Valeria and Benedetta are back on the show to talk about their 2020 Advent Calendar, a collection of 24 festive recipes, each expertly paired with a wine.
Join us to hear more about the 9 food ambassadors that contributed the recipes (including my friend Pina Bresciani) and to hear us dig into some of them, such as Tortellini, Minestra Maritata (Italian Wedding Soup), Insalata Russa (Russian Salad), and Salmon Mousse.
Among all vegetables, peppers arguably have the most unique flavor! Romano peppers are sweeter and caramelize wonderfully when roasted, which makes them a great addition to a tomato-based soup, balancing its acidity and gaining depth in return.
If this isn’t enough, like most Italian soups this recipe makes use of the classic celery/carrot/onion soffritto both as a thickener and for its flavor. Again, roasting is key to cause browning and the development of the many aromatic compounds that go with it.
The predictable addition of chili powder adds yet another layer of complexity and, of course, the nerve endings stimulus that we perceive as heat (please check out my very first podcast titled Salty and Spicy to hear more about the chemistry involved.)
Oh, this recipe happens to be vegan 🙂 Enjoy!
Romano Pepper Soup
Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
1/4 onion, chopped
2 celery sticks, sliced
1 carrot, cubed
2 red 'Romano' peppers, sliced
200 g 'passata' strained tomatoes
20 g tomato paste
2 cups vegetable stock
black pepper, ground
Roast the peppers in olive oil, with some salt, in a frying pan at medium heat until tender - 15 minutes (add a splash of water from time to time if the peppers start to burn).
Meanwhile, roast the other veggies in olive oil for 10 minutes at high heat in a medium pot.
Add the roasted peppers, the strained tomatoes, the tomato paste, and the veggie stock to the pot with the vegetables. Bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and cook for 1/2 hr stirring from time to time.
Strain the soup using a strainer or a food mill with a fine mesh.
Re-add the strained soup to the pot and resume cooking for another 1/2 hr stirring occasionally.
Add chili powder to taste and adjust the salt.
Serve with a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper.
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.”
Another year has elapsed – this blog just turned six!! As usual, I’d like to stop for a moment and look back at the last twelve months of blogging and podcasting. Before I do that, I would like to thank all who have been supporting me by reading, by listening, and especially by sharing their thoughts via personal messages and comments. It means a lot to me, please keep sending your feedback!
Finally, I’d like to add a note on a technical detail. Last October, this blog was migrated to WordPress! I can’t say it was a trivial task, but the process was much smoother than I initially thought – a testament to the platform and its amazing community. I hope you are enjoying the new layout and functionality.
All in all, year six has been a great year, with lots of new connections and ideas. I am very much looking forward to year seven with the same enthusiasm as when I started in 2010!
Growing up, I was used to my mother’s soup made from chunky vegetables in clear broth. I can’t say I loved it – certainly not as much as I enjoy it now – but I clearly remember liking its strained variant: the “passato” (passed through, strained), the first time I tasted it.
This memory goes back to when I was a kid, during a summer vacation. My family and I were staying at our usual “pensione” on the Adriatic coast of Emilia Romagna, in the days before bed and breakfasts. The most common vacation accommodations were “full pensions”, with three meals a day included, and “half-pensions”, which only served breakfast and dinner, and so allowing time for day trips.
The Romagna region is famous for its delectable cuisine, and the pensione was no exception. Each day was special, but the Sunday menu was even fancier than usual, often featuring baked pastas, stews, roasts, a variety of sides, and dessert (which was only fruit on weekdays). Things however were less fancy on the chef’s weekly day off! On that day, reduced kitchen staff used to serve a simple dried pasta for lunch and a soup for dinner, both of which were followed by cold cuts and cheeses. One of those soups was my first passato, and it made a strong impression! Not only do I remember its complex flavor, its dark green color, and its velvety texture, I even remember the corner of the restaurant in which we were seated!
Over the years I learned to appreciate all kinds of soups, but passato still holds a special place in my memory. Like most Italian soups, passato di verdure is made by first roasting the aromatic vegetables (celery, carrot, onion) in olive oil, then adding water and the rest of the vegetables, then cooking everything for a long time to allow for the flavor to develop. To make a passato, however, the cooked vegetables are finally strained in a food mill (or by hand in a kitchen strainer), then allowed to cook some more. The straining process retains the fibrous content, and finely mashes the vegetables releasing all of their flavor into the broth. Mashing also emulsifies the olive oil used for roasting, bringing out even more flavor.
Passato di Verdure (Strained Vegetables Soup)
Yield: 2-3 servings
Total Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 onion, minced
1 big carrot, minced
2 celery sticks, minced
1 medium leek, sliced
2 yellow potatoes, diced
1/2 lb squash, diced
1/4 of a cabbage, coarsely cut
5-8 leaves black kale, coarsely cut
2 Roma tomatoes, halved
2 oz Parmigiano, grated
salt and black pepper
Roast onion, carrot, celery in olive oil at high heat until soft.
Add the leek, potato, squash and continue roasting for a few minutes.
Add enough water to fully cover the vegetables.
Add cabbage, kale and tomatoes (which don't need to be peeled, since the skin will remain in the strainer).
Simmer for 2 hours, covered with a lid, or pressure cook for 1/2 hour (using the vegetable setting if available), which is what I did.
Strain the cooked vegetables in a food mill or by hand.
Put the vegetables back in the same pot, add most of the grated Parmigiano.
Adjust with salt and simmer for 15 more minutes. If necessary, use an immersion blender to make the soup even smoother.
Serve sprinkled with the rest of the Parmigiano and freshly ground pepper.
Like for any other vegetable soup, for a more filling dish you can add pasta/rice to the finished product, and continue boiling until cooked. Because of its density, however, the passato will require pasta or rice to cook for longer, since it will take longer to absorb water (up to 50% more in my experience).
Passatelli are a variation of “stracciatella”, an ancient soup that can be found in various parts of Italy. To make stracciatella, a mix of egg, cheese and (optional) breadcrumbs is whisked into boiling broth, resulting in bits of ripped dough that resemble small tore rags (“straccetti”). To make passatelli, instead, the dough is forced through a heavy perforated iron, resulting in irregularly shaped short noodles of variable thickness (their name comes from “passare” = to go through). You can see the passatelli iron in action in this youtube video produced by a local television in the Romagna area. Passatelli are a classic dish of the Emilia-Romagna, Marche, and Umbria regions, where they are traditionally boiled in broth and served as a soup.
Since the passatelli iron is nowadays hard to find (even in Italy), some suggest using a potato ricer with large holes. You can see it demonstrated in the second part of the same video. While this can be effective, it produces noodles of uniform thickness, removing that irregularity that is characteristic of the dish.
For my interpretation of passatelli, I made use of a spaetzle maker, which is fairly common in kitchen stores (and on amazon.com). The resulting passatelli are slightly shorter and thinner than they should be, but I found that they work especially well when served dry, as opposed to in a soup.
As for the proportions between the ingredients, I went with the original recipe presented by Pellegrino Artusi in his famous recipe book: Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, which was first published in 1891. This differs from modern day passatelli which generally feature equal amounts (in weight) of breadcrumbs and Parmigiano. Also, Artusi calls for a small quantity of bone marrow “for extra softness,” which is no longer used. Instead, I kept the idea, but replaced the bone marrow with softened butter.
Even though I followed Artusi’s proportions for the dough, I served the passatelli according to a more modern tradition. Particularly, I tried to replicate the presentation suggested in the video mentioned above, in which boiled passatelli are drained and sauteed in butter with a small amount of radicchio, and then served over a light cheese fondue. The result was truly amazing! A very successful dish that can totally be the star of the show in a rustic and cozy meal.
Spätzle-style Passatelli Sauteed with Radicchio on Cheese Fondue
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 40 minutes
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
For the dough
100 g (3 ½ oz) breadcrumbs (made from plain stale bread, without oils or additional ingredients)
40 g (1 ½ oz) Parmigiano, grated
20 g (¾ oz) unsalted butter, softened
Sprinkle of grated nutmeg
2 liters (½ gallon) of vegetable stock
1 ½ Tbsp unsalted butter
¼ of a small radicchio, sliced
Salt and pepper
For the cheese fondue
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp white flour
½ cup milk
20 g (¾ oz) Parmigiano, grated
40 g (1 ½ oz) Fontina, (or Swiss cheese), diced
For the dough
Mix all ingredients except for some of the breadcrumbs.
Kneed for a few minutes until obtaining a soft dough that is not too sticky, adding the remaining breadcrumbs as needed to obtain a workable consistency.
When it’s cold outside, my definition of comfort food is a warm and rustic dish. This soup totally qualifies as such, especially when it’s served in individual earthenware bowls that stay hot.
This preparation is characteristic of the Aosta Valley, a small Italian region at the borders with France and Switzerland, on the western Alps. It can be considered a variation of the classic French onion soup that makes use of Fontina, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese, which is local to the Aosta region.
As for the onion, the white variety works best thanks to the complex flavor it develops when roasted, which I find has hints of cabbage and fennel.
Part of the success of this dish is due to its layered construction and the resulting alternation of textures and flavors. Besides making for an appealing presentation and keeping the dish hot, the individual bowls also keep the layers into place.
Alpine-style Onion Soup (Zuppa di cipolle alla Valdostana)
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 30 minutes
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
1/2 white onion, sliced
1 Tbsp butter
2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 Tbsp white flour
2 tick slices country bread
4 slices fontina (or swiss cheese)
salt and black pepper
2 earthenware soup bowls, oven resistant
In a pan, roast the onion in butter at medium heat for 3-5 minutes until golden.
Sprinkle with flour and continue roasting for a couple more minutes, stir gently.
Add the vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes without a lid to reduce.
Meanwhile prepare 2 thik slices of fresh country bread, possibly with crust on one side. Trim them so that they fit tightly within the bowls.
Adjust the onion soup with salt and pepper, then pour it in the two bowls.
Add the bread, so that it lays overtop, crust downwards, barely touching the soup.
Lay the cheese over the bread to fully cover it.
Broil for 10-15 minutes until the cheese will be bubbly.
Back in May 2014, I published an unusual episode of Thoughts on the Table, but also an episode that meant a lot to me. I had just returned from a trip to Italy, where I had a chance to record a conversation with my grandmother, Chiara, on her life in northern Italy during World War II. In this conversation, I realized that I didn’t actually know most of these stories, so I asked a lot of questions focusing specifically on food and cooking during those difficult times.
This post presents the same interview in textual form.
Grandma Chiara has since turned 95, she still lives in her home and is doing great.
I wanted to ask you a few questions on when you were young, so we're talking about… You were born in 1920, right?
Oh, I have to say my age? Well, I was born in 1920, so, in 1941 the war began. When I turned 25, the war ended.
And what did you have to eat during the fascism?
Well, during fascism, before the war, people used to live well. It's when the war started, that scarcity began. Scarcity of food, and the bombing of the wagons that transported food… Uncle Mario, my brother also fought in that war (World War II), when I got married he hadn't returned home yet. Instead my father fought in another war (World War I). Mussolini, il Duce, used to hold speeches in the squares – it was a mess…
And so, during the war, how was it? What did you manage to eat?
During the war we ate what we could – not everyone had enough even for basic needs. For me, in the home I grew up in, near Milan, before the war, I didn't suffer hunger because farmers had everything – we had bread, because we had flour, and also we used to raise our own cattle… Pigs we didn't have but other farmers did… and when they used to kill a pig there was a lot to eat. Take those farmers with pigs – they were able to raise the pigs because they had hay, bran, all those things. So when they killed the pig they had food in abundance. But there were also families which didn't even have bread to eat.
But was there a "minimum" provided by the government? Did you use to have a rations badge?
Yes, the badge was established by the government of war – that set amount of food per person: e.g. 100 g of bread per day, one kg or 2 of rice however often they gave it to you (must have been 2 months, 3 months – whenever the truck arrived, with 2 cardboard boxes of rice, those with the badge would get it – the last ones in line sometimes had to return empty-handed). But there was also the black market – those who could get oil under the table, maybe from warehouses, I don't know where they used to get it from, it was really expensive, but at least you could get it.
During the war your grandpa used to work with a person whose father worked on the railway. On the railway line from Milan to Switzerland, they used to put salt on the tracks – for winter when there was ice, so the trains wouldn’t slip. The father of this friend of grandpa – he used to collect the salt! He brought home big sacks of 4 or 5 kg. We used that salt for cooking – because there was no salt otherwise, they gave you maybe a 100 g of salt per month – so, you know what we used to do? That salt from the tracks, we used to boil it in water, then we strained it, and it would turn out still brown, because it was from the railway and there was iron in it! My father in law used to use a cloth as a strainer… and it was still full of debris! They used to put it into a jar, and we had it there to salt the food during cooking… like 1 or 2 tablespoons for every time that we made pasta, or soup, or something that needed salt. So it was salty water that we used to collect from the tracks… Look what I have seen!
No, I wouldn't have guessed that you had to do that… How was the kitchen? Did you have a wood stove?
Yes, we had a wooden stove.
Was it easy to find wood?
Wood, we used to go to the bushes. And heating was also wood… nobody had heaters… maybe the rich? Perhaps they already had it. But us, the farmers, we had just a wood stove… or the fireplace – not even the stove! I didn’t have a stove until the last years, before getting married. Before there was only the fireplace. And we would go get wood in the bushes, long thin branches, with thorns. At home we had big chests in the corner for storing wood. When we had to start the fire, we would go get some of those branches, we would break them up (poking our fingers with the thorns), and also we would use some straw – we always had it from harvesting the wheat and rye.
We used to hang the cauldron on the fireplace, and it turned all black underneath, and then we used to get burnt flying debris, that would end up in the food. Any time you used to make soup or pasta, or you boiled water to make soup, there were those things in it, the things that when you burn wood fly in the air…
So you had your own wheat… did you make your bread?
Yes, I did make bread.
So this is because you were farmers and had flour?
Yes, because we were farmers and farmers didn't suffer as much from hunger because had the land and cattle. But those who used to work in factories had more issues finding food.
But the government, did they ever take some of your harvest? Did you have to pay taxes on your harvest?
No, there was nothing to pay – whatever the farmer wanted to cultivate for themselves on their land, they were allowed to. With the rations badge you would pay for what food you bought, but it was cheap. Though there wasn't much to buy, so the amounts allowed to each person were very limited… There was also the black market, the black market was expensive because it was dangerous… if they caught you selling things, they would put you into jail…
Like for example those who had the pig. If they ate it and keep it in the family, that's one thing, if they sold it in the black market then it's a different story: if the authorities found out they could have come to confiscate everything.
Anyway, was there any meat from time to time?
Ohh, meat – there was 100 g per week.
This with the badge?
Yes, with the badge.
And outside of that? When they killed a pig was there extra?
Yes, but it wasn't much. In fact our cow once had a calf – are you recording? – that then the calf died. So my father wanted to eat it, but you had to get the city veterinarian's approval that it was OK to eat. So the veterinarian came and said: "No, you have to dispose of it, throw it in the cesspit". So my father threw it out in front of the veterinarian. Then he waited until he exited the gate and he pulled the calf out. We washed it inside and out and we ate it.
What did you use to cook for dinner? Let's say, a common meal? A bit of everything?
Oh… in my home there wasn't much to eat… also because they weren't really good cooks. We used to prepare big pots of soup, and that's what we used to eat. We had soup, we cut down bread slices and soak them with milk or hot water and ate them. And then we had chickens – those we ate, boiled. And for Christmas – look what we had to do to make a bit of money – we used to raise ducks. So my father, to make a bit of money which we really needed, he used to keep one duck for us and another 4 or 5 he sold to people he knew, before Christmas. Every year we had those who we used to sell the duck to. But they would pay for it. It would be now, let's say, 10 Euros. Those days it would have been 1, 2, 3 Lira, it wasn't much but it was to have a bit of extra… Life was hard, really.
And then, with the money, we're you able to buy some extras?
Yes, also something to wear… Also: there was no soap! They used to give me the sugar badge and…
Paolo, on Saturdays, when I was riding my bike home after work, to be able to have soap to wash clothes, to wash ourselves, to wash the sheets, we didn’t use the kilogram of sugar that they used to give us monthly. But instead, my coworkers and I, who used to work together on the looms, we had a store in town that would take the sugar and give us soap, or a bit of money. For instance, for 1 Kg of sugar we would get a piece of soap. The soap they used to make themselves, with animal fat – not like the soap that we have now… it was what it was – we used it to wash clothes… Look what we had to do in war times…
So, sometimes you had excess sugar, that you didn't need, and you traded it for soap or money…
Yes, for us using sugar seemed like a waste, we had more use for a piece of soap to wash ourselves, to do laundry… soap was more useful, they didn’t give you soap.
Maybe for those who had kids, they needed more sugar.
Yes, probably. Soap: you use it all the time – when they came home from the fields, all dirty, the clothes all covered in dirt… you needed soap. With a brush and some soap you cleaned them a bit. There was no laundry machine; it was a "disaster".
Well, off course – there was no hot water, right?
Hot water?! No, the water was always cold. There were those who used to wash clothes with ash, the fireplace ash.
How could they wash with ash?
I'm asking you!… they used to boil it, then strain the water and use it to wash – they used to say that things turned out clean… I don’t know.. . My mother never used ash – we always were able to go get some soap.
And also you were saying that there used to be curfew. RightÉ
Yes, but what I am telling you right now refers to the first period of the war – then towards the end we started to live a bit better… I don’t know why. In the month of April 1945 there was the armistice and thing gradually improved. Then from April to September (the actual end of the war), we started to live better those months… provisions started to arrive, there was no more curfew, and food started to be available. I remember I was in the field with my father and I heard church bells from all neighboring towns… And one person was coming on a bicycle saying "the war has ended! It's over, it's over!" This was the month of April. I got married the 12 of May – the month after. My brother (uncle Mario) was serving in the war and he couldn't come in time for my wedding. He came home in September when they started to discharge the soldiers (those who didn't die, of course).
I see, and then the post war times – how was it? I know there was crisis…
Yes, for some time there was crisis, but then jobs started to resume, the factories started to increase in number… I was OK, I never stopped working.
So the crisis in the first after war you didn't feel it?
No, we were ok, we didn't lose our jobs, there was no unemployment – we, my family and friends, all worked. I remember that during war times they used to take us to the city square, in Arconate where the plant was, on the street to Busto Arsizio, they used to take us to the square because Mussolini was speaking. And he used to go up on a balcony of a house in the square, and repeat in the microphone: "Believe! Fight! Obey! – Believe! Fight! Obey!" And it was loud, speakers everywhere…
How many times did you have to see him? Did the dictator come around often?
Yeah, he came – during war times il Duce was in command – he was the dictator. And us, in the factory, along with those that used to live in the area, other factories (foundries, mechanical) used to gather in the square to listen to him. He was talking about the war; and he was talking about the rations badge: "We will give you a badge…" Every now and then he would talk, there was a set day: in the factory they used to put out a sign, like: "this Wednesday at 3pm, il Duce will speak in the square", they used to stop all work, stop the looms, and get all workers out to the square. And the square was full of people, and he was up high on a balcony, with the flag, and he talked. He used to say all that was happening, for example: "we will give you the rations badge, don't worry – now we are at this stage of the war…". And he continued talking all throughout the war… until they caught him, and they killed him! He had a mistress named Petacci and "donna Rachele", his wife. And the story continued that way, until the end of the war. Then in September everything ended and we could all do what we wanted again. Before, there was the curfew and we had to cover all lamps in black fabric, so you wouldn't be seen, also in our home. This was so we wouldn't be seen by the airplanes. Because when they were coming we had to escape to the fields! During war time, when we heard the airplanes we ran to the fields in our pajamas – my father used to take me inside the irrigation canals, because we were worried that they would bomb and kill us. So without flashlights or anything we used to go down on our knees to hide until there was the end of the alarm… this because before the airplanes arrived they used to sound a siren "uuuuu…" and then go! We were all running to escape. You used to see everyone running to the fields. So, we were going into the fields, lying down on the ground. In Milan they bombed – so much bombardment there, also in Legnano – Milan though it was very bad.
So the big cities, the most populated centers were bombed more, whereas the countryside was left more alone.
So when we were hearing the alarms, we were ready – the head of the family always had a bag with the documents, the little money that he had and all the documents demonstrating property of the house, any insurance, etc. Because – if they were to bomb the house, you would have ended up with nothing. You wouldn't have had anything that said that it was your house – so they had a bag with all the important documents.
Grandma, you know I did not know all these things… Thank you so much, very interesting – and also hearing from your voice was incredible. Thank you, we are closing here the recording – then when it comes out I will let you know, OK?
Having some more Italian (flat-leaf) parsley in my fridge, not an easy find in Vancouver, and looking for something quick to make for dinner, I naturally went back to my childhood for a dish where parsley is the absolute star of the show: a simple soup of rice and parsley. I remember very well my grandma making this dish in the summer, especially when there was a storm approaching and the parsley in the orchard had to be cut quickly so that it wouldn’t get mangled by the rain.
Like for most northern Italian preparations (Pizzoccheri, for instance), this dish is almost unknown outside of its region of origin. For this reason, for the first time in this blog, I decided to mention in the title the dish’s name in Lombard dialect: “ris” (rice, or “riso” in Italian) “e” (and) “erburin” (literally ‘little herbs’, referring to parsley, or “prezzemolo” in Italian). Certainly, that’s how my grandma called it!
This soup can definitely be considered an example of Cucina Povera (“Cuisine of the Poor”) for it simplicity and its affordable ingredients. However, the version that I’m illustrating below (adapted from SaleDolce) is slightly more “decadent” thanks to the generous use of Parmigiano and of butter.
Rice and Parsley (Ris e Erburin)
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 25 minutes
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
3 cups light meat stock or flavorful vegetables and herbs stock
½ cup Carnaroli rice (other medium-grain rices can also be used)
1 ½ oz Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
¾ oz unsalted butter
1 bunch of fresh Italian (flat-leaf), parsley (should yield over 1 oz of leaves)
Bring the stock to a boil, then cook the rice for 15 minutes at medium-low heat.
Wash and dry the parsley, then rip off the leaves and finely mince them.
When the rice is ready, take it off the heat and stir in the butter, Parmigiano and parsley.
Mix gently and serve in bowls, optionally sprinkled with more grated Parmigiano.
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