’s son Michele Ferrero, the spread spreads outside Italy, becoming a favourite with French and Spanish children. My parents however offer me a chocolate bar in a buttered sandwich.

1973 – The Italian film Bread and Chocolate is released. The bittersweet story about an Italian immigrant seeking work in Switzerland includes an outdoor scene where main protagonist Nino Manfredi bites into a bread roll filled with a chocolate bar. The crunching noise is so loud it stops the scene’s string quartet mid sonata.

1978 – Manufacture begins in Australia at Lithgow, about 140 kms from Sydney.

1983 – I discover Nutella and cream cheese sandwiches while studying in Florence.

2007 – Chocolate/hazelnut spread aficionado invents ‘World Nutella Day’ on 5 February.

2013 – Chocolate/hazelnut spread aficionado receives a cease-and-desist order from Ferrero-Rocher who claims their permission was not sought to officially celebrate the spread globally. Over 46,000 social media followers express outrage.

2014 – Nutella®, now available in approximately 160 countries, turns 50.

2014 – Unseasonal weather in Turkey, the world’s leading hazelnut exporter, creates a global shortage. My idea (in a previous post) of combining smashed sugared almonds with chocolate to make almond bark seems inspired.

2014 – Warnings issued of a future global cocoa crisis due to crop failure, disease and adding chocolate to EVERYTHING including gin, vodka and potato crisps.

2015 – Michele Ferrero – owner of the Nutella empire and the richest man in Italy – dies aged 89, with rumours his son is not so interested in the business and takeovers could follow.

2015 – French court bans parents from naming their baby daughters “Nutella” after judge rules “it’s not in the best interest of a child because of the risk of abuse.”

2015 – A friend (let’s call him Gus) announces he’s giving up Nutella because of the nasties it contains, including palm oil, vanillin (MSG) and soy lecithin.

2015 – I hear about a healthy, organic alternative called Nocciolata but it’s not available in Australia. Still wanting a sugar fix, I buy a breadstick and chocolate variation instead called Nutella & GO. Close examination of ingredients list reveals breadsticks contain palm oil.

Nutella & GO

If you love Nutella but want something healthier, try David Leibovitz’s recipe. For an adults-only version, do what renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria does – add salt and an olive oil drizzle to melted chocolate on a bread roll. Or add it to cream cheese in a toasted sandwich.

Start stockpiling now!

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When Only Polenta Will Do

April 30, 2015

The ‘wooden plank/roof tile in place of the dinner plate’ fad has been around for a while, so I thought it safe to venture out into the wide world of inner Sydney pub bistros to test if chefs had done away with it. Not yet it seems.

I’ve eaten croissants, BLTs, toasties, salads and other foods plonked on non-plates. I’ve chased an undercooked egg oozing from a hamburger bun around a bit of treated pine. But after being served a steak with pepper sauce on a wooden board, I’m done. Do you realise how stressful it is to bolt down your meat before the pepper sauce finds its way to the edge of the board and drips onto the table? And the timber shards the serrated knife edge leaves behind aren’t much fun.

polenta illustration

There are times when plates are impractical. As an Italian-Australian growing up on home-cooked polenta I can attest to the tradition of pouring cooked polenta from the pot onto a wooden board, where it doesn’t spread too much. My father would cut it into slices with a taut wire (Jamie Oliver uses dental floss but I won’t go there) and serve it on plates with accompaniments from our Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. We’d have either a brodetto di pesce (cuttlefish or baccalà stew), sausage ragu or even braised borlotti beans.

There are Italian regional variations of the dish and sometimes polenta is served flat on a monstrous wooden board and then topped with rich tomato sauce and meat pieces for everyone around the table to dig into. Diners slowly work their way into the centre of the dish, a forkful at a time. It’s rustic eating and sounds like fun in the privacy of your own home.

I’m seriously thinking of asking for my next café steak/hamburger/anything with a runny sauce to be served on a dinner plate. As a paying customer, I think that’s fair.

While I wait for this trend to pass, I’ll enjoy following @WeWantPlates a tweeter who crusades against “serving food on bits of wood and roof tiles, jam-jar drinks and chips in mugs.” Thirty-six thousand followers feel their pain.

Image: from ‘Friuli e Trieste in Bocca’ by Manuela Busetti.

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Eggplant Parmigiana: Sophia’s Choice

March 31, 2015

When I heard Sophia Loren was visiting Australia in April as the guest of honour for a gala fundraiser, I immediately went shopping. For eggplants.

She was famously quoted as saying, “Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner” and “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti” but to me, she’s all eggplant. She claims to know at least a dozen ways to cook them, courtesy of her grandmother. Now that’s impressive.

Italian actress Sophia Loren

I could almost taste the eggplant/aubergine parmigiana (aka melanzane alla parmigiana) I was about to make. It’s a time-consuming dish, with successive layers of pre-cooked, thin eggplant slices, tomato sauce and two types of cheese: meltable (usually mozzarella) and parmesan.

I was short of time and dusted the eggplant slices with flour – without egging and crumbing them before frying. I’ve always done the three-way dust, dip and coat method and usually set aside a hefty amount of time to do it … like annual holidays. Does anyone else make it this way, or am I the only one with too much time on my hands?

In her 1971 cookbook Eat with Me (full of fabulous fashion as well as the world’s biggest wooden salad servers), Sophia just fries them. As does Marcella Hazan in her Classic Italian Cookbook. In Italian Food, Elizabeth David dusts them with flour before frying, and Italy’s most successful cookbook, Silver Spoon suggests frying, then spreading with beaten egg (making it a bit omelettey I think). And finally, Pellegrino Artusi in his Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (published 1891) goes one better: flouring before frying, then topping with beaten egg, tomato sauce, one spoon of parmesan, two spoons of breadcrumbs.

eggplant watercolour

Ambra, circa 1980 – the ‘eggplant’ period

Then there’s the question: to peel or not to peel the eggplant. The peelers are in the minority, but still, peeling and discarding that gorgeous shiny purple skin is out of the question. It’s the essence of the vegetable.

Not to mention that without the skin, the eggplant slices just look like disappointed kitchen sponges.

Another curiosity is the dish’s name. Many people (including Jamie Oliver) think it’s a northern Italian dish and ‘parmigiana’ refers to the cheese or Parma, the city. But food historians think it’s from Sicily, where ‘palmigiana’ means shutters and describes the way the eggplant slices are overlapped. There are further theories that Sicilians have a problem pronouncing the “l” and it became ‘parmigiana’.


parmigianaEither way, Sophia gets the last word: ‘There are some vegetable dishes, ways of doing aubergines, pimientos, and so on, that sometimes fill me with an enthusiasm that I am unable to work up over the main course.”

Follow the step-by-step Parmigiana video recipe on the excellent Italian food site Giallo Zafferano

For non-Italian speakers, Italian American chef Lidia Bastianichs recipe is the closest I’ve found to the one I make.

Parmigiana photo by Joyosity
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