Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mangia, Mangia!

On Wednesdays, my blog will feature a short little food vignette.

Though French cooking is my heritage and passion, I have long been a student of Italian cooking, and have had many armchair as well as actual mentors. When I was in graduate school in Geneva, I had with me the first of Marcella Hazan's wonderful books, Classic Italian Cooking, which I cooked nearly cover to cover.  We lived in a beautiful little studio apartment overlooking Lake Geneva, with a deck that ran the length of the two rooms (kitchen and great room, plus a tiny entrance hall and bath).  Many wonderful dinners were eaten on that deck until the weather turned, and in the little kitchen, which I adored, I rolled pasta with a wooden pin, and cut fettucine and pappardelle and lasagne noodles with a knife.   Fresh pasta fit my student budget at the time, and the intensity of the cooking was the perfect foil to the stress of jamming two years of grad school into one.  On Sundays, when the budget allowed, I would cook some delicious braise: osso bucco, braised lamb shanks, brasata al Barolo, beef braised in red wine.  The next day the braising liquids and leftover meet would make a lovely sauce to toss with hand cut noodles or bake into a macaronade.  Since that magic time, my appreciation for the food of the different regions of Italy has grown and deepened as my passion and curiousity have led me into more of its treasures.  I have travelled and eaten my through various regions of Italy many times, eating at little trattoria, and doing my best to chat with the owner/chef, as well as eaten in the gastronomic temples of Florence, Venice and Milan as well as many other cities and towns.

Italian cuisine comes principally from two distinct sources: cucina povera, or the cooking of the poor, and cucina nobile, the cooking for the tables of the rich. Since Etruscan times, and echoed in Roman culture, cooking for the different classes has been divided.  Echoing the themes we have been developing in this blog, cucina povera, or cooking from want, has resulted in many wonderful dishes: making the most of leftovers, using what the earth provides through the seasons of the year and preserving. Cucina Nobile, not to be outdone, has also left indelible marks on Italian cuisine as the exotic spices and fruits brought to Italy by visiting traders enhanced the local bounty, and the cooking skills of the Arab world were adapted to the available bounty. The staples of Italy match the regions: rice for risotto from the north in Piedmont and Lombardy, grilled bread in Tuscany, pasta to the South as well as polenta, originally grown around Venice.  More recently, I have been inspired by a wonderful book written by an Englishwoman, Katie Caldesi, married to an Italian, and a formidable food historian, chef, teacher and restaurateur in her own right.  If you want to learn to cook Italian food well, and this is as misleading as "French" food, for it is really a collection of different regional cuisines as it is in France, get hold of her book Cook Italy.

After Hazan, one of my first and lasting mentors has been Lorenza De Medici, of Badia a Coltibuono fame, and her cooking school, Villa Table. The beautiful and urbane food at her estate in Tuscany was as lyrical in style as sophisticated in execution, and she cooked with a triple strand of pearls around her neck, ever elegant and refined (she was a former editor of Vogue Italia). Her family hearkened back to Lorenzo the Magnificent, after whom she was named, that Renaissance patron of the arts and leader of Florence.  But even more fascinating, in the 16th century, the Compagna del Paiolo, Italy's first academy of cooking comprising the twelve best chefs, was founded in Florence by Caterina de' Medici, who was credited with passing on the art of fine cooking to the French.  I was transfixed by her descriptions of the dinners she hosted both at her own estate and the estates of her friends, and each evening, the wonderful communal table and gorgeous food would be punctuated by music: a local string quartet or classical guitarist or pianist, to round out the evening's pleasure.  This was my idea of heaven. Tuscan cooking is particularly instructive, if for no other reason than that expressed by Ada Boni in Italian Regional Cooking: "The task of the Tuscan cook is not easy. He cannot fall back on elaborate sauces and gravies to disquise the flavor of the food, nor may he employ garnishes which are so dear to some schools of cooking.  In preparing dishes of classic simplicity, he must rely on his skill alone, aided by the excellence of his raw materials."  This is a discipline well worthy of cultivation and study. Tuscan food revolves around the old-fashioned hearth, where pride of place is taken by the grill and the roasting spit, Boni argues. Food cooked in this manner is rarely equalled.  In Italy, as in France, food is a passion. In Tuscany, that passion becomes art, as decorous and formal as that of the great masters of the Florentine school.

Lorenza De Medici also has a passion for Italian Renaissance Gardens, as do I, and her beautiful books, The Renaissance of Italian Cooking and The Renaissance of Italian Gardens have given me hours of pleasure and inspired years of study, as have her many books since these were published.  The first great Renaissance gardens were created by Cosimo de Medici in the fifteenth century, and it was Lorenzo de Medici who first introduced the fashion for adorning gardens with statues.  It was also Lorenzo the Magnificent's gardener who reintroduced and outlined the concept of the essential harmony between the architectural lines of the house and that of the garden, although this idea was not a new one and could be found in ancient Greece and Rome.  If you are student of landscape architecture, you will know that these ideas made a rapid journey to France where they were further developed. As with cooking, so too with gardens.  I love the "sweet atmosphere of melancholy," as Lorenza describes it, which pervades the gardens of the Lombardy lakes, particularly around Lake Como, where I once had the most magnificent lunch high above its shores.  One of my lifelong dreams has been to own an ancient, abandoned garden, and as Lorenza says "to liberate trees that have been suffocated by ivy, to discover ancient foundations concealed beneath the earth, and to strip away the centuries and restore something buried."  As this is probably not a dream likely to materialize any time soon, I will have to satisfy myself with listening to Monteverdi madgrigals in my own garden and the Italian dinners inspired by the many I have seen and loved in many regions across Italy.

I love the imagery created by D. H. Lawrence in his book Etruscan Places: "But in those days, on a fine evening like this, the men would come in naked, darkly ruddy-colored from the sun and wine, with strong, insoucianat bodies, and the women would drift in wearing the loose becoming smock of white or blue linen; and somebody, surely, would be playing on the pipes, and somebody, surely would be singing, because the Etruscans (the ancestors of the Tuscan spirit) had a passion for music, and an inner carelessness the modern Italians have lost."  When I imagine this sort of afternoon, my mind often drifts to that wonderful Kenneth Branaugh movie made on the Shakespeare play "Much Ado about Nothing," which was filmed in such a garden, and played out just as Lawrence describes.  I have always wanted to give such a party, and for my 50th birthday, I had dreams of just such an evening (fully clothed!), inspired by that lovely vignette in the play.  Alas, it did not occur this year, but I have high hopes for such a gathering in the year to come.

Tuscany has always held a corner of my heart captive, for all sorts of reasons, but particularly since I learned that the ancient Etruscans shared the banqueting bench with their wives, which is more than the Greeks or Romans did, at this period.  The classic world thought it indecent for a woman to recline as the men did, even at the family table.  I rather loved the Florentine saying, that captured the wisdom of the era: "Whose bread and cheese I eat, to his tune I dance!"  Men might do well to keep this in mind.  The French have always respected the Tuscan appreciation for culture. Montaigne, in his Journal de Voyage en Italie, commented that he "was astounded to hear the peasants in Tuscany with a lute in their hands, and at their side the shepherds reciting Aristo by heart."  Some cultures have an in-born joy of living, and this is very apparent in the land of the Etruscans.  Lord Byron, the English poet, recognized this magic: "...fair Italy! Thou art the garden of the world, the home of all art yields, and nature can decree; Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?  Thy very weeds are beautiful-- thy waste more rich than other climes fertility; thy wreck a glory and thy ruin graced with an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.  Perhaps this explains the love of life of its inhabitants to some degree, non?  Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, we can salute this joyous embrace of life's gifts:
 "From Tuscan Belloguardo,
Where Galileo stood at nights to take
The vision of the stars, we have found it hard,
Gazing upon the earth and heavens, to make
a choice of beauty."

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