Nov 012011

We have publicised before here attempts by Italian communities to block ethnic food with protectionist measures. Another has now joined the list. Forte dei Marmi - near Lucca the Italian pioneer in food protectionism - is a genteel seaside resort on the Tuscan coast, one of the preferred destinations for Italian rock stars, TV personalities and the very wealthy. The town has, in the words of the Sydney Herald, 'banned the opening of kebab shops, Chinese takeaways, Indian restaurants and other sellers of ''ethnic food''...  The town's council, which passed the decree unanimously last week, said the ban also applied to more familiar ''foreign'' establishments such as burger bars and English-style pubs.' The ban does not apply to outlets that are already open. SY

Jul 082011

This blog has long tried to give space to Italian Jewish food so we couldn’t resist quoting this comment by Ruth Abusch-Magder and Marissa Weitzman from the Forward Blog (SY):

‘For Ashkenazi Jews, coming out of Central and Eastern Europe, dairy on Shavuot translated into blintzes and cheesecake. For North African and Middle Eastern Jews, sambusek, pastries filled in this case with cheese, and milk puddings such as muhallabeya. But what of Italian Jews? One of the few communities of Jews that are neither fully Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, the Jews of Italy who call themselves B’nei Romi, developed their own religious and culinary traditions over time. Artichokes, for example, which had been discussed in rabbinic sources since ancient times, came to be strongly associated with the Jews of Italian ghettos, only then spreading to tables of non-Jews. This was a community that believed in secular education in addition to religious education. And far before there was confirmation for girls in the United States or the concept of a bat mitzvah, Italian Jews celebrated religious rites for girls. In a country renowned for food, the culinary traditions of Italian Jews have a long history; they are well developed and sophisticated. Learning from the foodways of the communities in which they lived, Italian Jews embraced ravioli, layered pasta dishes, and braised meats, though they varied the cuisine to follow kosher laws. Despite the upheaval and destruction of the Shoah in Italy, Jewish Italian cuisine has sustained itself and eating it on Shavuot is a revelation of its own. Italian Jewish Shavuot fare need not be heavy or overly sweet, but it is typically dairy-based. The gnocchi described by Edda Servi Machlin in her book, Classic Italian Jewish Cooking: Traditional Recipes and Menus are quite different from the potato dumpling often called to mind by that name. Easy to make, these farina dumplings provide a soft contrast to the flavorful cheesy crust and are delicious served alongside a crisp salad. For dessert, Machlin recommends Tortelli, a light lemon infused cookie whose ricotta filling will fulfill the dairy craving with a well balanced touch of sweetness.’

Mar 152011

c. 1825 SY

 The vines of the south [i.e. Italy] seem as if they were meant to supply the waste of animal spirits occasioned by the vivacity of the natives. Tuscany is one huge vineyard and olive ground. What would be fields and common hedges in England, are here a mass of orchards producing wine and oily so that the sight becomes tiresome in its very beauty. You want meadows, and a more pastoral rusticity. About noon, all the labourers, peasantry, and small shopkeepers in Tuscany, may be imagined taking their flask of wine. You see them all about Florence, fetching it under their arms. The effect is perceptible ‘after dinner’; though no disorder ensues; the wine being only just strong enough to move the brain pleasantly without intoxication; a man can get drunk with it, if he pleases; but drunkenness is thought as great a vice here, as gallantry is with us. It is a pity that these wines are not brought into England, for they certainly could be. Some of them can be made as strong as port, for those who want a ‘hot intoxicating liquor’; and the rest might serve to give this universal fillip to northern topers, which the Abbe du Bos says is already perceptible in a partial degree since the introduction of burgundy and champagne. (66)

Mar 072011

Whitaker, Elizabeth ‘Bread and Work: Pellagra and Economic Transformation in Turn-of-the-Century Italy’, Anthropological Quarterly 65 (1992), 80-90. An analysis of the last ‘golden age’ of pellagra and the reasons for its fizzling out (‘complex disappearance’ and ‘paradoxical decline’) in the early twentieth century: though the four ds, including death, are still recorded here from the late 1930s. SY

Mar 052011

Solomon, Jon ‘‘Tracta’: A Versatile Roman Pastry’, Hermes 106 (1978), 539-556. An interesting exercise looking for the secrets of the best hidden part of Roman cooking: pastry. The author begins with a recipe in Cato and then brings all his learning, the ancient authorities and cooking common sense to bear on the question of how the dish was prepared: an exercise that could usefully be repeated with many Roman dishes! Interesting sidelights thrown on such questions as the origins of pasta, the possibility of Roman pancakes and the production of bread in antiquity. SY

Mar 032011

Heatherington, Tracey ‘In the Rustic Kitchen: Real Talk and Reciprocity’, Ethnology 40 (2001), 329-345: An article reflecting on the role of food in Sardinian society (Orgosolo) that came out of the author’s own struggles in the field to understand local politics: asked where to find the opinions of normal people, as opposed to party baroni, she is told to go ‘to the bar’! Much is made of ‘genuine’, home-made food and the way locals hold this as part of their Sardinian identity. SY

Mar 012011

Ginsborg, Paul ‘The Communist Party and the Agrarian Question in Southern Italy, 1943-48’, History Workshop 17 (1984), 81-101. Ginsborg without the footnotes (there was no space!) and in a slightly more relaxed setting: the result a politicized voice in a fresh and very readable article on the Contadino question in southern Italy immediately after the Second World War, particularly the Gullo decrees, set out with admirable clarity. SY

Feb 152011

The history of phylloxera, a bug that attacks the roots of European grapevines, seems a universal one, in that it quickly spread and destroyed huge swaths of vineyards starting in the mid-1800s. Henri Desplanques, in his book Campagne umbre, makes a brief comment on phylloxera and its late arrival in Umbria. The pest was first noticed in Perugia in 1891, then reached Gubbio by 1899, but did not spread further. It reappeared in 1916 on the shores of Lago Trasimeno and only in 1933 reached Perugia again, as well as Foligno and Montefalco. Why the late arrival and slow spread?

The reason was the “backwardness” of Umbrian agriculture, which until the 1960s (as Desplanques clearly shows in his encyclopedic study) was characterized by a regime known as coltura  promiscua, which we have chosen to translate as “mixed farming.” This agricultural system was not based on plots of land dedicated to monoculture; rather, fields had widely-spaced rows of “support trees” which provided a structure on which grapevines could grow, in addition to providing leaves for fodder for animals. Interspersed between the trees and the vines were grains and vegetable plots. The roots of the grapevines in this system were stronger than those closely-spaced vines in monoculture vineyards, and their distance from each other made transmission less likely. In addition the absence of vines from other areas impeded the spread of the disease. Even as late as the mid-1960s many of Umbria’s grapevines had not yet been attacked by phylloxera. (See our other posts on phylloxera.) ZN

Feb 132011

The following extract is taken from an excellent online UK restaurant site. SY 

In 1993, while renovating an Italian restaurant that he had just bought on London’s Store Street, Giovanni Salamone came across an ancient shoe box hidden away in a dusty cupboard under the stairs. Inside there was a menu. In the history of the British pizza the find was akin to Carter and Carnarvon’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. ‘Most of the menu was just home made pasta dishes,’ says Giovanni. ‘But it also included a Margherita pizza. We think that menu dates from the earliest days of the restaurant.’ The restaurant, Olivelli’s, was a favourite among the London theatre world and first opened in 1934; that crumbling piece of paper is the first evidence of a pizza on sale in Britain. Fittingly Giovanni renamed the restaurant Pizza Paradiso Olivelli and it became the first in what is now a chain of pizzerias.