Apr 232012
pane carasau

This fascinating video shows the making of the traditional Sardinian bread, pane carasau, also called “carta musica” in Italian. The bread is extremely dry and likely originated where there was little opportunity to bake and bread had to keep for a long time (see also Puglian frise). The video was made in 1990 by the Sardinian Ethnographic Institute.

Grazie a Dr. Elisa Ascione per la segnalazione.

Feb 272012
Lupines lupin beans lupines bean

What are lupines? Botanically lupines (or lupins) are a genus in the Fabaceae (legume) family: its cousins include peas, beans, and even the mimosa tree. The commonly-cited etymologies are fanciful and unsatisfactory: one is that lupins take over land likes wolves (lupus meant wolf in Latin), another has is that the legume was fit only for wolves’ consumption. Ken Albala, in his entertaining volume Beans: A History, notes that like many other members of the Legume Family, lupins contain toxic chemicals (protection against humans) which must be deactivated by soaking and boiling. Lupines never really get soft, though, and are often a snack more than an ingredient in other dishes.

Oblivious to their high protein content (40%, high than any other bean) and high unsaturated fat level, upper-class Italians from Roman times until quite recently have turned up their noses at lupines. Giacomo Castelvetro, in his seventeenth-century treatise on vegetables, says that they are fit only for pregnant women and silly children. The current resurgence of interest in the cucina povera, or “peasant fare,” has put lupines back in the spotlight.  ZN

Feb 022012

Manifesto of Italian Molecular Cuisine

1. Any novelty must broaden the Italian gastronomic tradition.

2. New cooking and preparation techniques and new dishes have been studied and created to enhance natural ingredients and quality Italian raw materials.

molecular cuisine

Coming soon to a trattoria near you: Italian molcular cuisine.

3. Italian molecular cuisine will be attentive to the nutritional values and the well-being of the eater.

4. Italian molecular cuisine will realize its goals creating textures of ingredients chosen on the basis of this manifesto, studying the physical and chemicals properties of the ingredients and planning new microscopic architectures.


I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this. There’s a great article in the Fall 2011 edition of Gastronomica called “Food Pairing Theory: A European Fad” (by Maurits de Klepper) which makes me suspicious of the overly-chemicals attempts to create cuisine, not to mention the fact that most of us don’t have the time or money to obsess about mixing aromas or creating “new microscopic architectures.” Seems like another class separator (see McWilliams’ article on foodies). I’ll have to read the book.   ZN


The text above is my translation. Manifesto written in 2003 by Chef Ettore Bocchia and Professor Davide Cassi. Originally published in Il gelato estemporaneo e altre invenzioni gastronomiche (Extemporaneous Gelato and Other Gastronomic Inventions).

Jan 272012

Professor Carol Helstosky’s excellent book on Italian cooking from unification to today, Garlic and Oil, mentions a variety of cookbooks to draw upon as primary sources for those who would try to get into a housewive’s of the past’s brain as she takes out her knife and onions. One of the titles is La cucina del tempo di Guerra: Manuale Pratico per le famiglie (“Cooking During Wartime: A Practical Manual for Families”), written by Lunella De Seta and originally published in 1942.

I recently found a reprint of this book (Antonio Vallardi Editore, 2011), which is indeed a goldmine, a culinary snapshot of wartime Italy. Its recipes show what cooks had to work with (and what they didn’t), but also what they would have made had they not been working around wartime shortages and rationing. An example is the recipe for “mixed oil” for salads: 125g of olive oil, 25g of linseed oil, and a liter of water. Mix the three ingredients together cold and add a tablespoon of vinegar, a little bit of salt, and (a curious wartime ingredient) a pinch of saffron. Boil all together for 25 minutes then strain through cheesecloth. The author notes, without any sarcasm, that the “oil” should not be used for frying.

Italy’s food desires (100% olive oil on salads, meatballs made of meat and not bread, pasta with eggs) are in between the lines of this book, and one almost wants to go back and reassure the cooks using it that they only have to wait another ten or so years for the postwar economic boom to have them.  ZN

Jan 242012

Those interested in Italian history likely know the famous quote by Massimo D’Azeglio: “L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani.”  (“We’ve made Italy. What remains is to make Italians.”) The quote is so iconic and so apt, even today (perhaps especially today) that it is often misquoted and misattributed (mostly to Cavour). The point is clear, though: that political unification is quite a bit easier than cultural unification.

A riff on the above sentiment, and a comment on Italy’s culinary “disunity” (though food historian Massimo Montanari would debate this), comes from Federico De Roberto (1861-1927), a minor southern poet and novelist. This quote is from his posthumous (1929) novel L’imperio:

«Ora che l’Italia è fatta, bisognerebbe unificare le cucine italiane!»
«Ardua impresa. Si potranno federare; se pure!»

“Now that we’ve made Italy, we have to unify the Italian cuisines!”
An arduous enterprise. They could federate—maybe!”


Dec 232011

The volume The Tori: The Grand Fishing Activity in the Middle Ages in Lake Trasimeno (by Ermanno Gambini and Elio Pasquali, translated by Roshini Mallah) is a unique source in English on the topic of  “tori” (tower) fishing on Lake Trasimeno in the medieval and early modern periods. Guerra Edizioni, 1996.  A detailed text and a number of watercolors explains the method of fishing used for centuries. For the sake of brevity, though, we’ll quote the short description from a guidebook written by one of the same authors on the lake:

cover of fishing on Lago Trasimeno book“This fishing system, not in use for over four centuries, is unknown to our modern fishermen. There is however abundant documentation from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, a testimony of the economic value of an undertaking that was managed at the time like a large firm when Lake Trasimeno was seen, first by the City of Perugia and then by the Papal States, as a precious good to take advantage of, but also to protect. The preparations involved not only the fishermen but a good part of the lake community during the annual cycle.

In the winter the woodsmen cut the trunks and poles of chestnut or oak that were necessary for the final phase of the fishing. In the late spring everyone was involved in bringing down from the forests the enormous quantities of oak branches used to make thousands of bundles that then, in summer when the lake was calm, were transported with boats to be sunk in preselected locations, where the stacks from the year before were. Hundreds of pyramidal piles were constructed – these were the tori – where the fish found refuge from the rigors of the winter. The fishermen cultivated hemp on the banks of the lake, from which they made the nets, in particular the huge one used in “tori fishing,” called the travencule.

The fishermen dedicated to this technique of fishing (which netted mainly tenches, but also nases and eels) were organized in “Companies.” Each Company was composed of nine men: a head boatman (called a navarca) and eight workers, and a large boat (called a nave) and a small helper boat (called a navigiuolo) were used. In the middle of the fifteenth century there were forty Companies; each one had between fifty and sixty towers. In the summer and the winter the lake teemed with men and boats in feverish activity. Matteo dall’Isola Maggiore [a sixteenth-century humanist and island resident], in the second book of his work the Trasimenide (1537), describes the epic deeds of the fishermen of his age, doing this same fishing technique at the height of the winter, in inclement weather conditions, with the tools of the trade that had assumed cyclopean dimensions because of the high level of the lake.

The fishing community of the Isola Maggiore shook themselves awake from sleep three or four hours prior to dawn. After having consumed a frugal breakfast, the men loaded the boats with the tools needed for that day’s fishing. The large ships left port with their small helper boats (the navigiuolo) in tow. The fleet went out together for a bit, then broke down and each crew headed for the toro selected for that day’s fishing. As soon as the light levels permitted it, the crew chief or navarca got on the navigiuolo and took the precise coordinates (local landmarks) for finding the submerged toro ; this was called l’istra or il listro in local jargon. Having found the toro, the navarca called the crew him: the fishing could begin.

The crew began right away to build around the submerged tower two circular structures composed of long poles driven deep into the slimy lake bed. The diameter of the external

“palisade” was about twenty-five or twenty-six meters. Four or five meters divided the first palisade from the one inside it. Tightly-woven nets, nine meters high and about eighty meters long, were hung out of the water on the inside of the poles of the external circuit of the palisade. These nets were then dropped down to the bottom of the lake and tied to the inside circuit of poles with ropes. The toro was thereby completely enclosed by nets with all the fish inside.

The crew, part on the larger boat and part on the smaller boat, with hooked rods and long curved rakes, pulled out all the bundles from the water and threw them over the nets to the outside of the palisade. Some of the men stuck the heavy, sixteen-toothed rakes into the slimy bottom to drive the fish who had taken refuge there out of the mud. Others hung some of the bundles of branches into the water inside the nets so that the fish would group around them to hide. This first phase of the fishing ended halfway through the morning. The men came out of the palisade using the helper boat and went back to dry land to have their meal. The fishing started back up in the afternoon.

The fishermen, who had gone back into the central space inside the palisade, used throw nets to try to catch the fish that had remained where the tower had been before. Lined up part on the helper boat and part on the ship, they turned towards the inner palisade. They pulled the ropes in rapidly, raising out of the water the submerged strip of net which they hung on the hooks where before had been the cords. In this way they made a large bed of nets with a circular form inside of which were all the fish. At this point the bulrush knots were untied and the main ship


A detail from the book The Tori showing the fishing from above.

went into the space between the two palisades. From the stern the men began pulling in the net, unhooking it from both sides while from the navigiulo the other men pulled out of the water the half-submerged bundles. Doing this they made the fish gather in a space that was ever smaller.

In the end the fish were carefully dumped into a sack made of netting, called the mutilo, which was then left in the water, tied well to the main ship. The men then pulled all of the poles out of the water. Only the pile of bundles was left behind – they became the base of next year’s tower.The fishermen went to the shore of the lake – it was now almost sundown. They dumped the fish into large braided wicker baskets immersed in water, called bacai, where they left the fish until they were delivered to market.”

(from Isola Maggiore: Historic-Artistic Guide (by Ermanno Gambini and Mirko Santanicchia, translated by Zachary Nowak, published by the Pro Loco Isola Maggiore in 2007)


Dec 202011

warehouse with parmigiano reggianoThis wonderful little aside is from Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany (Bloomsbury, 2003):

“Parmigiano Reggiano, probably the finest Parmesan cheese, is mode from unpasteurised skimmed cows’ milk. A number of traditional terms are employed to indicate the time of year when the cheese was manufactured:

maggengo: April-November
inverengo: December-March
di tessa: April-June
di centro: July-August
tardno: September-November

Other terms show the number of months the cheese has matured:
nuovo: <17 months
maggengo: 18-24 months
:  >24 months”

Dec 172011
scene of making pasta from Bartolomeo Scappi's Opera dell'arte del cucinare (1570).
Scene of making pasta from Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera dell’arte del cucinare (1570)

Like many Italian culinary terms, the word maccheroni (or the American macaroni) has had a shift in the semantic field that if covers.While the modern Italian word refers, as does its American counterpart, to a short, tubular pasta, as recently as the sixteenth century it was not limited to a type of dry pasta but also meant boiled bread. The connection doesn’t seem obvious until we think of what we today call gnocchi originally being made not with potatoes but rather with flour. Italian Renaissance cook Bartolomeo Scappi shows this overlap when he says to knead dough, thereby “making gnocchi, that is to say macarni” (faccianosi i gnocchi cioè maccaroni).

The etymology is almost as confused as the shift in meanings; suffice it to say that there is no agreement about the origin, but here are several theories. Ruconi Libri’s Dizionario etimologico (Santarcangelo di Ravenna, 2003) lists as a first entry the suggestion that the word comes from archaic Italian macco (fava beans boiled and reduced to a flour). It also says that the word comes perhaps from the character in the Atellan Farce comedies, Maccus, who had large mandibles, implying heavy food. The affinity with Greek makários (meaning “blessed,” also a barley broth) leads this dictionary to hypothesize a meal served at funerals.

The oldest use of the word in Italian is in the name of a recipe, “Mari qui dicitur mackarone,” in Acta B. Guillelmi Eremit (1401). Barnhart’s Dictionary of Etymology (H.W. Wilson Company, 1988) says that the word is first found in English in Ben Jonson’s play Cynthias’s revels in 1599. It gives possible derivations from Italian maccare (to crush, batter) as well as the alternate from makários. It is interesting to note that “macaroni” in English referring to a fop or a dandy comes from the Macaroni Club, a group in late eighteenth century London that affected French or Italian fashions, noting that pasta was considered an exotic dish at the time. American readers will recognize this sense from the Revolutionary War song, “Yankee Doodle.”  ZN

Dec 072011

zucchini with mint roman jewish foodMy friend Angela Cannizzaro, a true Renaissance woman, contributes to a website which explores Rome’s past and present. One of the rubrics is “Antichi sapori” (ancient flavors), where one can find a number of Roman-Jewish recipes like Carciofi alla giudea (Jewish Fried Artichokes) and Zucchine alla menta (Mint Zucchini), the latter a typical Sukkoth dish. Well worth a look if you’re interested in these recipes. ZN