Ah Bruschetta

When it comes to olive oil, it’s youth, not virginity that counts.

ladies picking olives
The olive-picking squad, ca. 2002

How can anything be “extra virgin”? Olive dearest, either you have or you haven’t been pressed. And that’s the thing. Nobody around here talks about “virgin” olive oil. The olives get milled, the oil comes out, the pith gets discarded, or used, these days, as fuel in some new kinds of furnaces. The salient point, rather, is age, and “new oil,” the just-pressed oil available only in October and November, is everyone’s passion. Even though we have our own olives, if we spot a bottle of new oil for sale before we get around to making ours, we’ll buy it without a split second’s hesitation. It’s too good not to.

Throughout the year, that neon green, delicately peppery, fresh-cut-grass-smelling oil has week by week, almost imperceptibly become a yellower, less zesty condiment with a muted, leafy aroma. The new oil is like a drug, and we halt all culinary projects, health programs and weekly meal routines to gorge on it.

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The Art of Eating

Excerpts from an 1890s cookbook.

When I quit my job and moved to Italy in 2001, the resistant tradition of the three- or four-course evening meal was—for the first few months at least—an excuse to dedicate lots of time to cooking. In the back of a dusty cupboard in the seldom-used upstairs kitchen, I found an old yellowed cookbook, in which I searched futilely for cooking temperatures, until I realized that by “flame” the book referred to that of an actual fire.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from L’Arte di Mangiare Bene, by Pellegrino Artusi, published in 1891.spine of old book

Principles

“The act of cooking is a rascal: it often brings us to the brink of despair, but it also gives us pleasure, because when we succeed or overcome an obstacle, we feel so satisfied, we sing victory. Don’t trust cookbooks, especially not Italian ones.”

 Fried Artichokes

“This is an easy dish; yet, although it is hard to believe, not everyone knows how to make it. In some countries, the artichokes are boiled before being fried. Non va bene! In others they are drenched in a batter, which is not only unnecessary but robs this fruit of its natural taste. Here is the best method, the Tuscan one. The Tuscans, making enormous use and abuse of vegetables and herbs, cook them better than anyone else.”

Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-Bone Steak, Florentine style) Continue reading “The Art of Eating”

Sessismo

Gender in provincial Italy.

“You want an example of domestic violence? When my wife waits until the game is on to vacuum.” An acquaintance of mine here in Siena posted this on Facebook recently, and while I know comedy often touches on pain, in addition to making light of a very serious problem, there was something maddeningly myopic, provincial and Italian about a woman finding this funny. The women here really do do the vacuuming and the rest of the housework, as well as, more often than not, the cooking. They take pride in, even safeguard, their roles as exemplary homemakers and enjoy the idea that their husbands or male partners would be helpless without them. Nor do they complain about feeling overburdened, except in the most teasing way.

The male point-of-view is even more anachronistic. This past August, a friend of mine who is divorced was thinking of taking his daughter to visit some friends–a husband and wife with two children–at their beach house. “But then I realized it wouldn’t be fair,” he told me. “Simona would have to cook and clean for all of us.” The consideration he wanted to show his friends just did not include, in his realm of the possible, the option of his pitching in with the cooking and cleaning.

I don’t know what the Italian word for sexism is—sessismo?—which says something about how often it’s come up in my fifteen years in Italy. My daughter was two-and-a-half when we moved here from Germany. In her playgroup in Munich, the girls and boys had the same bowl-cut hair and wore the same Osh-Kosh overalls in blue or red or green. At her new, Italian playgroup, the little girls were all dressed in pink: sparkly Winx tee-shirts and glittery pink and white sneakers, their long hair hanging down their backs. When she moved on to school, the girls wore white smocks and the boys black. All the boys played soccer, whereas girls could choose ballet, tennis or horseback riding. (One year we parents all received a letter from the city of Siena explaining how girls, too, could enjoy team sports and announcing a trial day of soccer for any girl frequenting one of the five elementary schools in town. Three girls showed up.)

To be honest, my daughter blossomed because or in spite of this narrow definition of girlishness. She loved to play “cooking,” chopping up vegetables and moss and bark on the steps of the garden and mixing them into minestra for her stuffed animals. She assembled a collection of make-up my mother-in-law had discarded and tried it on anyone who would sit still. And dress-up, in skirts and gowns and especially my high-heels was a regular pastime. But I drew the line at buying her the plastic irons, ironing boards and battery-powered mini-vacuums my friends’ daughters all had.

Women here, as much as men, it seems to me, are helping preserve the traditional Italian gender roles. What are the consequences for women? On the one hand, my women friends who wanted careers have them, and I have worked successfully for a number of Italian companies. That said, the list of encounters I’ve had that most Amercians would consider sexual harassment is pages long, from the famous professor of ophthamology’s hand sliding up my thigh while he was examining my eyes to the banker playing footsie during a business lunch whom I was told to ignore. (“He’s loaning us money—let the guy have his fun!”) It’s so common in fact, that, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve gotten good at extricating myself quickly and moving on.

My neighbor, who is Austrian and came here as a teenager over twenty years ago says it’s getting better—the men are more sensitive, the women more assertive, at least north of Rome. My recent call to the carabinieri got me thinking, though: either she’s a very tolerant person or it must have been really bad twenty years ago.

The day before twenty-four kids were due to come over for my daughter’s birthday garden party, I looked out the window and saw a black and white snake at least a yard long slithering along where the barn wall meets the ground. Since vipers abound in the Tuscan countryside, I called the carabinieri to ask for the number of the Corpo Forrestale, a kind of ranger service, to get help figuring out if the snake was poisonous or not.

“What happened Signora?” the officer asked, so I told him about the snake.

“A snake, Signora, you say?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Longer than your arm, Signora?”

“Yes, it was the biggest snake I’ve ever seen,” I told him.

“I see, Signora, I see,” he said, and paused. And then, “Is your name, by any chance, Eve?”

Il Lord

Lunches in a grand house.

“Our yard is on fire!” I yelled into the phone, over the sound of the helicopter swooping down to the swimming pool to fill its bucket.

“Does that mean you’ll be late for lunch?”

It did. A week earlier I had written to my neighbors, old English aristocrats, about their garden. Or about my garden, to be more accurate, with which I wanted their help. Their garden, open to the public and well known from coffee-table books, was reputedly a marvel of Italian Renaissance design, maniacally tended by four full-time gardeners, one of whose sister-in-law was my cleaning woman. Through her, I had sent them a note explaining my project—a redesign of our front lawn using only the flowers, herbs and shrubs found in Italy in the Middle Ages. I wanted their help and advice, but I was also secretly hoping to be offered a private tour of their grounds.

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Bambina at the Beach

While the Americans and northern Europeans flock to the Tuscan countryside, the Tuscans head for the shore.

girls at beachThe Italian constitution establishes work as the right of every citizen, but it could almost make the same claim for an annual beach vacation, since the way those are talked of here is as of a duty or a need. “Lo faccio fare del mare”—I’m having him do time at the shore, the parents and grandparents boast to one another of the children’s summer plans. From the plumber to the banker, every one seems to have a “casa al mare,” which I discovered early in my life in Italy means a cramped, sparsely furnished, 1960s- or ‘70s-built apartment and not the Martha’s Vineyard homesteads atop swaths of pristine private beach I had imagined.

Going to the seaside for vacation is a post-war phenomenon in Italy. Before the 1950s, the mountains were the destination of choice for anyone of means, and wisely so. They are still the only place to escape the brutal heat of summers on the peninsula. But these days, when the English and Germans and Americans rush in to occupy the Tuscan countryside in August, the Italians flee to the beach, to days that proceed as follows:

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The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

Farewell to a generation of artisans.

Life in provincial Tuscany involves a cast of what seemed at first like supporting characters but, fifteen years in, have become in many ways the people I know best, simply because we’ve been through it all—together.

candlesticksIf you like antiques, you had better like carpenters, of which, here in Siena, there are a confusing variety of specialists. There’s the one we call “quello bravo,” whom we hired to make cabinets out of some three-hundred-year old, massive chestnut shutters. Then, there are the two who repair antiques, one rebuilding the damaged section, the other, called the “shiner,” who buffs or waxes or polishes the reconstructed section so that it blends in with the old. There used to be yet another carpenter, whom we called the “candlestick guy,” because the first time I went to see him was about a pair of termite-stricken antique altar candlesticks. He specialized in anything very old, or very precious, or very small.

When I got a dog last year, all these carpenters seemed pleased. Animal lovers, I thought, until one of them explained, “Dog owners are my bread-and-butter.” I didn’t make the connection until Kaya, my Maremman Shepherd puppy, chewed through the bottom bar of a four-hundred year-old chair.

Continue reading “The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker”

Lessons in Wine

How not to sell wine.

For a number of years, I worked as a buyer of Italian wines for a US wine importer. Annual trips to wine regions were a tradition. A few years ago, we had managed to gather a group of ten of our best clients, buyers from some of the most important restaurants and retailers in the country, for a tour starting in Sicily.

We were in a rental van, heading north on the E6 toward Messina. Jay, the owner of four important restaurants, was driving, and his assistant, Alec rode shotgun. I was giving them the lay of the land in Sicilian winemaking, leaning through the middle of the two front seats and going through my points, kind of loudly to get over the sound of the road, ignoring for the moment, the clients farther back in the van, whom I thought I’d educate later.

They were all arrivistes, I was saying, all the newly-trendy wineries that the press couldn’t get enough of, all the names being bantered among buyers as the hottest new properties, had no Sicilian roots at all. The families actually from here, families that were bottling wine before the turn of the millennium, were only a handful.  That was my first point, to separate for them the natives from the newcomers, which struck me, as an importer, as essential.

“Salenti, that’s the guy,” interrupted Jay, leaning forward and looking over at Alec, an up-and-coming sommelier at the hottest of Jay’s four cash-printing restaurants. “He’s got incredible wines, Alec.” Inevitably, a journalist—not a frequent visitor to Sicily—proved to be the source of Jay’s discovery. “Had dinner over at Sam Binnel’s place last fall. He opened Salenti’s ’02 Lavaria for me. Talk about terroir. 90 year old vines. Blew me away.”

“Salenti’s actually from Milan,” I carefully rejoined. Continue reading “Lessons in Wine”