Andrew Cotto is an award-winning American writer of Italian descent. His latest novel titled Cucina Tipica tells the fascinating adventure of a young American who falls in love with Tuscany and with the culture of its people. Naturally, food and wine end up setting the pace and become deeply entrenched in the story.
I was humbled to be contacted by Mr. Cotto who sent me a copy of the book for consideration as he thought it would fit with the theme of the podcast. After reading it, I couldn’t agree more! Please join us in this episode where we discuss the novel in its many aspects–from the significance of food in the Italian culture to the chemistry of taste, from culture shock and relocation to speaking a foreign language and what it does to interactions and introspection.
As an “appetizer” for the book, Andrew sent me a recap in the form of a Food and Wine Plot Menu with 24 tastes each corresponding to a food scene in the novel. Enjoy!
Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure A Novel by Andrew Cotto
Food & Wine Plot Menu
Novel Overview: Cucina Tipica is the story of a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday and decides he never wants to leave. What follows is a wine-soaked, food-filled travel adventure about one man’s quest for an antiquated existence in the modern world.
Characters: Jacoby Pines – a forlorn young American with a “golden palate” and hopes of redemption in Italy Claire – a travel writer and Jacoby’s fiancee Bill – a septuagenarian ex-pat from Texas and Jacoby’s wingman in the “adventure” Paolo – Jacoby and Claire’s neighbor and landlord in the hills south of Florence near the village of Antella Dolores – Claire’s “outrageous” English cousin and “Chiantishire” resident Helen – An Aussie/English ex-pat and Florence museum guide
1st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Excelsior Palace Hotel – Rapallo, Italy Food: Prosciutto, cheese, olives, dried lemons, fresh figs Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: They ate with their hands and drank from the bottle, leaving stains and crumbs on the bed sheets, which Claire attempted to clear before removing her bikini bottom…
2nd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: A “hole-in-the-wall” seafood osteria in Rapallo Food: a basket of lightly fried calamari, shrimp, bream and whole anchovy seasoned with salt and lemon; pureed and garlicky fish soup; steamed prawns dipped in aioli; grilled sardines; plates of pasta with pesto and plates of pasta with clams Wine: Carafes of Vermentino Additional Notes: They shared the meal of seafood by the seaside in the Rapallo back alley as completely as possible, holding hands under and above the table, kissing frequently, filling each other’s glasses, and laughing throughout the two hours of slow and utter indulgence.
3rd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Paolo Where: The terrace behind Paolo’s villa featuring a wood-burning oven Food: Handmade pizza with olives, anchovy fillets, and fresh basil; “Misto Arrosto” – a mixed roast of lamb, sausage, rabbit, liver in caul fat, guinea hen, halved-potatoes, heads of garlic, caramelized carrot and fennel. Wine: “Local Chianti” – DOCG Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Jacoby felt as peaceful and inspired as he had in months. Maybe ever. The best two meals of his life had been had over the first two days in Italy. The country itself was more beautiful than pictures could capture. The people spoke a lovely language and wore elegant clothes. It was all good. And he wanted in.
4th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Comune di Norcia (Umbria) Food: Porchetta sandwich for Jacoby; salad of wilted wild mushrooms atop bitter local greens for Claire Drinks: Soft
5th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: An elegant agriturismo in Le Marche Food: Charcuterie plate of house-cured meats; silky thick noodles topped with black truffles; lamb roast; Pecorino cheese drizzled with honey Wine: Rosso Piceno Additional Notes: After dinner, they roamed the silent grounds and made love on a pool-side chaise lounge after skinny dipping in the cool water that rippled with shards of silver moonlight.
6th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: The tiny piazza in Panzano-in-Chianti Wine: Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: Claire tucked into Jacoby’s side and put a foot up on the bench against the back of her leg. They silently swirled the wine and took small sips, staring at the valley beyond the village that burned gold with smoldering sunshine of a fading afternoon. Jacoby savored the apple smell of Claire’s radiant hair and the feel of her lithe body pressed into his. He thought that they, in that still pose, would make a great statue, like a modern Apollo and Daphne, frozen in marble so that their love would always last.
7th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Restaurant in Panzano owned by a young butcher (inspired by the auspices of Dario Cecchini) Food: Bistecca Fiorentina, uccellini in brodo (white beans with tomatoes in broth) Wine: Vecchie Terre di Montefili – Chianti Classico Additional Notes: The flavor of the beef was as profound and complex as any Jacoby had ever tasted. Steak in the States was bland, in need of sauce, but this simply-prepared choice cut was perfectly grilled – seared on the outside, rare and warm internally – helped by hints of lemon and rosemary and coarse salt while letting the flavor of the meat itself dominate. Amazing. Transcendental. Good f****** lord.
8th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Terrace behind the barn where they lived on Paolo’s property Food: Eggs with prosciutto and sage, bread Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: Jacoby loved cooking for people, then sharing the meal and the mutual pleasure of being together. Eating the same food; drinking the same wine; everyone on the same stage. It was like sex when sex was good and mutual. What people called “making love.”
10th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini, Antella Food: Sausage and eggs with stewed tomatoes Drink: Espresso Additional Notes: “I’ve been an ex-pat for 35 years, and the only thing I miss about America is breakfast,” – Bill
11th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Spring Minestrone (generous with pieces of artichoke, asparagus and carrots in a broth of pureed onions and leeks with a snap of garlic); fresh fettuccine with fava beans and Pecorino; rabbit loin wrapped in pancetta over polenta dotted with green olives Drinks: Negroni, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Bill and Jacoby ate and drank and spoke of their looming adventure into Florence proper, in search of a matriarch holed up in a palace marked by a cat statue. They laughed at their dim prospects, which were soothed by the magnificent meal and flowing wine.
12th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Florence, food stand near the Sant’Ambrogio market Food: Lampredotto sandwiches Wine: Chianti in plastic cups Additional Notes: The aroma out of the stand was pungent; the sandwich warm in his hand, of tomato infused broth and hearty filling tucked between the bread. The taste was super savory to the bite, ample aromatics and a soft texture from the holy trinity of bread and filling and broth.
13th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, a gazebo in Piazza Signoria Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: “Why, yes. Yes, I would,” Helen said. “There’s few things I prefer more than a glass of Prosecco.”
14th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, Il Teatro del Sale Food: Gurguglione; artichoke sformato; polpettini; fried rabbit; zucchini stuffed with ground pork; roasted chicken & sausage with potatoes, flourless chocolate cake Wine: House red, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: There was nowhere else in the world Jacoby wished to be. This was his Grand Canyon. His Hawaii. Mount Everest or Disney World. His paradise was a theater-cafeteria-commissary, sharing a table with two people he hardly knew but liked immensely, full of possibilities, in a room full of shamelessly happy people.
15th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, club Sriracha Drinks: Negronis (many)
16th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: The barn Food: Steak & eggs Additional Notes: Tears fell down Jacoby’s face as he continued to chew enough to swallow safely. The salt from the tears entering his mouth brightened the flavor, making it more clear what was happening even before Claire descended the stairs in the same clothes she wore before, a suitcase thumping beside her.
17th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Al fresco table at the cafe in Antella Food: Ceci and bread Wine: Chianti Colli Fiorentini Additional Notes: “Ciao,” Jacoby called before tucking into his plate of oven-baked chickpeas that tasted as flavorful as anything he’d ever eaten, washing the legumes and bread down with the local red wine as he sat in the cool shadows of his own private dining terrace on a Friday night in a silent village as twilight settled upon him in what felt like the most important place in all of the world.
18th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Osteria in Pienza Food: Pici with porcini; pappardelle with wild rabbit ragu Wine: Argiano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: In a shaded osteria at the end of town, Jacoby couldn’t decide between two pastas… so he ordered both, taking the mushroom plate first, followed by the gamy second course, both washed down with separate, massive goblets of Vino Nobile, which he swirled and sipped with great delight.
19th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Enoteca la Fortezza, Montalcino Food: A plate of Pecorino in three varieties Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino (2007) Additional Notes: When it was over, Jacoby felt a thread of sadness which he hoped to dash through the purchase of a case of the very wine he just drank.
20th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: A cantinetta near Antella Food: mixed antipasti; tagliatelle with porcini; roasted pork ribs; cantuccini… Wine: Colli Fiorentini Riserva, …Vin Santo Additional Notes: “That was incredible” Jacoby said. Bill made a face of modest expression and flicked a wrist in the air. “Cucina tipica,” he said.
21st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Helen Where: Lo Sprone Vinaino, Santo Spirito, Florence Food: Cacio e Pepe; charred octopus & potatoes; roasted pigeon Wine: Martinis (in the piazza out front), white wine (unnamed)
22nd Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: The meat was as tender as it was flavorful, filling his mouth with silky decadence buttressed by layers of flavor only attainable through days of preparation that precedes slow, slow cooking.
23rd Taste: Who: Claire & Dolores Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: “My f****** God!” Dolores’ voice shot from the kitchen. “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life!” Jacoby and Claire cracked up and parted their hug. “Bring it in here,” Jacoby called. “No f****** way!” Dolores called back.
24th Taste (in absentia): Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores, Bill Where: The cantinetta near Antella Food: To be determined Wine: To be determined (lots guaranteed) Additional Notes: “How’s the food?” Dolores asked Jacoby. “Decent?” “Oh, it’s way better than decent,” Jacoby said. “More like typical.”
For the first time in this blog, I have the pleasure to feature a guest post. This article is by enologist, writer, and photographer Melinda King. To know more about Melinda, check out The Premise of Italian Cuisine podcast.
Italian culture is special in ways that are delicately combined, tangible and intangible. It would be impossible to disconnect Italian culture from the topic of Italian food, and the entire nation is formed by connections of things grown and eaten. Eating evokes emotional, memory, sensory, spiritual, and gustatory reactions, which are born from chemistry and imagination. This is a proud food system made from thousands of years of place-specific combinations; exceptional raw ingredients, combined and shared at tables, are traded in markets and perfected with love. Italian flavors are a stunning collection of colorful stories that grow from field to city, within regions—after all, the country was a collection of nation-states until unification in 1861. The subject of authenticity is constant to hungry Italians, who does it best, according to the way it is supposed to be done. Although they are talented innovators, tradition is the mark of excellence and respect. Thus, we are left to wonder: what is Italian food? What is Italian? Now, the country that has been a historical crossroads is asking serious questions about identity. Thoughts on the Table is the brilliant work of a worldly Italian (Paolo Rigiroli) who is brave enough to explore these themes. What Italians eat (and how), he reminds us, is every bit who they are.
And it is the Italians who have the hardest time answering these queries. The food is a source of incredible comfort and passion, and it is very difficult to reach conclusions. In an effort to distill one singular definition for the entirety of “Italian food,” one might say it is agriculture. This reminds us that the cuisine is an honorable and humble form of hard work. It is the superlative expression of microclimate, microbiology, and sunshine. It is the Italian people, respecting the gifts of their land, who proceed to turn wheat fields into toothsome vermicelli, lemons to acrid limoncello, winter cabbage into soothing ribollita, and 140-kg pigs into rose-leather prosciutto. Wine is further example of Italian agricultural genius.
How is it possible to organize such an enormous, magnificent topic? Taking into consideration so many places, dialects, seasons, and details, what is Italian food, and where does it come from? Are we being too precious about what we eat? Does place truly matter? And how can an entire nation be world-known such a thing as flavor?
Recently, a friend of mine traveled to Rome, and wanted to buy a bottle of “authentic” Italian olive oil, to take with him back to Sweden. He found a large store, and assumed it would be a simple purchase. He tells me that it took forty minutes for him to decide on a single bottle, after asking three employees for help and making various searches on his cell phone. “There were so many bottles!” he exclaimed. “So many oils, from so many places, and so many different prices! Why do they do this?” In the end, he bought the smallest one, and left. Italy is very proud of its products, and olive oil is an incredibly critical topic. I imagine my friend saw bottles from Puglia, Veneto, Sicilia, Toscana, and Umbria, at the least, as each claims its olives to be the best. There are then the categories of oils (virgin, extra virgin, cold press, organic, biodynamic, gold label, etc.) and sizes (1 oz. flavored with pepperoncini or truffle) to 5 kg. The oils are sacred to the places they come from, and one would use local oil for local dishes. Moreover, every Italian olive has different compounds (peppery, golden, green, honey, smoky, juniper), that is tied to the environment it was grown and processed in. Hundreds of such compounds have been identified which contribute to the distinctive organoleptic characteristics that make Italian olive oil so exceptional.
Added to that, there are currently some issues in the worldwide olive oil industry, as origin is not easy to certify. Olives may be grown in Tunisia, and bottled in Spain. California olive oils companies used to quietly fly their products to southern Italy, where the plane would touch down and fill with gas, only to return to California for sale. This meant the oil bottles could be labeled with the words “From Italy.” Confusion is rampant in the marketplace, considering the brand of Italian foods.
How can Italian food protect and promote itself, and guarantee quality? This is important, more than ever, with the increasing global economy—and with new technologies (it is easier to mass produce foods, or copy ones already existing). What about Italian traditions? The individual state governments of Europe have, for the past few decades, been dealing with these issues within their own cultures. How to protect the integrity of Bulgarian cheeses, Greek wine, or German blood sausage? Italy was the second country, after France, to take action on certifying its natural food products. It was both a post-war reaction to economic and land issues, as well as a way to acknowledge the most important pieces of lifestyle. European states have since cooperated under the umbrella of the European Union, recognizing one another’s specialized products. Italy has been a tremendous example in this movement, to certify traditions in and out of its borders.
This does not mean that Italy published a list of official foods. Protected status does not cover lasagna and tiramisu. The topic is Geographical Indications (GI), and means that certain food products are trademarked as Italian, and cannot be impersonated or misrepresented. To be certified, the item must have a specific place of origin, a historically documented meaning, and production methods that adhere to exact steps and standards. They are the ingredients (animal products, herbs, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products) that make Italian food “Italian,” that they are raised in Italy, by Italians, where taste represents what cannot be verbalized. It is also a way to maintain identity, while earning a decent income. This applies to small-time producers, as well as the entire industries.
Geographical indications (GIs) is a legal status, represented with a visual package or label symbol, that identify a food as having originated from a specific place where a given attribute, reputation, or other characteristic of that good is attributable to its geographical home. GIs act like a trademark–once established, they confer certain exclusive rights to the owner. Unlike other intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, copyrights), GIs are owned collectively by all producers in a region, rather than by an individual or a single company.
Note: there are Geographical indications are over the world (China, India, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, etc.). The United States is currently trying to garner support for their own system of GI (Georgia peaches, Idaho potatoes, California avocados), but the reputations of such products, and a strong system of capitalism, prevents the need for place/product protection. This article seeks to concentrate on the Italian context.
France was the first to certify national butter, cheese, and wine products (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC). Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree in the year 1411; the modern system was reinstated in France in 1919. Italians followed with their own GI organization, post-war, as a way of naming and protecting cultural property within a delicate economic structure. Geographical indications were created by the European Union with Regulation 2081/921, seeking to solve communication problems between and within countries, for consumers and producers, while promoting rural development. Italian GI goods earned €15.2 million in production value in 2018, contributing 18% of the national agricultural economy.
There are 550 Sicilian growers certified for Sicilian arancia rossa (blood red oranges, IGP); each farm cultivates the same three arancia rossa varieties (there are three) according to the same rules, and is overseen and organized by a central ruling body called a consorzio. Each consorzio reports to the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole Alimentari, Forestali e del Turismo (MIPAAF), (Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies). These fruits are monitored by the Italian government, and have protection within the European Union.
The GI system has broad and precise stated objectives:
To promote foods, beverages, and wines with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-known or rural areas;
To improve the income of farmers who make “genuine effort to improve quality”;
Sustaining populations in rural areas;
Providing clear and “not-misleading” information to consumers regarding product origin;
Preserving cultural and historical identity.
Place-defined products connect value between food and territory, thus guaranteeing the quality for which a consumer pays a premium. The idea is to further prevent unwanted third parties from using terms, tactics, and marketing that mislead and misrepresent. Italian pride and livelihoods remain in the balance.
There are currently three European Union schemes for geographic preservation:
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, red symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced) within the specific region.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI, blue symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and at least partially manufactured (prepared, processed or produced) within the specific region.
Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG): food must be of “specific character” and either the raw materials, production method, or processing must be done in exact area (consistent for a minimum of 30 years).
Protected Italian Foods
Many of the GI items are known to anyone interested in Italian eating. The names of these items are synonymous with the places they come from, and the name alone acts as an Italian ambassador. Some of the expected items on the list: PDO Chianti Classico olive oil, PDO Lago di Garda olive oil, PDO Mortadella, Asiago cheese, PDO Basilico Genovese (think pesto), PDO Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, IGP Nocciola Piemonte (hazelnuts famed for chocolates).
Still, most of the items may be called peculiar or even uninteresting to those outside the places they are made. Some unexpected items: IGP Acciughe sotto sale del Mar Ligure (anchovies), IGP Carota dell’Altopiano del Fucino (“A carrot? That’s not sexy!”), Pane di Matera (specialized bread loaves from the Sassi cave town), three kinds of saffron, IGP Bresaola della Valtellina (dried horse meat is highly esteemed), four kinds of asparagus (Bassano, especially), five kinds of lemons, eight kinds of chestnuts, Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria essential oil, Kiwi Latina (an Italian kiwi? Yes, and it is magnificent!). Of course, this country is always surprising.
It is quite common to see the PDO or IGP acronym in a restaurant or gelateria, where the pride of place ingredients is translated to the consumer, as a promise of something real and delicious to be had. And with the force of 0 KM eating, Slow Foods, Bio, Organic, and artisanal products, GI label status is not only economic, but “cool.”
Italian wines have an exceptional portion of Geographical Indications to endorsement. GI wines are a vital element, though controversial, in the business and character of Italian winemaking. Autochthonous (native) grapes represent distinctive zones and methods of viticulture, each with unique climactic features. Nerello Mascaelese is a grape that only grows on Mount Etna, in Sicily; this grape is authorized as one of the grapes to be used in the Etna DOC red wine. Nerello Mascalese has been growing in this place for centuries. Popular international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah need no protection–nor do they have such a significant history, cultivation, or sensory connection to Italian soil.
In 1964, Italy established a series of laws to safeguard the brilliance and authenticity of their wines. The directives define wines by characteristics such as: type of grape(s) used, alcohol content, bottling, labeling, how long the wine is aged, how and when to harvest, who can work the fields, machinery and tools, irrigation, naming, and sales promotions. In the last decades, several modifications and changes have been made to original legislation, as the numbers of wines and regions grow to the list. The last addition, made in 2010, established four basic categories that read consistent with concurrent European Union wine regulations (2008-2009) — Italian wines GIs are categorized as:
Vini (also known as ‘generic/table wines’): wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU, label includes no certain indication of place origin (of grape varieties used or vintage); only the wine color is required to be listed on the bottle label (“Tavernello” often ‘house wine’). In some cases, however, table wines can have very high quality and be sought by connoisseurs that don’t need any official certifications (‘Super Tuscans’).
Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines): generic wines that derive mostly (at least 85%) from one kind of certified ‘international (grown in many places)’ grape variety (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) or entirely from two or more of them; grape used or vintage may be shown on the label (e.g. “Merlot-Raboso” blend from Veneto).
IGP (‘Protected Geographical Indication’ also known as IGT: ‘Typical Geographical Indication’): wines produced in a specific territory within Italy that follow precise regulations on allowed varieties, growing and vinification practices, organoleptic and chemical/physical characteristics, labeling instructions, among others (e.g. “Toscana IGT”).
DOP (‘Protected Designation of Origin’) which includes two classes:
DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) These wines must have been IGP wines for at least 5 years, and generally come from smaller regions within a certain IGP territory; far stricter regulations and focus on territorial personalities; a DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG after 10 years.
DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) In addition to fulfilling DOC requisites, DOCG wines meet tighter analyses before going to market; they must also demonstrate a superior commercial value, and are linked with historical development.
Currently, there exist 332 DOCs (e.g. “Aleatico di Gradoli DOC”) and 73 DOCGs (e.g. “Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG”) bringing total to 405 DOPs. The financial aspects of the wine GI are momentous; a single bottle of DOCG Brunello di Montalcino can sell for up to $550. A scandal shook the Brunello consorzio in 2008 (known as “Brunellopoli”), where select winemakers were suspect for mixing lower quality wine grapes from other regions with local Sangiovese. Vineyards were quarantined and hundreds of thousands of bottles seized by authorities, facing millions of dollars in fines and years in prison. The issue was potential violation of GI purity rules, written by the Brunello Consorzio ruling body, and approved by the Italian Agricultural Ministry. Charges were ultimately dropped, and agreements to reinforce production principles were made between the Consorzio and winemakers.
I spent a number of years working in a wine business in California. When customers asked about Italian wines, they asked for wines by company or grape. Furthermore, their purchase decisions were generally based on price; customers were fascinated anytime I gave them a back story to the makers of the wine, the place it was made, or the types of grapes used. A wine was Chianti or Prosecco, but they did not know why. I would point to the labeling below the cork, when appropriate—if the bottle had the DOC or DOCG certification. “So the government says this wine is the best?” they would ask. No, I would shake my head and give a brief description of what GI represents. “Oh,” they would continue, “so the Italian government says this wine is the best?” they would repeat. Every time.
No, the government has no sensory opinion on the wines being made. This is a label that a company pays for, in a group with other companies in the same place, in order to show you, the consumer, that they mean business. The bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano comes from vineyard lands that were budding vines hundreds of years before the pilgrims even built their boat. That is what the GI system would like us to remember. Currently, I am working in a vineyard/winery on Mount Etna, in Sicily. The DOC here is exceedingly proud of its work, and place (terra) is the language spoken in every glass. The soil changes from sandy to limestone, then lava rock, within a few meters, and vines stand fierce tests of weather and volcano. Add the salt of the sea and the shine of the sun, and it makes for an extraordinary natural beverage. The GI labels struggle to describe these things to an American wine shopper: philosophy of terra in an island borough founded by Greek settlers in 734 B.C.E.
Although GIs may promote a food or wine’s reputation, the level of quality is not guaranteed above similar food items. The perception of GIs is a matter of personal consumer taste and company/brand marketing, and this is an important concept to understand. For example, there may be six options of lemons at the local market. Two are certified GI status, from Siracusa (Sicilia) and Sorrento (Campania), and one from Spain. The other three, local fruits, do not list variety, but are stamped with the farm and city of origin. The GI status lemons cost twice as many Euros per kilo. Would you choose a locally made lemon, a higher priced GI, or the least expensive Spanish one?
How much sway does GI play, in the eyes of a shopper? Does it shift our priorities–taste preference, price, or place of being picked? Would you scrimp on lemons but splurge on cheese? How is this any different from brand name luxury Italian Gucci, Ferrari, or Armani? Normal people buy according to experience and reputation. If it works, they buy again. Italy, itself, has become a brand. The Italian GI is represented on the food or drink label with a small circular symbol (red and yellow or blue and yellow, depending on legal status), so we see as we buy. But these certifications are very expensive, and they require a long and thorough vetting process.
The symbol on the food (package, container, box, fruit seal, or wine label) will tell the buyer that it was made in according to the tradition of the area, by people who live there, with local or regional resources, in Italy by Italians. It will taste the way it is supposed to taste, according to history of the place, made flavorful by unique environmental conditions that only that place can provide. Terra, confirms that balsamic vinegar from Modena can only come from Modena. In this case, the Balsamic Vinegar Consorzio is a nearly secret society of older gentlemen who speak very little and carry out regular chemical “alchemical” analysis with small glass pipets and sensorial tastings. They meet in quiet rooms, and keep careful records. But they are extremely exclusive, and there is worry that the Modena vinegar community will soon disappear. It is not easy to pass on the legacy, or attract much excitement, as the work is difficult and unattractive to outsiders. This kind of work must be psychologically understood. But this is a common problem today, in Italy, with gentrification, separating family structures, and move towards tech jobs and city life.
The taste of Sicilian Pachinotomatoes cannot be reproduced. Heart-shaped Marostica cherries, from Veneto, are blessed by cool mountain breeze and warm sunshine. There is a cherry festival to honor the local fruits, as well as a famous chess game played with real-life human pawns in the Piazza degli Scacchi. The game dates back to 1454 when it was organized to settle a courtly duel between two noble lords competing for the hand of a lady. The history, the climate, and the science of place convene to create, in legal status, a true Italian flavor. Travelers can go to the game, enjoy the festival, and feel the life behind the GI, every September.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a prime example of a Geographical Indication, demonstrating food as an art form. Outside Italy, “Parmesan” (originally a term from France to refer to Italian hard cheeses) is used as a generic name to identify a product (cheese-like, but not always cheese), that has a flavor reminiscent of the famed nutty bite that we know from true Parmigiano Reggiano. However, this copy food lacks the origin, and artisan producers. Parmigiano Reggiano has a singular history, taste, and identity that is unmistakably Italian. The Consorzio for Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese was formed in 1934; in 1996, Parmigiano Reggiano earned complete legal status in the EU. The Consorzio states that “the secret of its goodness originates in the place of origin, in the natural feed, our types of milk cows, the wind, the incline of our hills and goodness of grass, and in the high-quality milk with no additives.” The term “Parmesan” comes from geographical origin and means “of or from Parma.”
Parmigiano Reggiano is not only a good cheese, but also healthy and nutritious (named the official food of the International Space Station). After creation, the cheese wheels are subjected to a maturation period of at least twelve months (twenty-four for the most common version, thirty-six months and more for finer stravecchio), allowing Parmigiano Reggiano to gain its characteristic granular structure. It is made from raw cow’s milk (not pasteurized; there are 245,000 cows in the production area registered to make Parmigiano Reggiano) only grass and hay, not silage. After primary creation, the cheese is put into a brine bath of Mediterranean sea salt for about 22 days and then aged. At twelve months, each cheese is inspected by an expert grader who uses a hammer to tap the cheese and by sound detect undesirable cracks and voids. Cheeses that pass inspection are branded on the rind with an inspector logo. To guarantee each cheese and catalogue quality, each cheese wheel (40 kg) is stenciled by hand with:
The Parmigiano Reggiano DOP acronym and consorzio seal;
Identification number of dairy (there are 363 certified Parmigiano Reggiano dairies);
Production month and year;
An alphanumeric code identifying every single wheel.
Every cheese is inspected by the consorzio, to verify if they are worthy of the Parmigiano Reggiano title, then fire branded when PDO standards are satisfied. There is a well-documented 800-year history of production, as it was first made by Benedictine monks in the same hilly areas. The processes are fiercely controlled by the consorzio, and every cheese is crafted with care, for excellence.
The cultural meaning for this cheese is also economic: in 2018, 149,000 tons (3.65 million wheels) of it was made by 50,000 Italians in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua (to the right of the Po river), and Bologna to the left of the Reno river). In the same year, the cheese had a €2.2 billion estimated turnover at consumption (51,900 tons of it being exported). This is a meaningful cheese! It is easy to understand how such powerful food would have imitators. The name, alone, is sacred to the Italian people.
In 2003, the EU responded to a complaint filed by the Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio concerning the improper use by certain German companies of the name “Parmesan” as a generic name, on cheeses that neither exhibited the peculiarities of Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO, nor came from the area of origin—thus manipulating consumers and damaging reputation. German authorities refused to intervene, and thus the case was taken before the European Court of Justice. However, the case was ultimately dismissed, as the EU court did not have enough evidence to demonstrate German misuse of the generic name.
However, problems arise when deciding which phrases to protect as GIs. For example, although “Parmigiano Reggiano” is a protected GI under U.S. law (in an agreement made with Italian authorities and the cheese consorzio), the name “parmesan” is not protected—and this term is ubiquitous in American grocery markets on products that Italians would find abhorrent and embarrassing. Shoppers might even see Parmesan Reggianito, a hard Argentinean cheese invented by Italian immigrants who left Italy for South America after the Wars. They wanted to make something that would remind them of their native Parmigiano Reggiano.
Every few years, the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio tries to file legal action against a company in North America, regarding “Parmesan,” but an outright purge of all such cheese products would be impossible, and expensive. The issue comes down to labeling, but mostly, quality.
In 2012, American FDA agents investigated a cheese factory in Pennsylvania, called “Castle Cheese.” They were making goods sold as “100% real Parmesan” across the country; the cheese was found to contain cut-rate substitutes, chemicals, and fillers, such as wood pulp and cellulose. The Castle Cheese president pled guilty and was spent one year in prison, with a fine of one hundred thousand dollars, but the case was made on health standards—not Parmigiano Reggiano GI name protection. Kraft, America’s well-known mass pasteurized cheese mass brand, has argued that their parmesan cheeses actually promote and encourage the Parmigiano Reggiano product, rather than compete with or mock it.
This is why a podcast like “Thoughts on the Table” is so important: there is a tremendous need for a cross-cultural conversation about Italian food, by Italians and non-Italians, in the name of taste, access, affordability, and integrity. I can only imagine what it was like for Paolo, experiencing his first visit to a Canadian grocery store. It would be like showing him a roller skate and trying to convince him it was a car. Food is passionate and evocative; what happens when it is reduced to a transaction? We want to talk about grandmother’s soothing pasta dishes, not packaging standards.
Food is grown, traded, prepared, and shared according to geographical context. What you eat, for most of human history, depends on where you live. This is a field of study known as the GEOGRAPHY OF FOOD, which includes complex patterns and relationships between “space” and “place.” Taste transforms during stages of preparation. Quality means safe and wholesome ingredients, and consistency. This is where Italy excels. It has a vast range of topography, proximity to water, varieties of microclimates, and brilliant, creative farmers and chefs. As one of my friends reminds me, “our government is terrible, jobs are hard to get, and our soccer team fails in the World Cup, but we have the best eating in the entire world to console these pains.” The Mediterranean hits the Alpine ranges, and leave centuries of collaboration, giving this nation gastronomical and agricultural superiority. Science proves this, as well as our own opinions. And while so many things did not “originate” in this country, they are respected and perfected here: tomatoes, wines, pastas, coffee, and chocolate.
Place does matter—very much. In terms of food and wine, terra is the philosophical combination of physical and spiritual “place” that gives flavor. By flavor, I mean “memory,” the kind of meal we remember years after the dishes have been washed.
Geographic Indication is a legally recognized certification of quality for place-driven taste. It happens by tradition–meaning what is produced, how, and by whom. The Italian government is very serious about protection and recognition. History is, in my opinion, based in agriculture, and agriculture reveals identity. GI status strives to keep identity, while preserving the taste of memory.
In the name of authenticity, GI hopes to maintain marketplace clarity. Every protected food is traced, tracked, and guaranteed. There are major efforts by law enforcement agencies to uphold the legitimacy of food products. Olive oil, wine, balsamic vinegar, cheese, and prosciutto are some of the Italian products that are most copied and sold by fraud, or produced in sub-standard ways. Livestock are RFID tagged, and documented from conception to market shelf, and full records of genetic breeding are kept by the consorzio. A vegetable, a cheese, or a grape can be tracked by DNA testing, to assure the place it has come from. Italy has 822 registered GI products, more than any other nation, of the worldwide total 3,036 (2018 ISMEA). “Made in Italy” is very big business.
Of course, the Geographical Indications are quite general, and work with ideals. It is basically a package of economic safeguards—copyright schemes made in a non-capitalistic system. The European Union oversees each country’s regulations, and promotes communication across the board. Italy does not always enjoy being a part of the Union, though it gains considerably from the Geographical Indication projects. Aside from the spiritual and cultural lauds from economic protection, the PDO and PGI symbols are basically there to pay people to make good raw materials (beans, sardines, and kiwis). Italy must also realize that certification means Italians competing with Italians, long before the rest of the world. As Italians are hungry for creative and economic innovation, they are, more than ever, hungry to strengthen the core of their traditions.
Nostalgia is everything to an Italian palate. So are relationships. Although larger food chains and grocery stores are trending, there is still a strong and regular desire to shop locally. How do GI products interact with everyday eating? How can we trust that the story behind the label is true? Some Italians do not support the GI system; there are many barriers to entry (certification costs, registration, legal oversight, documentation, North versus South quarrels) that prevent many from participating. Others detest the European Union. In a conversation with my elderly neighbors, Don Donato and his wife, Luciana, I asked their view on Italian Geographical Indications. Don Donato was quick to answer: “We do it because France did it, and we always have to compete with France. We have Italian food in a French system. Even the supermarkets are from France (Carrefour, Auchan in Veneto)… the problem is that Italians are very bad organizers. We have the good food, and the government doesn’t trust us with it.”
His wife does the food shopping, and said she never really noticed the food labels until last year, when she read about it in the paper. She generally keeps to the butcher, bakery, and produce shop in our small village, but goes to the shopping centers once or twice every month with her children’s families. Two things regularly astonish her: the amounts of products in the aisles, and the prices. Having choices, she told me, is very expensive. “If I want lentils from Umbria, we will go there. I am not about to pay so much for a bag of lentils. These are things that are made very well in my own area.” She told me that food is only as good as the person making it, and she can make any lentil taste Italian.
Can you taste the difference between a GI product and a non-GI product When it is late in the evening, and someone has prepared a beautiful Italian meal, simple and warm—what is the role of Geographical Indications for regional foods?
If my Swedish friend had known, at the least, to look for red and blue symbols on olive oil labels, his search would have been much simplified. He was looking for the best representation of an Italian olive oil, and those certification marks would have spoken for the people, processes, and places that make the oil authentic—as so the label would ideally have us believe. Later, I curiously asked which bottle he had selected from the large Roman grocery store. He laughed when he told me, “I don’t remember the name, but I bought an expensive one.” He continued, “But when I got home, I went to use it and saw, written right there on the backside: 100% California Olives.”
These contradictions make Italian food fascinating. The conversation continues…
Top 15 highest value (by production numbers) Italian Geographical Indications, 2018 (source: ISMEA—Qualivita)
http://www.aicig.it/ – Aicig (Associazione Italiana Consorzi Indicazioni Geografiche, Italian Association Geographic Indication Consortia) is a non-profit association between the various Consorzi that are recognized by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies. It represents 95% of Italian GI producers.
“Brunellopoli: A wine scandal under the Tuscan sun” – Tourism Review International 15(3):253-267 · July 2012 by Alessio Cavicchi (University of Macerata) and Cristina Santini (University San Raffaele, Roma).
NOTE: This article’s featured image is a view of Govone, Cuneo, from its castle. [Photo by Paolo Rigiroli].
I am very excited to announce that I have been invited to participate in a food lit event that will take place in Turin (Piedmont, Italy) this coming September. The event is titled “Turin Epicurean Capital” and will revolve around the universal meaning of food in life – naturally, a topic I feel strongly about.
I must admit that I didn’t grow up eating truffles – as a child I only experienced a whiff of them in restaurants when a truffle dish was ordered by somebody seated at my table. And I can’t say that I loved it. As an adult, however, I had a chance to rediscover and develop a palate for them. But my love for truffles totally bloomed during my latest trip to Tuscany and Rome. Being truffles season, most restaurants were featuring truffle dishes, so I finally had a chance to try them in different preparations within a short period of time – an amazing experience!
My research for this article has been fascinating, and I managed to answer questions that I have always wondered: what gives truffles their characteristic aroma? Why do people use pigs to find them? When is their harvesting season? I also wondered: can I actually buy them in Vancouver? And the answer to this last question is: yes! I was able to get a gourmet supermarket to special order a single black summer truffle, which is what is in season right now and, luckily for my wallet, one of the most affordable varieties. You can see it showcased in the pappardelle dish above (for which you can check out the recipe at the end of this post).
But what are truffles? They are a unique kind of mushrooms that develop entirely underground, attached to tree roots, and which may be of great commercial interest due to their high demand and relative scarcity.
Like their tuber relatives, truffles are dense, rounded masses usually between 1 and 4 inches in diameter. In order to spread their spores, truffles produce pheromones that prompt animals to uncover and eat them – a behavior which has been exploited by truffle hunters who have traditionally made use of pigs to locate them. Particularly, truffles contain androstenone, a steroid also produced by boars when mating. Dogs1 can also be trained to search for truffles, with the advantage that they can be taught not to eat them upon discovery!
Flavor-wise, truffles are an acquired taste, containing several sulfur compounds (e.g.: bis(methylsulfanyl)methane) which may resemble hydrocarbons, and because of the presence of androstenone, which has an unpleasant smell described as woody/musky, to sweaty/urinous2. Even though a portion of the human population is unable to detect it3, there is evidence that repeated exposure to androstenone can cause sensitization4, leading to the conclusion that androstenone largely contributes to making truffles an acquired taste.
Truffles have been known since antiquity, with written evidence as early as in the 4th century BC. The Greek historian Plutarch thought that they were the result of lightning, while the Roman physician Dioscorides classified them as tuberous roots. Rarely mentioned in the Middle Ages, truffles became popular within the high classes during the Renaissance (legends say that they were a favorite of King Francis the 1st of France), and through the 18th and 19th centuries, their prestige kept increasing in high-cuisine.
Truffles only grow in very specific climates, in symbiosis with the right host trees. Because of this, they are very hard to cultivate with the most sought after demanding exorbitant prices. Most valuable is the white truffle (Tuber magnatum), especially the one found in the Langhe region (located in the Piedmontese provinces of Asti and Cuneo), but that can also be found in some parts of Tuscany and in central Italy. White truffles grow on the roots of oak, poplar, hazel and beech trees. White truffles mature in the fall, which is when the famous “Fiera del Tartufo” (Truffle Fair) of Alba takes place – a prestigious exhibition and trade show born in 1929 where the best white truffles can sell for over $400 per ounce. White truffles have a pungent, slightly garlicky aroma, and are best appreciated raw, freshly shaved on dishes before serving.
The second most valuable truffle is the black (winter) truffle (Tuber melanosporum), found in the hazelnut and oak forests in the Périgord region of south-western France. These truffles are harvested in fall and winter and have a delicate earthy flavor, which is known to be enhanced by light cooking. Another notable truffle is the Burgundy (Tuber uncinatum), which has an intense hazelnut flavor. It can be found in much of Europe and it is harvested in fall and winter. The Summer truffle (Tuberaestivum), instead, is harvested in the summer – it is molecularly identical to the Burgundy truffle, but has less intense flavor due to environmental factors.
Given the high price that truffles can reach, cooks often make use of truffle oils, pastes, kinds of butter, or even flour. Since oil-soluble bis(methylsulfanyl)methane can be easily synthesized at low cost, truffle-infused products are often completely artificial (also lacking any androstenone flavor, resulting in increased palatability for those who haven’t acquired a liking for it).
Some of the most known dishes using truffle as an ingredient include:
Risottos (often together with porcini mushrooms).
Various pasta dishes (especially egg pasta, such as tagliatelle, pappardelle or maltagliati, generally along with butter, cream, or mascarpone sauce).
Truffle omelets (for a stronger truffle flavor, the uncracked eggs can be kept in an airtight container along with the truffle for a couple of days before use).
Sauces to pair with meats, including beef tenderloin.
Truffle dishes are often accompanied with medium to full body red wines, sharp enough to cleanse the palate of the sulfurous notes, and aged enough to develop a matching earthiness. E.g.: white truffles with Barolo, Nebbiolo, Barbaresco, or Dolcetto d’Alba; black truffles with Burgundy or Pinot Noir.
As a final remark, please note that the popular “truffle” gelato served as a dessert in pizzerie and restaurants has nothing to do with truffles! It owes its name to its shape and color, which resembles a truffle, and, just like truffles, can be found in white and black varieties:
“Tartufo bianco” – (white truffle), consisting in “fior di latte” (cream) and coffee gelato, sprinkled with white chocolate shavings.
“Tartufo nero” (black truffle), which consists in chocolate and “fior di latte” gelato, covered in unsweetened cocoa powder.
Pappardelle with Cream and Black Truffle
Yield: 4 servings
Total Time: 20 minutes
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
280 g (10 oz) fresh or dried egg pasta - I recommend pappardelle (one of the widest cuts), but tagliatelle, or fettuccine can also be used
1 cup light cream (10% fat)
30 g (1 oz) fresh black truffle (a small one)
30 g (1 oz) unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, crushed
Nutmeg, salt, and pepper
Parmigiano Reggiano, grated (optional)
Bring a large pot of salty water to a boil.
In a skillet, melt the butter at low heat, add the garlic and allow it to soften without browning (upper image).
Remove the garlic, add the cream and bring to a gentle boil. Sprinkle with grated nutmeg, adjust salt and pepper.
Using a sharp grater, grate half of the truffle directly into the skillet; remove from the heat and let rest (lower image).
Cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes (if fresh) or 5-6 minutes (if dried). Then drain it quickly and add it to the skillet with the truffle cream. Toss gently and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce for a couple of minutes.
Using a truffle slicer or a mandolin, thinly slice the rest of the truffle.
Serve the pasta in preheated bowls, and lay 5 or 6 truffle slices on each portion. Optionally, sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Pasticcini are exquisite Italian fine pastries which have been perfected over the centuries to achieve the best flavors, textures, and fragrances. In the Italian tradition, assorted pasticcini are served as a dessert, as a treat to accompany coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, or as a cake alternative for celebrations and other special occasions (in which case they are usually accompanied with ‘spumante’, the Italian sparkling wine).
The word ‘pasticcino’ is a diminutive of ‘pasticcio’, which in turn derives from Vulgar Latin pasticium, a dish made by mixing various ingredients, mostly wrapped in dough (‘pasta’).
Pasticcini can be found in two sizes: standard (2-3″ in diameter) and mignon (1-2″). The latter has become increasingly popular thanks to its sampling size, a definite plus, given the great variety of pasticcini.
Since fine pastries are difficult and time-consuming to make at home (especially if a variety of kinds is desired), Italians prefer to buy them fresh in a ‘pasticceria’ (pastry shop). Although some bakeries also sell pasticcini, most pastry shops are independent specialized stores, have extended opening hours (they’re often open on Sunday mornings, for any last minute pastry pickup), and sometimes even double as coffee bars.
Along with pasticcini, pasticcerie often also sell shortbreads and other kinds of cookies and dry pastries. Those, however, are called ‘paste da tè’ (tea pastries) and are considered a distinct product. Nevertheless, pasticcini and paste da tè are often served side-by-side to appeal to every palate.
The Italians are traditionalists when it comes to food, and pasticcini are no exception. As an interesting consequence, it’s on traditional pasticcini that most pastry chefs showcase their best techniques. Every pastry chef needs to know how to execute them flawlessly since it is on them that they are evaluated by their customers.
There are several kinds of traditional pasticcini. Some are available all throughout Italy, some are exclusively regional, and some are only made during particular times of the year. The following can be found nationwide (although some have strong regional origins).
Cannoncini (cream horns). Among the most popular pasticcini. Made with a baked horn of puff pastry (‘pasta sfoglia’), generally filled with pastry cream (‘crema pasticcera’), which may be chocolate or hazelnut flavored. They are not to be confused with ‘cannoli’ (see below), although they sound similar because both of their names derive from ‘canna’ (reed), which they resemble.
Bigné (cream puffs). Also extremely popular. Made with choux pastry filled with pastry cream (vanilla, chocolate, coffee or hazelnut flavored), with Chantilly cream (vanilla-flavored whipped cream), or with zabaione.
Sfogliatelle Napoletane. Made of a shell similar to the Greek phyllo dough and filled with ricotta and candied peel. Originally from Naples.
Crostatine alla frutta (fruit tarts). A base of baked shortbread, with a layer of custard, topped with fresh fruit, often covered with gelatin.
Babà. A spongy cake dipped in sugar water and rum. Also traditional to Naples, though with Polish origins.
Cigni (swans). Bigné which have been cut in half and filled with pastry cream (on the bottom) and whipped cream (on the top). A small squiggle of puff pastry is then applied on the bigné to form the neck and head of a swan.
Cannoli. Made of a fried shell, with a ricotta-based filling and flavored with candied citrus peel or chocolate chips. Originally from Sicily.
Fiamme (flames). Drop-shaped mousse (thick foams, generally chocolate-based), on a wafer or a shortbread base, usually covered in chocolate.
Tronchetti (small trunks). Rolls of sponge cake and mousse, which are then sliced in cylindrical sections.
Tartufi al cioccolato (chocolate trouffles). Chocolate and coffee ganache covered in cocoa powder.
Mini strudel. A small version of the Austrian/German strudel, a kind of pastry filled with apples, raisins, and pine nuts.
Cassatine Siciliane. A small version of the Cassata Siciliana cake, a dessert made with sweet ricotta, sponge cake, almond paste, and candied fruit. Originally from Sicily.
Chiavi di Violino (treble clefs). Liqueur-drizzled sponge cake layered with cream, covered in dark chocolate and decorated with a treble clef made of white chocolate.
Diplomatici. Layered puff pastry, sponge cake, and custard, which is then cut in squares and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.
Meringhe(1). Two crisp meringues enclosing a heart of whipped cream.
Tiramisu (or Tiramisù, as written in Italian) is arguably the world’s most popular Italian dessert after gelato. Featured by many Italian restaurants in North America, Tiramisu is for the Italians more of a homemade party cake and an unpretentious dessert found in pizzerie and trattorie.
Even though Tiramisu is a modern creation and many claim its paternity, its origins are actually unknown. The consensus is that Tiramisu as we know it became popular in the 1980s, possibly as a variation of the British trifle in which ladyfingers (called ‘savoiardi’ in Italy) and a cream of mascarpone are used instead of sponge cake and custard. Part of the dessert’s success may be due to its odd name. Although it’s the subject of another debate, most concur that it originated in the literal meaning of the Italian words ‘tirami su’: “pull me up” or “pick me up,” possibly referred to the “uplifting” or even “aphrodisiac” effects of coffee and chocolate.
As described in the recipe below, Tiramisu is commonly flavored with rum (or brandy), coffee and cocoa powder. However, around Italy, there are also versions with very different flavors (e.g. amaretto and peaches, or limoncello and strawberries).
All versions of Tiramisu are centered around a mascarpone filling which traditionally contains raw eggs (as in the recipe below). There are also egg-less versions in which the mascarpone is blended with whipping cream and sugar, resulting in a richer, but also heavier dessert. North American versions often contain more sugar than their Italian counterparts.
Like trifle, Tiramisu needs to rest in the fridge for several hours to set and develop flavor. It is common to prepare it the day before and let it rest in the fridge overnight.
Tiramisu, the Uplifting Dessert
Yield: 8-10 portions
Total Time: 45 minutes
Prep Time: 45 minutes
400 g savoiardi
For the cream
500 g mascarpone cheese (choose a good quality brand - good mascarpone tastes creamy, not cheesy)
5 eggs (at room temperature)
5 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp rum (or brandy)
For the coffee dip
6 shots espresso (or an equivalent amount of strong coffee)
2 Tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
2 Tbsp rum
For the finish
½ Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
Some shaved dark chocolate (optional)
Whisk together egg yolks and sugar (fig. 1) until the mixture becomes lighter in color.
One tablespoon at a time, incorporate the mascarpone (fig. 2). This operation is considered difficult because mascarpone and egg create an emulsion that can suddenly separate. To help prevent this, use egg yolks at room temperature* and begin by incorporating a "starter mix" made by combining a tablespoon of mascarpone and some beaten egg yolk. If the mascarpone is soft, another great option is to stir the beaten egg yolks into the mascarpone, instead of the other way around.
Add the rum (fig. 3), stir slowly until absorbed.
Add the beaten egg white, mixing gently from the bottom upwards in order to incorporate air (fig. 4). The egg whites will work as a stabilizer and help the mascarpone remain emulsified*.
Set the cream aside (fig. 5).
Prepare the coffee dip by mixing espresso and sugar, then adding milk and rum. Let it completely cool off. Dip each ladyfinger in it for a couple of seconds (fig. 6).
Lay each ladyfinger in the baking pan forming a first layer of cookies (fig. 7).
Add a layer of mascarpone cream, then add one more layer of cookies (fig. 8).
Continue alternating the two ingredients, finishing with a layer of mascarpone (fig. 9).
Using a sifter, generously cover the top with unsweetened cocoa powder (fig. 10).
Then, optionally, add the shaved dark chocolate (fig. 11).
Chill the finished Tiramisu (fig. 12) in the fridge for at least 8 hours, covered with tinfoil.
*Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. 2nd edition (2004).
Breakfast in Italy is called ‘prima colazione’, or simply ‘colazione’. It’s the first meal of the day and many say it’s the most important one too. However, North Americans and Italians have fundamental differences of opinions in what to eat for breakfast. The first main difference is that savory breakfast items are almost absent in most parts of Italy. You would never see an Italian eating bacon and eggs, or even a bagel, which is standard in North America – and these items don’t appear on restaurant menus either. Things are quite different on the sweet side as well: no cereals, no peanut butter, no pancakes, no waffles or scones. What do Italians eat for breakfast then?
These are the components of a typical Italian breakfast: ‘caffè latte’ (hot milk with coffee) with a baked product, such as:
Bread or toast (with unsalted butter and jam, or just jam);
‘Fette biscottate’ (called rusk in English) (also with butter and/or jam);
Pastries (e.g. croissants) or cakes (e.g. brioches);
‘Biscotti’ (generic name for cookies, but more like the Italian version of cereal), typically ‘frollini’ (butter shortbreads), usually dipped in the caffè latte.
Hot chocolate or plain black tea (with milk or lemon) is sometimes an alternative to coffee. Other options that are generally reserved for young children include milk with barley or malt coffee substitutes, or milk with cocoa powder.
Italians follow more rules in general as to when to eat what. A cappuccino, for instance, is a morning treat, it’s OK in the afternoon as an alternative to espresso during coffee breaks, but it’s definitely not a replacement for the after-dinner espresso. Everything has a purpose, and the espresso after a meal is meant to be one last strong punch of flavor – the delicate nuances of a cappuccino would be out of place, and the milk would be heavy on a full stomach.
In Italy, a small selection of cereals with milk or yogurt cater to the diet-conscious but aren’t very common. Fruit juices are quite popular, especially pear, apricot, peach, and apple. With the exception of citrus, Italian-style juices are generally thicker compared to their North American equivalents, are also sold in individual glass bottles (20 ml), and are sometimes considered a complete meal. Fresh squeezed orange juice is also well-liked, especially during winter.
As you can see, sweet things are the preference. This is the case almost everywhere in Italy, with the Alto Adige region being the most notable exception. In Alto Adige, also called Südtirol, the Austrian influence can clearly be seen in the tradition of having cheese, ham, and eggs for breakfast.
A somewhat limited savory presence can also be found in hotels. Italian hotels generally just offer an expanded version of a home breakfast, but with the possible addition of a sample of cold cuts and cheese, in line with what is internationally known as Continental Breakfast.
A truly Italian routine, however, is to go have breakfast in what Italians call a “bar”. These have very little in common with North American bars. Italian bars are essentially licensed coffee shops that typically serve espresso all day, breakfast in the morning, sandwiches and beer around lunch time, appetizers (called ‘aperitivi’), and long drinks near dinner, and are usually closed in the evening. Bars are extremely popular in Italy – in the big cities you can find them at every corner, and they are all different from one another being usually privately owned (there are no major chains). Bars’ consistent quality, contained prices, and prompt service make them the preferred choice for people who commute to work or to school – it takes less time to get breakfast in a bar than it does to have it at home, and most Italians would also find it more satisfying. Prompt service however comes with a caveat. The busier the place, the more you should know what you want to order before you go in – you don’t want a “no cappuccino for you!” reaction from the bartender. Cash payment is also much preferred because of its speed. Then, after you get served, you are supposed to step aside and consume your breakfast quickly, trying not to exasperate the server and patrons behind you (the fact that it is your turn to be served doesn’t buy you all the time that you want to choose your pastry or dawdle in the bar). Most bars even encourage a quick turnover by having high tables and no sit-down service. You can read more on the Italian Bar in this article.
Bar-style breakfast consists almost exclusively of what the Italians call ‘cappuccino’ and ‘brioche’. We’ve already talked about cappuccino, and its alternatives such as ‘latte macchiato’ (with more milk), coffee ‘macchiato’ (with less milk), or just plain espresso (with no milk at all). By “brioche”, Italians actually mean any kind of baked good, the most common of which is in fact a croissant (‘cornetto’ in Italian) and almost never an actual brioche. A croissant can be “empty” (‘vuoto’), or filled (e.g. with ‘crema pasticcera’ -pastry cream-, apricot jam, chocolate cream, whipped cream, apple filling, almond filling, etc.). Other breakfast pastries which are also usually filled are: ‘fagottino’ (the equivalent of the French ‘pain au chocolat‘, when filled with chocolate), ‘sfogliatina’ (puff pastry pockets), ‘bombolone’ (also called with its German name ‘krapfen‘, the equivalent of a filled donut), ‘girelle’ (twirls) with raisins. Savory croissants, with optional ham and/or cheese, can also be found, but are definitely far less in vogue than the sweet versions. Other savory options are ‘pizzette’ (small puff pastry pizzas, usually with tomato and mozzarella), but are quite hard to find.
In Italy, the maximum price of the main bar menu items is regulated by the law. This makes it so all bars tend to charge the same maximum amounts allowed. While not competing on prices, bars still compete on quality. Pastry shops that are also cafés (called ‘bar pasticceria’) generally offer higher standards for baked goods, compared to regular ‘bars’; this is especially true in small towns. In big cities the bars with the higher customers turnover often get their pastries delivered fresh from pastry shops even multiple times a day and the quality of their baked goods is excellent. Smaller bars instead often bake their croissants themselves (from an industrially made base), and while smelling fantastic because of the onsite baking their croissants are not as good (and sometimes are thought of as more buttery and harder to digest). Still, smaller bars make good business in small towns where the competition is less, still providing a service to their customers.
In conclusion, breakfast is for the Italians a brief yet dear parenthesis in the morning. Even on weekends and holidays people generally don’t go out for sit-down breakfasts. In fact, there are no ‘all day breakfast’ places in Italy (though it’s definitely possible to have a cappuccino all day, it’s uncommon to see people have a croissant in the afternoon, so much so that bars tend to run out of pastries early and don’t replenish). As a result, breakfast in Italy is not necessarily a moment of social aggregation; it’s at most a meet-up point for 2 or 3 individuals.
The lack of savory options in the Italian breakfast also originates other interesting differences between Italy and North America. One difference is that for the Italians eggs are totally a lunch option (as the main or the second course). Another difference is that in Italy there is absolutely nothing like North American brunch; being the Italian breakfast so different from lunch, the two don’t mix: after sleeping in on weekends Italians may just decide to skip breakfast altogether and have their Sunday’s lasagna!
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